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Composition can make an interesting subject bland or make an ordinary subject appear beautiful. In this course, photographer and author Ben Long explores the concepts of composition, from basics such as the rule of thirds to more advanced topics such as the way the eye travels through a photo.
The course addresses how the camera differs from the eye and introduces composition fundamentals, such as balance and point of view. Ben also examines the importance of geometry, light, and color in composition, and looks at how composition can be improved with a variety of post-production techniques. Interspersed throughout the course are workshop sessions that capture the creative energy of a group of photography students; shooting assignments and exercises; and analyses of the work of photographers Paul Taggart and Connie Imboden.
Ben Long: Okay, you've seen Connie going after lots of other photographers here. She has been very fair. But we're going to now put her images up here and take a look at them, because Connie has a body of work that's very, very different from what we've been seeing so far. Paul and Steve are coming from a more journalistic background, shooting in the moment, shooting found things. Connie you just spend a lot of time crafting very particular images, and you've Ben: been doing the same thing for-- Connie Imboden: Thirty years. Ben: Thirty years, and you haven't found the image yet. Connie: I'm still working at it. Ben: Some beautiful stuff you're going to see here.
So let's start with this image and explain to us what we're seeing here, because this is going to be similar to the technique that we're going to be seeing throughout-- Connie: Well, the first thing I want to say is that none of my images have been manipulated, either in the camera or the darkroom or through Photoshop; they're all seen this way. And with this image, I have the model partially submerged in a hot tub, and you can see the reflections of the trees and the outside. And I've just arranged it all through camera angle so that the trees are coming right into her forehand here.
Ben: So are you underwater? Connie: At this point, I'm still above water. Ben: You're above water and so the figure is underwater poking out? Connie: Yes, just this part of her face is coming out. Ben: Okay, so you're shooting this from outside of the hot tub. You've put them in. How did you come to be interested-- because most of the work we're going to see here is going to involve underwater figures, underwater camera, work with mirrors, lots and lots of reflections, how did you come to that? Connie: Well, it's very simple. I'm looking with my camera trying to find something interesting to photograph, and I see reflections in puddles, and then I see light glinting off of water and I love that kind of specular light.
I think that's really special. So I started to look at the way reflections distorted, what it was reflecting, and then I wanted something interesting to reflect, so I put a figure in the water and I've been doing it ever since. Ben: That's great! So you had an initial impulse out in the real world and then decided to go deeper into it by constructing a similar situation. Connie: Basically, I think of myself as taking baby steps for thirty years. And after thirty years, you get somewhere, hopefully. Ben: Let's take look at another one here, and this is a pretty early image also.
Connie: Yes. This was done in 19--Thank you! Ben: Would you like to borrow my pencil? I feel like I have more power now. This was done in 1988, and is still in the hot tub, and it's very simple. I've used the same reflections of trees, and this is a bar of a window that kind of makes a cross. And in this case, I've focused on the reflection, so the face here is a little soft, and I like that. To me, I look at this face and it looks like she's not really looking outward, but she's not blind.
It's like her attention has been turned inward. And that's what attracts me to this image. Ben: Yeah, the look on her face is really ambiguous in a very interesting way. Working with reflections, when you're focused on the trees, you're not actually focused at the distance of the surface of the water; Ben: you're focused at the distance of the tree. Connie: Of the tree, yeah, yes. Ben: Yeah, so you've got very, very deep focus here which is why she is falling Ben: so far out of focus. Connie: Right, right. Ben: Yeah, that's very interesting. Connie: Yeah, working with reflections, you really have to know depth of field and it's very, very interesting. Connie: I've had to learn a lot technically, working with this stuff. Ben: Really.
Ben: Okay, this one is very difficult. It's beautiful right off the bat, but it's also--you get lost pretty quickly Ben: trying to figure out what this is. Connie: Yeah, I like that. Ben: It looks like it has something to do with an elephant and yet I know Ben: that's not true. Connie: You're close. Connie: This is actually where the camera is underwater. Ben: Okay. Connie: I have a big housing for my Canon Mark II 5D. It's a big housing, like this. And this is what's underwater. Right here, all of this is underwater. The camera is underwater. And this line right here is actually the line of the water, and this is a reflection on the surface of the water from underneath.
This is a reflection of this. Ben: Okay, so if we imagine the water coming out like this as a plane, this is-- we're looking up at a reflection from the underside of the surface of the water. Connie: Right, what's cool about the reflection is that you get to see a totally different point of view from the reflection than you do it from the real. Ben: Both at the same time. Now this is all natural light? Connie: This is natural light, yes, yes. Ben: And we're going to get into some more lighting. Connie: One of the things that I really love about working this way, where I don't conceive of these images, but I really explore and train my eyes to see in particular ways, but I could never conceive of a line that's this kind of elegant and beautiful, but it's there in nature.
All we have to do is learn to see them. Ben: Yeah, and that line is really beautiful, and the brightening of these highlights that come along here that really counter all of this darkness over here. This black, where is this coming from? Is that because the rest of your scenario where you're shooting is Ben: actually black? Okay, Okay. That's great! Connie: It is actually black, yeah. Connie: And I use black a lot because, for instance, I like to keep things simple. I like to really pull the viewer into what is the most important thing in the photograph without any extraneous stuff.
Ben: It definitely works, particularly in this image. It's--your work hits at two different levels. First, I get, like, wow! That's just really pretty. But it's difficult not to stop and go, what in the world is going on? Okay, there's a hand that it's turning into this really gossamer floaty thing. Connie: Right. Ben: And even though I know you're working underwater, it's hard for me to figure out where the surface is and where the boundary is. And that's a wonderful ambiguity. So what's going on here? Connie: You want to me to tell you? No! Ben: Yes! Shouldn't have given you the pencil.
Connie: Okay, so what I'm doing here is I'm working at night and I'm putting an underwater light in the water. So I'm illuminating just the layer that's under the water, so what's above the Connie: water doesn't show up. Ben: Okay. Connie: So this is actually a man. This is his hand in the water, and this is his upper arm coming down his chest around his thigh. And then this is where his leg just barely comes out of the water, so you get this beautiful little tendril of light coming there.
So out of the water, it's very awkward looking because he is holding himself up, or maybe I have people holding him up, and just dipping him enough so that we get Connie: these beautiful lines here. Ben: That's wonderful. Connie: And everybody has to hold the position because otherwise these lines would be moving. Ben: So you're using some kind of light- controlling mechanism on the light to create a very thin shaft of light? Connie: No. That's all a function of, in the water, yeah. Ben: Underwater, underwater refraction so much. Connie: So what you see here is the only part of him that's in the water. Ben: That's wonderful. Connie: The rest of him is out of the water.
Ben: How much is this image cropped from your original camera frame? Connie: It's not cropped, though I might have positioned it in this frame differently. Because, it's an unusual image in that there's not much to it, so how do you balance out the space? If I had it coming across here, it would be kind of dead. But to have it, especially when you're dealing with a rectangle like this, to have it go from one corner up to the other, you're really making as much use of this space as you can in creating attention this way.
And having this line come down right to this corner here is also a beautiful way to sort of begin this. Ben: Yeah. Well, I think it's a really interesting exercise, just in pure line. There's just this line that goes and it's completely abstract up until about the armpit, which is the first thing that I can recognize. And it's this very curios line of light that turns into a human arm, and because it's a human arm, it just has this tremendous compositional weight. Connie: I like to think of this as this line that's just beginning and it becomes very vaporous right here, almost flat or like a vapor, and coming through, Connie: becoming more and more solid until you have a real 3D hand. Ben: Yeah, that's beautiful.
Connie: This is still underwater. Ben: Okay. Connie: This is the face that's underwater. This face is a little bit deeper in the water and its his reflection showing on the surface of the water. And so it's lining the two up. So-- Ben: So for a shot like this, you've got his face half on the surface of the water, how much are you previsualizing? Do you put him in the water and then just start looking for a picture? Connie: I don't do a lot of previsualizing. I may get ideas that start in one shoot and I pull them together through other shoots, but they usually end up very different.
If I have an idea, I think of it as a starting point, and then I let go of it as soon as I can. Ben: So in a way you're still where you were when you were just looking at reflections in puddles. It's just you're creating your own puddle with your own thing in it and then seeing what you can find. Connie: Yeah, but I'm not quite there because going through this whole process, I'm really training my eyes to see very particular ways. And the more I do it, the more nuance I see and the more--the deeper I can go with the images. Ben: From a purely formal perspective, I just love this really strong line that's really bright and you've balanced it so well against the black.
The mouths though carry tremendous compositional weight. The human mouth is a really powerful thing. It's communication and breathing and everything else. You just can't-- Connie: When I finished this image and I looked back at it, I thought ooh, it looks he is sucking his soul back in. But that didn't occur to me really until I had finished the image. Ben: That's interesting. So now we're into something very different. Connie: I'm working with mirrors here in a studio. So I have a mirror that's set up here and I've taken the silver off of it in places, so it's transparent in places but still reflective where there is silver.
Ben: And that's what's causing the texture. Connie: That's the texture here. So this figure here is reflected on the front, and this figure is showing through from behind where I've taken the silver off. So they're actually several feet apart, even though it looks like they're interacting. Ben: So there are actually two people? Connie: There are two people. Ben: Okay. Connie: Yes, and I've--playing with camera angle and having them move, I come up with places where I think the interaction between them becomes important or has some sense of mystery to it.
Ben: So when you set this up, you're then working the shot. You're seeing what you can find within this setup that you create. Connie: Right, right. I don't start off with this in mind. Ben: Yeah, and at that point you're probably working in a fairly formal mindset. Connie: I am. I'm not thinking about the meaning of these at all. I think if I started to work out this image in my head and came to do it, it would be really corny. So now we've--I'm moved into color/ I finally found color.
Ben: It's all the rage these days. Connie: And the first thing I found--this is back in water-- the first thing I found was phenomenal to me, is that the figure that's outside of the water is rendered in warm tones and the figure that's inside the water, Connie: right here and here, is rendered in cool tones. Ben: Yeah, that's great! Connie: And it's because the water absorbs all of the colors except for the blues and the greens. So this was another way for me to really look at above and below water. Ben: This background looks so painterly, and partly it's the pose you put him in.
It's just--it looks like this wonderful Renaissance painting with a human Ben: figure coming out of it. Connie: Yeah. Ben: It's very interesting. Yeah. Connie: That's the way that water distorts. Connie: It's just so lovely! Ben: Do you have to--do you spend a lot of time waiting for the condition of Ben: the water? Connie: Oh yeah. Connie: Yeah, I take a deep breath, I go down and wait for the water to still, and then I started shooting. Ben: It's a whole additional photographic concern that one doesn't normally think about, air. Is it difficult in that situation to learn to--reflections can happen at different depths and I think a lot of times our eyes are kind of trained to not see them.
They're not essential information. Does it take a while to get to where you can see, oh wait, there's a reflection right there with a figure in it? Connie: Yeah, absolutely! And as I move--camera angle is so critical in these-- as I move, I can really change the relationship between the reflection in the real and above. So through a camera angle, I can make all kinds of relationships change. Ben: Okay, that's great! And we've talked about that, the power you have from camera and focal length to really define shapes and a sense of space. Connie: This is also in the water.
And here I'm working with reflections. So he is underwater here, looking up at the surface of the water, and this you can see is the surface of the water. His hand is just touching it. And this is his reflection on the surface of the water. And what I find interesting is that in the real face here, you see one expression, and there in the reflected face, you see an entirely different-- Ben: Yeah, the water has distorted it into something completely different. Connie: Right. Ben: Yeah, yeah. I also just love all of the interaction with the surface of the water. You get these wonderful strong lines that really are tangible somehow.
You feel it in your hands. They are very interesting. Connie: And sometimes the movement of the water creates kind of a ghostly, almost ethereal feeling to them. Ben: So when you're shooting an image like this, what are you thinking compositionally as you're--I mean, yes, it's wonderful to have discovered this, but are you working--how are you trying to balance the image? Connie: Well, that's something that I don't really think about, because just as athletes train so that they have responses and muscle memory, I work so hard at this that, it take so many images, that that sense of composition is really a part of me now.
So I don't think so much about composition. I respond to it. Ben: And that's great, and we've been talking about that. That's the point you want to get to by exercising these building-block things, just so that you've shot so much you just see this stuff automatically. This is beautiful. Connie: Yeah, this is a figure under the water. This is the line of the water, and this is his reflection on the surface. And I'm using an underwater strobe here, so he's very sharp here, very clear.
But the sunlight here, because I'm using a longer exposure, the sunlight is creating this wonderful kind of soft movement with the light. Ben: And our last one. Connie: So this is back to the mirrors with the--in color. And I'm working with two figures again: one in front of the mirror and one behind. And I'm combining the two bodies. Connie: It's like I'm creating my own being. Ben: Ooh.
I know. So here I have a male and a female and I'm putting them together. Ben: It's just wonderful. And is this again, you're working with mirrors. You've modified them, you've got everything in position, and now you're just trying to find what you can within that environment that you've created. Connie: Right, and I move a little bit this way and that way and I totally change the relationship of the two figures. Ben: Are you not moving back and forth between color and black and white and water and mirrors, or do you feel there's a progression? Connie: Yeah, I've been in color for about five years now, and I'm pretty committed to color now.
And I tend to stay, when I work in water, I tend to stay with that for years, and then I move to working with mirrors for years. And then I find that they inform one another. Ben: I can imagine, yeah, I mean obviously, the next thing is mirrors underwater or Ben: water on the mirror. Connie: That's too much. That's too chaotic. I can't do that. Let somebody else do that. Ben: It's beautiful. I'm taking my pencil back. It's beautiful work, Connie. Thank you very much! It's just fascinating. Connie Imboden, and you'll bee seeing much more of her as we continue working with the class here at Quartz Mountain.
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