Stanford Travel Study presents Composition by Faculty Leader Joel Simon, ’74, ’75, MS ’77
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Stanford Travel Study presents Composition by Faculty Leader Joel Simon, ’74, ’75, MS ’77

August 25, 2019


The goal of any photograph is to best capture the subject to tell your particular story using the tools available and the one tool that’s available to every photographer is composition. It’s independent of the type of camera or other gear that you might have and composition is powerful. All it takes is a basic understanding of a few simple concepts to use it effectively. We’re going to use some of the more iconic spots here on campus to illustrate these elements of composition. So let’s go to our first location. The first concept we’ll cover is the Rule of Thirds. The general idea is that our eyes are naturally drawn towards specific areas of a rectangle. The easiest way to find those areas is to imagine a tic-tac-toe board overlaying your image. Most digital cameras including iPhones have a setting that superimposes this grid onto your viewfinder. The points where any two lines intersect are areas where a viewer will naturally look. So place your subject at one of those intersections. In addition if your composition happens to have a naturally occurring line, such as a horizon for example, you can direct the viewer’s attention by aligning the naturally occurring line with one of the imaginary lines. The Rule of Thirds can be further utilized to create a visual dialogue in the image if your subject is interacting with something or someone else in the frame, try and frame both using the Rule of Thirds. This will enunciate the visual dialogue between both subjects. One of the easiest ways to direct your viewers attention is to compose your shot so that the subject takes up most of the frame. We’ve all seen photos where you have to squint to make out the subject. Don’t be afraid to get closer to your subject if you can or zoom in or use a longer lens if you have one. This is especially important if you’re trying to capture a person’s facial expression. Renaissance artists were the first to accurately depict three-dimensional worlds on a two-dimensional surface. Creating a sense of perspective that had never been achieved before. They were able to do this through the use of vanishing points, shadows, and properly scaled backgrounds, middle grounds, and foregrounds. With some practice you can compose your shots to use elements in the frame to create the same effects. Vanishing points are simply parallel lines that when viewed from a certain angle appear to converge and shrink in the distance. Almost all architecture includes parallel lines. So if you’re shooting, say a temple, frame the image so that two or more lines appear to converge if followed into the distance. Shadows can also provide the illusion of depth in an image. When shooting in natural locations, observe lighting sources and the effect they have on your subject from multiple angles. Then position yourself to create the effect you’re looking for. If you want to give your subject a sense of scale, don’t be afraid to include people or other familiar objects in the foreground middle ground or background as long as they don’t dominate the photo and pull the viewer’s attention away from your subject, this is a great way to maximize the impact of your composition. If your subject contains any prominent lines, you can frame the image, so that the lines lead the viewer to your subject. You’ll find many leading lines and architecture and infrastructure such as buildings and roads but you can find them in nature too. In fact mountain skylines, streams and shorelines are all good examples. Try and capture any activity your subject may be performing. This gives your photos the appearance of action. You can also slow down your shutter speed to blur any portion of the image that moves while the shutter is open but you may need a tripod to help hold the camera steady. We’ve covered a lot of material so here’s a quick summary of tips for effective composition. Compose using the Rule of Thirds. Create a visual dialogue between subjects. Fill the frame. Show activity. Create depth using vanishing points, shadows, and objects in the foreground, middle ground, and background. And lead the viewer to the subject with prominent lines. So that’s your composition toolkit. Composition is one of the essential ingredients needed to create evocative images on the road and it’s in your hands regardless of the type of camera you might be using. The other crucial ingredient is light and that’s what we’ll talk about in our next video.

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