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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: I am here with Connie Imboden, who you should be familiar with now. She is teaching the workshop here at Quartz Mountain this weekend. We're going to look at the work of another photographer from a composition standpoint, analyzing it, trying to figure out why it works. Connie, why is this something that any of the viewer should care to watch us doing? Connie: Well, we're looking at some really beautiful photographs from professional photographers, and if we can analyze why these photographs work, we can learn a lot about composition and how compositional elements work in untraditional ways.
Ben: Okay, great! We are looking at the work of Steve Simon. He is originally a Canadian photographer, he now lives in New York. I first met Steve when he was teaching here a few years ago. He's a great guy and as you'll see a fantastic photographer. He has a photo journalism background, but Steve also has a really interesting ability to just fade into the background and capture moments that I don't often see, and yet do it with a almost fine art sensibility. So let's just start with this one right here. This is from a -- all of these are from a project called America on the Edge wherein Steve traveled the US- Canadian border just shooting whatever he could find.
Connie, what do you -- how do you want start this off? Connie: Well just looking on a very formal level, not looking at the content or really what it means, but just looking at the use of this line coming down here and this very wonderful dark figure with, who is wearing a hat, and it's in enough motion. It's a little soft, but the figure is so dark and so strong with the silhouette that that's really what brings your eye to this image, and then you've got this pattern back here of the stars.
So you get a really strong sense of the background, the content of the image and the importance of this figure, which is also adding a little bit of the mystery. Ben: It is. We can't see any detail here on the face. I would also point out and you may have spotted this already, he's playing straight to the thirds. We've got this figure here on this third and he's balanced it over here with a wonderful shadow in this third. So we get a very, very balanced image. Let's move on. Connie: Oh, this is a great one. Ben: Yeah.
I think this is a great example of seeing. He sits stand to take a portrait of somebody and spots the reflections in the eye glasses. This is also a great point of view example. We're looking at his face, but we are able to in the reflection see his whole body and get an idea of what he is up to. Connie: The other thing that I like about this is that there is a very intimate feeling about it, and part of that is we can analyze that. He's used the brim of his hat here to contain the face and keep it off the edge of the portrait.
He has also cropped off the bottom of his chin here. So we are really directly confronting his face and of course, the reflection of the flag and his face is what's really drawing us into the center. And there's nothing in the background here to distract us away from what's happening right here. Ben: Yeah, you really get drawn right into his face. This is an interesting one. It's a parade and Steve has definitely chosen a very unusual angle. He's out in the street, in the parade along -- This is a reflective tanker truck and we can see reflections of the street that are behind us, and then we've still got this waving parade person up on top.
Connie: What's marvelous about this one to me, is that he's given us so much information. There is a tremendous amount of information in this photograph, but he's organized it in such a way that it's not chaotic. He has organized it so that we really have access to this visual information. Here, he is letting us know it's the July 4th celebration here. Right here, we are getting a sense of what's going on, on the sidelines here, and then we also have the -- what is she, a beauty queen or something? Ben: I guess so, yeah. Connie: She looks like a beauty queen.
Ben: Tanker queen. Connie: The tanker queen, yes. Ben: And she's -- your eye still understands very well that this is the subject of the image. She is in the light really beautifully. we've got these wonderful leading lines. We haven't really talked about the idea of economy in an image, but this is an incredibly economical image, like Connie said, the amount of information that's delivered in a very simply way is really nice. Connie: Well, if you just look at the structure of the image, you've got all of the lines coming this way and then leading back up to her. So it's very well-organized, just on a very formal level.
Ben: This one can be a bit of a mystery at first. Connie: Definitely. Ben: Yeah, this is still from the same parade and it may be just in case you can't tell this on screen. This is a float here and the back of the float is a cutout of some mountains and then these are real mountains over here. This wonderful line in the middle just setting up this dividing point that makes these two different layers, these two different plains in the image, creates a really interesting illusion. Connie: Yeah, that's what I love about this is that it is an illusion and it really looks like two separate photographs until you see that it's the same sky and there really is -- the sky is what connects it and really holds it together, and this wonderful pole as you said is what is dividing the parade from the reality of it.
I think this is just beautifully seen. Ben: It's a little bit strange to figure out how it works. Where do you fee like your eyes go to first, because in some ways to me, it's hard not to just see this right away? Connie: And I think this line takes you right there. So you are drawn to the middle of the photograph, and then this is almost incidental, but because it picks up the pattern that's going on here, it's a very important part graphically of the image. Ben: But it's almost as if the subject of this image is this line in a weird way and it's a way of thinking again about sometimes the subject of your image really needs to serve as an anchor.
We have this anchor here that we're kind of drawn to and that's a starting point that we can then let our eyes roam and explore and discover what else is in the image. Connie: God! I love this one. The reason I love this one is that it's -- there's really nothing going on. That's not a story. It just is a really beautifully seeing situation where you've got four separate people, but they're lined up so beautifully with the background, the way that this break is right here, really centering this figure, this figure is centered and you've got them both on this line coming down here.
The way this line is coming down it's really connecting the whole image. So the background and the people in it are relating in a really beautiful, graphic way. Ben: Purely geometrically, yeah. Connie: Very geometric. Ben: I like these diagonal parking lines. They add a little bit of tension, but there's nothing extra in this image. It's very, very simple. Connie: There's nothing extra in this image either. This is very direct, and very, a very strong image. The statement is very strong. Again, we have the strong shape.
We know right away what it is. It's a big man, very powerful man. We are in some kind of institutional setting and we have these two, it looks like smaller people, maybe younger people, younger boys, have their hands up in a surrender position. Ben: Yeah. This guy is serving both just as a purely graphical element. Just a dividing point, a very strong piece of negative space, but also, again, he is recognizable. At first, he is a graphic element and then he turns into part of the story.
Connie: Wow. This is an interesting one. This is what we are looking at right here, and the photographer is telling us that in the couple of ways. One, she is close to the center of the image. She's the one that's in focus, but you've also got this line right here which is framing her and you've got this element here which is bringing you right back to her. But he's organized the background so that you still have the context of these other people and sitting in this counter which is giving you a sense of the environment.
Ben: As well as just purely formally, a very nice rhythm and my guess would be, while he was shooting this, this relationship here was what he was focusing on. My eye would assume that he was moving left and right until he got them spaced to the way that he wanted, because they are just so perfectly evenly distributed. I also like that he didn't worry about squaring off the counter. It is not level. It doesn't have to be. Connie: It actually works this way. Ben: It works better, yeah. It adds a little tension that goes very well with the expression on her face. This does not appear -- her expression is a little ambiguous.
It's somewhere between sad or just thoughtful. Connie: But it's a wonderful moment. Ben: Oh, it is, yeah, and a very true recognizable moment. Ben: I think this is another interesting point of view example. Plainly, he's in a pool hall. He could have shot the pool player, but he kept his eyes open and he was seeing and he was working point of view, and found something far more interesting than just a shot of the pool player, this wonderful textured shadow. Connie: But he gives you enough information. Right here, you see that it's the pool table. You see some of the balls down here and the cue stick that he is holding, and how it is not lined up with this, but in contrast, so that you see this as different from the background.
Ben: Yeah, cropping the pool table, we still might have recognized this as a cue stick, but it would have taken a little bit of extra work and that could have ruined the image somehow. Connie: This is a wonderful image because it breaks some of the basic rules. Usually, you want to simplify the information so that you are presented with a very cohesive, easy to read visual information, and here he's broken that rule and it works just magnificently. Ben: This is a very busy picture. Connie: Very busy picture, but that's what it's about.
That's what's so exciting. He has made us experience chaos without showing us a chaotic image. Ben: It's not disordered. There is an order to the chaos that he's got in here. Connie: Right, which is very difficult to do I think. Ben: Yeah, I love the she's camouflaged that's the first thing that I see here, but I also think he made an important choice with the height of his camera. We are back to point of view. I want -- it's good that her top of her head is poking up over the rim of the couch here.
If he had been a little bit higher, shooting down on her and her face was buried in here, I don't think it would work as well. Connie: I agree. Ben: We need this to join her to this section up here. Connie: We also need this because it defines her face more. Ben: It's a frame. Connie: It's a frame, yep. Ben: And that's something we haven't talked about. We have talked about framing an entire composition with something, but you can also frame within the frame, which is what he is doing here. Something that I didn't notice until one of the later times that I looked at this image, there is a cat right here. Connie: Oh, I didn't even notice that.
Ben: And once you notice it, I kind of can't take my eyes off of it. It's a pretty good balancing element actually. He's working the corners, so yeah, I love that picture. Connie: Oh, This is a sweet picture. Ben: (laughter) Yeah, and I think it's -- Connie: In the best sense of the word. Ben: Right. Right. I think there are two interesting balancing things going on here. There is almost a yin yang thing happening here in the middle, both tonally, the black cow and the white shirt, and their positions are interlocking. Connie: And then you've got the same thing happening back here with the cow that has the black and the white going on here.
And simple things as we are talking about simplifying and organizing information, the addition of this line, this row up here is so important in containing the image. Ben: Yeah, and I think it's important to understand that this is not -- he didn't walk by and just snap this. I have gotten to work with Steve, he heavily covers his shots, he works his shots. He has positioned these things this way on purpose. There is a lot of thought put into an image like this. Connie: And here we are. Ben: This image I think is notable for the very large cow, something that you don't get in a lot of images. Connie: (laughter) Connie: Well, I like the little girl's position with the very big cow, but this wouldn't mean nearly as much without.
I assume, the parents right here watching. Ben: and I think the parents, right here are interesting. They serve a purely formal function. They are balancing this side of the image, but then there is a whole content layer of the fact that it's the parents watching the daughter underneath the really large cow. Connie: And if we just looked at this on a very graphic formal level, you would think how can this be balanced out by this? But it's the dynamic relationship here that creates that balance. So this is another way of really kind of bending or breaking the rules of composition.
Ben: Yeah. That's it. This is Steve Simon, again, a Canadian-based photographer, now living in New York. One thing that always strikes me about Steve's images is as carefully formal as they are. They look very casual. They look like I was just out in the world and I saw this, and that makes you really want to go out and take pictures. That's what I am often left with when I am looking at his stuff. We are going to be looking at another photographer's work and then some of Connie's work later in this course.
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