Joel Sartore’s Great Course “Fundamentals of Photography” Lecture – Composition I – Seeing Well

Composition I - Seeing Well

Composition I – Seeing Well

Now we start the heart of the course, the first lecture of which deals with the fundamentals of good composition.  Joel presented a number of photographs and identified why they worked.

Grizzly Fishing at Falls

Grizzly Fishing at Falls

In this photo, the grizzly is perfectly outlined against the white water background, and the fish stands out.  The elements (bear, fish, rock, water, forest) are nicely framed, each element is there for a reason, and there are no extraneous distracting elements.  What needs to be in focus is, and the background is nicely blurred.

This led to the first tip:

Tip 1: Framing

Tip 1: Framing

Joel then presented a problem: getting a good photo of Spenser and soap bubbles.

Spenser and Soap Bubbles - Start

Spenser and Soap Bubbles – Start

Noting that there was far too much going on in this chaotic photo, Joel worked the scene, from the background forward.  He started by finding his preferred background, one with no distracting elements.  He looked at changing his angle of view, his perspective.  He changed lenses to enable him to get a tighter shot, and at the same time moved closer to his subject.  The result was the following photo:

Spencer Blowing Soap Bubbles

Spencer Blowing Soap Bubbles

His observations:

Get Rid of Distracting Elements

Get Rid of Distracting Elements

He then provided Tip 2:

Tip 2

To further illustrate this point Joel, by using ice cream as a bribe, got his kids into the parking lot at the grocery and then told them he was going to develop a good photo.  Needless to say, they were not impressed:

Kids in Parking Lot - Start

Kids in Parking Lot – Start

By working the situation, moving them around, trying out various activities, positions, sun direction, perspective and so forth, the final photo was:

Kids in the Parking Lot - Final

Kids in the Parking Lot – Final

Joel reinforced what we need to consider when attempting to put together a good photograph:

Making a good picture

Making a Good Picture

At this point Joel spoke about the compositional layout technique Rule of Thirds and Power Points.  First he demonstrated the grid and power points:

Rule of Thirds and Power Points

Rule of Thirds and Power Points

Next followed photos that demonstrated the use of this compositional method:

Cathy and Ellen - Rule of Thirds

Cathy and Ellen – Rule of Thirds

This led to Tip 3:

Tip 3 - Importance of Subject's Position in Grid

Tip 3 – Importance of Subject’s Position in Grid

A number of times Joel mentioned, having the corners of the image anchored, and having the center weighted, as ways in which to direct the viewer’s eye.  Here’s an example:

Piglets and Students - Vaccination Day

Piglets and Students – Vaccination Day

Once again Joel noted that the corners are anchored, and the clutch of piglets, standing out against the blue coverall, grab the eye.  The foreground is in focus and the background somewhat blurred.

Both of the above images demonstrate what Joel refers to as Dynamic Tension.  He also noted that the perspective of the photo of Cathy and Ellen is further aided by the perspective, in this case achieved by standing on a chair in Ellen’s bedroom.

Next Joel talked about the use of vertical framing.  He has difficulty thinking about vertical framing – our eyes are horizontally placed, so we see the world in a horizontal frame.  Nevertheless, there are times when vertical framing is absolutely demanded:

Horizontal Framing

Horizontal Framing

This is an interesting photo of the mountain goat licking salt off the rocks.  However the following photo delivers quite a different Dynamic Tension:

Vertical Framing

Vertical Framing

Obviously it is the second photo which is the more powerful because it emphasizes the consequences of a slip.

The final section could be summarized this way:  Photography Is Hard

Tip 4: Photography is Hard

Tip 4: Photography is Hard

One can only get better if one is critical of one’s own work.  It is the only way to improve.  In case that is discouraging, Joel pointed out that less than 1/10th of 1% of his photos make it into the National Geographic: that’s one in a thousand.  So, if you get one in a hundred that you’re satisfied with, you are doing very well!

Finally, the assignment:



To give an example, Joel took as his subject Money and then showed three very different photos of Money.

The next in the series is Composition II – Background and Perspective.

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