How to Use This Course About Composition in Photography
Using this course
We're going to cover a lot of ground in this course, and we are going to explore a lot of compositional ideas and practices, but there's no way that this can be a complete course in composition because composition is something that you will continue to study and explore throughout your photographic life. Composition is a discipline, and you need a method for exploring that discipline as you grow as a photographer and as your compositional tastes change. In preparing for this course, I looked at lot of composition books and found that they all mostly take the same approach.
Images are analyzed and discussed and from that analysis, one tries to understand why particular images work, compositionally. This is a very important practice because there's a lot to be learned from good images, and it's important to develop a vocabulary for discussing and analyzing images. Even if you don't discuss images with someone else, being able to think about your own work in consistent, concrete terms is very valuable, and we will be performing a lot of that kind of analysis in this course. However, the thought process that you go through when you analyze an existing image is not necessarily the same thought process that you go through when you're shooting.
Very often shooting is simply about feel as much as it is about any theoretical ideas. The trick then is to develop a feel for good composition. The way you develop feel though is to practice. Improvisational musicians practice scales and intervals and they practice how to transpose those into different keys. They develop riffs that have personal appeal for them and they practice those. When it comes time for them to play a solo, these riffs and scales become their vocabulary. They string these bits together in different ways and because they have been practicing all of these components so thoroughly, they can arrange those bits of vocabulary into larger musical ideals on the fly.
This is the approach that we're going to take with composition. We are going to look at lots of fundamental compositional ideas, building blocks. I am going to give you assignments and ask you to practice each of these fundamental compositional ideas. So you will, for example, spend time simply practicing composing with repeating lines. Then we move on another compositional component and you will practice working with that. If you do this enough, you will develop a compositional vocabulary. This will do two things. It will help you to recognize more potential subject matter because you'll be more familiar with how different shapes and different forms and different plays of light and shadow can be used to create compelling images, but also when you see something that you want to turn into a picture, you will possibly already have practice at working with its particular shape or qualities.
If you've practiced enough, then you'll simply have a feel for how that thing can be arranged into an image. A lot of times you'll see people offering rules for composition, the rule of thirds, or always photograph children at eye level or focus on the center of interest. Very often these rules are absolutely right for a scene. But for every example of a good rule, you will find plenty of images that break that rule. Because of this, I want to dissuade you from looking for a recipe for composition. This is why I think it's better to have a compositional vocabulary rather than a set of compositional formulas or rules.
With a good vocabulary you'll be able to work well with more kinds of scenes, you'll know how to find your own ways out of tricky compositional problems, and you might eventually develop your own style. Rules and formulas can also lead you into an unsatisfying rut because you'll continue to shoot images in the same way. Or they can lead you to shoot cliche images. Of course there will be times when you simply don't have a feel for the right composition, and in those instances you will want to fall back to a more theoretical approach, and that's where the image analysis that we will do will come in really handy.
To get the most out of this course then, when I give you an assignment, you will be best served by taking the time to go into it. What's more, by the end of the few hours that we will spend together, you will hardly have a finished vocabulary. You will need to continue to work the exercises that I'm going to give you and you'll need to continue to practice. In fact, this practice and these specific exercises might be something that you will want to turn to from time to time throughout your photographic life. You can't start composing a shot until you've seen something that you want to take a picture of. Learning how to find and recognize good subject matter and how to pull a picture out of it are skills in themselves, and we will also be covering those in detail in this course as well.
The study of composition is usually a very interactive process, with lots of dialogue between teacher and student and lots of discussion within the class itself, as everyone sees the different results that each student pulls out of the same location. Because of that, we have chosen a specific location--more of a region, actually. All of the field lessons that we're going to show you in this course will be shot in that location, and all the example images that you will see will be from here as well. This will give you more of the type of experience that you will get in a live composition class.
But more importantly, I want you to see just how much material can be pulled from what appears to be, at first glance, a somewhat common location. I'm currently standing in the performing arts center at Quartz Mountain State Park in southwestern Oklahoma. If you're ever in this area, this is a great place to stay, with a wonderful lodge and beautiful surroundings and incredibly welcoming people and ready access to a lot of interesting small towns and a very nice wildlife preserve. All of our lessons and examples will be from this park and the surrounding areas, things that we find on country roads and locations that we've discovered in nearby towns.
I chose this location partly just because I like it, but also because no matter where you live, there are probably small towns nearby. There are probably country roads. In other words, there are probably locations that, like these, appear to be fairly common and not necessarily the type of grand photo destination that you think you might need to get good pictures. Now, the details might be different where you are, but you should be able to find locations local to you that are similar in feel to what we'll be using here. If you don't have the time or access to such locations, don't worry.
The concepts that we'll be discussing will apply to any type of situation, so it doesn't matter where you live. Again, one of the things I hope you'll come away from this course with is an understanding that good photos are usually the result of the photographer, not the location or the subject matter. Quartz Mountain is also the home of the Oklahoma Arts Institute, an incredible one-of-a-kind program that offers arts education to teenagers and adults. I've had the great good fortune to teach here for years and I was a student here when I was but a teen.
And I'm about to start co-teaching a workshop here right now. Throughout this course, you're going to see coverage of that workshop, which will give you a chance to see how group discussions and analysis of images typically goes. Now, as I mentioned, having a vocabulary for evaluating images is critical to improving, even if you're just having that dialogue with yourself. By getting to see what happens in this workshop, I'm hoping you'll get some useful exposure to that kind of dialogue. If you've been doing your exercises in a similar rural environment then you may find that the discussions that come up in the workshop are relevant to your images, and those might give you new ideas.
So, through analysis and discussion of images, and very directed practice, you will be set on a path through this course that will dramatically improve your skills at composition.
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