Joel Sartore’s Great Course “Fundamentals of Photography”: Lecture 10 – Composition II – Background and Perspective

01 - Introduction Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 11.59.18 AMAt the second BLPG meeting in October, 2013, we watched the next lecture in Joel Sartore’s The Great Courses “Fundamentals of Photography.”  This was the second of three lectures covering Composition.

Backgrounds ruin more photos than bad light.  A good background is one which eliminates distractions (remember: simplify your photo by reducing the chaos of the natural scene).  Joel gave an example of a photograph whose impact is significantly enhanced because of his judicious choice of background (what he included and what he eliminated):

Background makes the photoHere’s what the bigger picture actually looks like:

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 3.05.40 PMIn other words, stuffed animals in a huge store!  Thus the first Tip:

02 - Tip Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.02.38 PMAnd a second Tip:

05 - Tip Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.06.51 PMSo, we begin with the background.

This lecture identifies some things one can do to overcome backgrounds which are a mess (in an earlier lecture we saw one technique: moving around the subject or moving the subject).

One can use “Natural Backgrounds”, some of which are fog or mist, smoke, dust or steam.  Joe gave a number of examples, two of which are:

04 - Dust Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.09.53 PM 03 - Fog Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.08.19 PMJoel then led us through a series of shots of Ellen outside their home in Lincoln, Nebraska (home of the Cornhuskers) which is on a tree lined street; both their neighbours and they also live in nice looking classic houses.  What Joel wanted was a photo of Ellen wearing a “fur” lined parka, as the main subject, but which placed her in the context of her neighbourhood.  Through moving his subject around, changing the focal length of the lens, changing the perspective, carefully choosing the depth of field and the angle of the light, he got his photo:

Ellen in Parka - Final ShotThe background is blurred (careful choice of depth-of-field), but is clear enough to see the trees and a classic house.  Ellen is sharply in focus, and rembrandtly lighted (if there isn’t such a word, there should be).

It is important to consider always whether a subject would be better captured using a perspective different from the usual eye level.  Sometimes changing the perspective makes all the difference.

06 - Perspective Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 12.14.33 PMPerspective is a very important compositional element.  Either low or high perspective can be used to eliminate distracting elements or to change the photos focus, using it to emphasize the subject.  Move around, go high, go low, back up a bit, move in tighter – these are all examples of exploring the effect of perspective on the appearance of the subject in the viewfinder.

Joel then used additional photos to demonstrate the importance of changing perspective:

First was some weaver birds – nothing spectacular about this image.

Weaver Birds BeforeBut then he shifted a few feet, zoomed in a bit, and took another photo:

Weaver Birds after change of prespectiveMuch more impressive.

Here’s a dramatic bird’s eye view of a bear:

Bear - Bird's eye viewThat certainly catches ones attention!  (The bear was tame, by the way.)

And in ones search for the best perspective, don’t ignore the worm’s eye view either.

Worm's eye viewNext Joel took us out to his old farmhouse.  There he picked his favorite room – the farm kitchen, and explored what he could do to find the best background with the best light.  He uncluttered that background by closing doors into other rooms and the staircase.  He introduced first one and then two models.  He took a series of photos – straight on eye level; down low (he actually lay on the floor); and up high (he stood on the island).  From that final position he realized that the green/cream checkerboard floor tiles made a wonderful background, so he had his two models lie on the floor.

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 7.48.37 AMJoel then showed us a series of photos he took for a National Geographic article on the landscape of Nebraska’s Sandhills in north central Nebraska.He again demonstrated how changing the perspective changes the image.  Here’s a couple of his images:

Nebraska Sandhills 1 Nebraska Sand Hills 2The second image shows landscape but it also anchored by the trucks.  The eye is drawn to the bottom right corner and then back to the expansive landscape, clearly delivering the photographer’s intended message.  The first image also speaks to the extensiveness and openness of the landscape, but also to the neighbourliness of its human inhabitants.

The final subject Joel addressed was that of where to place the Horizon Line.  He pointed out that you can sometimes get very different images by moving the horizon line up or down in the viewfinder.  Since we see the world from eye-level, crouching down or climbing up on something will reveal the world in an unfamiliar and potentially captivating way.  In particular, outdoor photographers should always have dirty clothes from rolling around on the ground!

08 - Tip - Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 2.08.33 PM

Here’s a portrait of a Nebraska farm family, with the perspective deliberately chosen to emphasize their place on the land and its importance to them.  Notice the positioning of the horizon line:

Nebraska Farming FamilyAnd here’s a tip:

09 - Tip -Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 2.48.01 PMThis one, taken in Alaska, is of a young girl on a school bus.  In this case the horizon line is centered, the only position that makes the photo.  From that position, we can see the girl, the house she lives in and the flatness of the landscape in which we are positioned.

Alaska Girl on BusAnd finally. another low horizon line and low perspective.

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 2.00.10 PMIn summary, consider the following things when setting up the shot:

  • background
  • depth of field
  • focal length
  • perspective (low, centre, high)
  • horizon line (low, centre, high)

And, now, the Assignment:

10 - Assignment - Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 2.54.18 PM

This post is a precis of Lecture 10 from the The Great Courses “Fundamentals of Photography,” presented by Joel Sartore, an award winning photographer for National Geographic.  You can find out more about this course and others here.

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