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Lesson 15 from: The Photography Starter Kit for Beginners

John Greengo

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Lesson Info

15. Composition

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

The topic of the lesson is composition in photography.


  1. What is composition in photography?

    Composition refers to how the elements in a photograph are arranged and organized to create a visually pleasing image.

  2. Why is composition important in photography?

    Composition plays a crucial role in determining the overall impact and message of a photograph. It can help guide the viewer's eye, create a sense of balance, and enhance the storytelling aspect of the image.

  3. How can I improve the composition of my photographs?

    There are several techniques you can use to improve composition, such as filling the frame, finding a clean background, considering the angle of view, choosing the right lens, and paying attention to the direction and balance of subjects in the frame.

  4. What is the Rule of Thirds?

    The Rule of Thirds is a compositional guideline that suggests dividing the frame into a grid of nine equal sections and placing the main elements of the photograph along the intersection points or along the lines.

  5. Can I break the rules of composition?

    Yes, while there are guidelines and principles of composition, they are not strict rules. Photography is a creative art form, and breaking the rules can sometimes lead to unique and compelling images. It's important to experiment and find your own style.

Next Lesson: Elements of Design

Lesson Info


Alright we have got to the last section in this little class. Maybe the largest section. Definitely the most number of photos. And this is fun because we can throw out the technical stuff and we can talk about different ideas about what makes a good composition. Now part of me rebels against this. You know, there shouldn't be a composition. Everything should be equal and fair, right? Everybody's interpretation is equal. But it's really weird how the human eyes and the brains work. There are certain ways that things can look that are just more pleasing. And you may disagree with me on certain things but in general, most humans are gonna agree that ah, yeah this looks better than that. Obviously there are differences of opinion. But there are some very specific things that you can do as a photographer that can improve your photographs just by exactly how you set them up. And I remember, one of my first photographs that I really liked, I was in high school and I had taken some photos of m...

y friends running in the city championship track meet. And this one photo just looks so good. And I just couldn't understand what it was and I'm like oh, I got down really low to the ground and it kinda had a different look to it than the standard look that you would normally see. And then these bells were going off in my head. I can impact how my photos look. You know, I wasn't just documenting things that were out there. I was really interpreting them and showing them from a new point of view. So here's a good, just kind of preview example. Here in Seattle, we have these sculptures over at the Locks. And if you were like the unthinking tourist, just snapping photos of everything with their phone. They go, "Hey, that's kinda cool." Take a photo, that one. I got that one to take home with me. Now, is that the best photo you can get? Well, to start with, you got a lotta junk around there. It's not filling up very much of the frame and how important are those condominiums in the background. So, probably the first thing to do on many photos is to start filling the frame. Get closer to your subject. Now the problem is is that everything that was wrong with the previous photo is still wrong here. There's still a lot of junk and other things that are distracting elements in here. Well, maybe you could move around your subject to see it might be better on the other side of your subject and so maybe you can go over here and play with it. Now I still have some distracting backgrounds that I'm not real fond of and you know that, initial photography idea of I'm gonna capture everything I see is a misguided notion. Maybe you shouldn't capture everything but just an element of what you see and so and this case, I got down low, used the sky as a background. Now I had a clean background. I would lose my job if I work for the insurance company that's trying to show where this location is and what's around it. But that's not my job. I don't work for an insurance company. I'm just trying to take interesting nice photos. Maybe I'm gonna play around with the telephoto lens. And play around with that depth of field option. And as I shoot with a subject like this, I'll start off with, okay well, maybe this would be good. And then, that inevitably leads me to go, well I kinda like this one element. Let's work on that element and that changes to something else. So I was working more with the telephoto lenses, playing with the depth of field, changing the backgrounds around and it ended up being that this was my favorite version of the whole photos. Now if we compare where we started, okay they're very very different photos. But most people would just rather sit next to this in the coffee shop than the previous photo. And part of it comes a little bit from the mystery. What is that, I don't see everything. And that's okay to have in a photograph, a little bit of mystery. It depends on the type of photograph that you are taking. So the first thing to think about before you start shooting once you've found your subject is where should I be in order to photograph this subject. Some subjects are moveable. If I'm photographing you, I could say hey, let's go over to this alleyway. They've got a great brick wall in here. That's a good place for a backdrop. In some cases, your photographing a building and you can't move it so, it's just depending on where you want to be. In Morocco, there's this fun little place called the Goat Tree. And if they let you off the bus for five minutes, this is the type of photo that you get 'cause you don't have time to explore and so that's one of the important things is exploring your subject visually. And so I was leading a photo tour and you know, we take half an hour or so to get off the bus and roam around and see what you can find. And so you gotta walk around sometimes the entire thing to figure out what's gonna look good. My favorite photograph came from over here and I like this because it's got a nice colorful, clean background in it. It shows blue sky below the goats which makes it very clear that they are up in the tree. And you compare that to the first shot which is a bit of a muddy mess. It's not that interesting so just changing your perspective can have a big impact on how clearly your point or your story is told. In the forest, down on the ground, you're limited by what you can do. I love the trees. I love a little bit of the green. But I can't see very much of the green and so whenever I am some place that doesn't have a lot of options, I'm always looking for those options. What are the options? And so I found this one log that I could climb up on and kind of shoot down. And so in this case, I'm able to show a lot more of the green floor of the forest. And so in showing the green floor, you have to get up but there's limited places to do that. And so getting up high, getting down low, all looking at your subject with a slightly different point of view. And so I love balconies and rooftops where you can shoot straight down. You get to see something from a different perspective. You often get a very clean background, these are some hides being dried in Morocco, again. And you get a very nice clean pattern shot. And so there's a lot of different reasons that will inspire me to move from one spot to another. Sometimes it's my subject. You've heard people say oh, shoot me on this side. This is my better angle there. Yeah, some people do have better angles. Sometimes it's light, like we talked about earlier. Sometimes you're trying to achieve something with focusing and sometimes it's just the background that's important. So some examples for all of these. Choosing a better background. You know, in Havana where I've been a number of times, there's only one street in old Havana that you get to look down the alleyway and see the Capitol building behind. All the other streets just angle a little bit differently and it doesn't match up. And so, whether this is the best street, you know, in old Havana, I don't know. But it's the only street that gives you that extra little bonus at the end of the alleyway there. In this case, I like this partially because of the simple background but it's the lighting on her that's really nice. This very soft lighting. It was a bright sunny day but it's getting filtered by some canopies and some other things out there. And so the one side of her face a little bit lighter than the dark side of the face which is nice lighting for that type of subject. I wanted to try to have one subject really stand out here and so I got up fairly close to these kids so that I could have very shallow depth of field. I could've shot across the street where they would've all been in focus and that's another nice shot as well. But in this case, I can get that focus down to a narrower depth of field. In this case, you may or may not be able to see 'em real clearly but there's some power lines running in the background. And there's not much you can do about that. There's just power lines back there. And you could spend hours in Photoshop tweaking them out. That's not typically what I do. That kind of thinking is is well what can I do right here and right now to, I would love to be able to eliminate but sometimes that's a bit much to ask. Sometimes it's just minimize. And so with a slight reframing of it, they're hidden a little bit more behind the roof and the trees there and there's more information down below, where it's quite possible someone would look at this photograph and never know that there was power lines in at all even though they're visible, they're just become a smaller portion of the image. And so you're trying to maximize the good part and minimize the bad part. And so when it comes to background, background is really important. It's something that non photographers don't pay much attention to. Something's interesting, they just whip out their phones and start shooting photos. The good photographer's the one that's gonna kinda move around a little bit so that the background is clean and doesn't distract from your subject. And so in this case, I had actually picked out a background when I went into this location and said, okay if I'm gonna shoot a portrait, that's my background. And so I'm gonna move myself either into that location or I'm gonna ask my subject to go over there to shoot the photo and so, background can be as important. As once again, it's the story you're telling. Your subject is important and the environment is also important. A general philosophy in visuals is that darks kind of retreat to the background and brights come to the front. And what this means is that typically, when you look at a photograph, one of the things that you look at first is whatever is brightest. And so, it's nice to have bright subjects with dark backgrounds. It tends to work quite well. Your subjects really stand out and are very very clear if you have a bright subject and a dark background. And so looking for a dark background is really good. And so a number of times, I photographed people in doorways because it's generally kind of dark on the inside of their home but it's light on the outside and their face is illuminated, not quite with sunlight but reflected light coming from the sun which is quite a bit greater than is what is inside a house. And so, without having a studio to go to, this is a nice convenient magic little location for shooting portraits. Next up, think about the angle of view. So here, you can kind of think to your tool tool bag of lenses. What lenses do you have? And what do you wanna shoot? And what is the story you are trying to tell, okay? And once again, think of yourself as a storyteller. What is the story you wanna tell. Now this is something I saw in New Mexico. And this is kind of where I first got my inspiration. I kinda like some things in there. I like the blue doors. I like the you know, the big bold saturated doors. But, if I just took a photo from where I saw this, there's a lot of things I don't like about it. So think about some things that you don't like. Let me guess, some of you don't like the telephone pole in the background, the bright sky, or even the bright gravel in the foreground. And when we look at things with our own eyes, we tend to eliminate all the other stuff that doesn't matter, alright. You know when you're at the party and you see that perfect person across the room. All those other people, you don't notice. You just notice that one person across the room. Your brain can eliminate that sort of stuff. The camera doesn't. The camera just records everything in front of it. And so this is where you either need to use your legs or your zoom lens and hone in on the stuff that you really like and eliminate the rest of the stuff. And so it's not about showing more. More is not better in photography. Sometimes it's better but not always. And so trying to simplify your subject. Now in some cases, you go the other direction. You can try to simplify your subject too much. And so I was up photographing the tulip fields, north of Seattle here. And there was a whole field of tulips and there was this, a fallow field and there was one tulip over there. And so of course, that's the one that's kind of unique and interesting. So I went over and photographed it. And I decided to get in nice and close, hone in on my subject, blurry background. Okay now that showcased this one flower, I think, very well. So I think I succeeded in what I was trying to do. And then when I walked away, this other photographer came up and decided to photograph the exact same flower in the exact same way. Granted, she had the matching jacket and I did not. (audience laughing softly) And it kinda made me mad because it's like well this is how everybody does it and you know, photographs are those type that like to do something just a little different. And so I waited for her to leave and I went back to try to rework the situation and I took this photo which is not super different but it's a little bit different and so in this case, it was actually going wider angle, showing more of the environment because the environment is important along with the subject. And so, photo from Niagara Falls. First time there and I was excited about shooting it in many different ways. And I think this is a reasonable photograph of you know, part of those falls there. But one of the things you'll find as photographers is you do get this eye for details. And you could pull out that telephoto lens and you can find these just pure patterns in smaller areas. It doesn't tell the whole story of the falls but it tells a very clean, short story. And those can be very very effective. Once again, the mystery element of I'm not gonna tell you the whole story but here's just a little blip that's a really tasty blip. You know, a really nice little thing to have. South Georgia Island, down near the Falkland Islands. It's a wonderful place. They got these King Penguins all over the place. It's a mountainous landscape, with snow capped peaks and the wide angle lens shows you the penguin, all the penguin friends and the environment and so this is, you know, your environmental shot to show the whole location. Then you pull out the telephoto lens and you show how they use their feet and their tail as a kickstand and they kinda tuck their fat in to stay nice and warm. And so, in some cases, it just takes multiple photographs to tell more of the complete story. So you can also think of, let me just tell this part of the story with this photograph. And this part of the story with a different photograph. And sometimes you need many photographs to tell all the parts of the story. Now once you've figured out where you're gonna shoot and what lens you're gonna shoot, you can play a little bit around with exactly how your subject is placed in the frame. Now the age old Rule of Thirds is a good simple place to start here. And this is where you take your frame and you break it into thirds. And we have left, right, top, bottom, middle and so forth. And where those lines meetup are kind of hot spots, good places to put a subject. And some people, get angry at this which I think is fun. Because I like, why do I have to put it off to the side? Well, if you put something in the middle, A it's kind of obvious and it's not really surprising and so, one of the things we like to see is we like to see something that's interesting. And this kinda falls into the boring category. This is kind of the safe choice that a lot of people do 'cause they wanna make sure that it's entirely in there. And so just to be a little bit surprising, we can move things off to the side. But when we move things off to the side that leaves us more room to see other stuff in the photograph. So now, rather than a picture of an island, we have a picture of an island with a cloudy sky. And that cloudy sky has become a larger portion of the story that I'm trying to tell. And so, when you're talking about a subject and it's environment, you can now have that environment take up a little bit more about that story. And so, I think it's gonna be very natural for a lot of people choosing where they want the subject to be in the upper left, upper right. It depends on what other things are in there. In this case, you can see there's this one cloud in the lower left that just looks a little bit different. It has a lot of density to it, a little saturation so I thought this looked better on the upper right. And so play around with moving your subject outside of the center of the frame and see if you can include a little bit of the other environment that just makes it feel part of that environment in there. So once you move something off the middle of the frame, you wanna be thinking about the direction of that subject because if something is facing or going in a particular direction, there's a very different emotional feel from photo A to photo B. In many cases, we like it when there's space for people to move within the frame. We like the uplifting going uphill rather than, okay this person's coming downhill. And so, think very carefully about which direction and is there more space in front of that subject. And so, if you have a static subject, I'm gonna leave a little bit more space on the right in this case because that's kind of where our subject is looking. I'm gonna leave a little bit more space to the left 'cause that's where their walking. I had to wait about five minutes for this guy to turn around 'cause he was constantly looking back the other direction. But that just kinda keeps your eyes more to the middle of the frame. Now you can play with this and all of these rules as much as you want which is a a great thing about photography. Don't think of any of these things as rules that you have to obey by. So we have our subject in the center. Can we move it off to the left? Well, yeah, looks like it's getting chased by, he's getting chased by this big wave. Or we can move him off to the right and we can leave him room to surf out of the scene there. And so we can play with that and there's different emotional feel that you get. And so, a picture like this lends this feeling of this was a momentary thing that happened in a fraction of a second and you know it was gone later and so this very very quick feeling to it rather than coming into the frame. And so, it's perfectly okay to do this versus the other but just realize what you are doing and try to understand a reason for it. One of the ways that we judge beauty is through symmetry. And so anytime we see something symmetrical, I often decide, that's a good time to pull out the camera. And so there's a lot of symmetry when it comes to buildings. And so with infrastructure and so forth, there's a lot of symmetry and so when I do this, I don't very casually just point my camera up and take a photo. I am very carefully trying to make sure that I am aligning everything as smoothly and as evenly as I can from one side to the other and so then I'm getting it as symmetrical as possible. And so just having this pattern that mimics left side right side is inherently one of those things that we find kind of interesting in a photograph. In Rome, they have all these wonderful churches and this one, they have a gigantic mirror so that you can see more easily by looking down rather than looking up. And so my immediate thought is get the camera right down on the mirror. Clean it up with a cleaning cloth, get all fingerprints off. And then get a photo with a nice reflection in there. Now working off of the symmetry idea is balance. And this is where things are not exactly the same but there's a balance to the system. And so there's subjects and appropriate space between our subjects. And there's different subjects, for instance, we have a mountain in the background on the top but then we have waterfall down in the bottom. So your eyes kind of will bounce around and go to different areas in the photograph. One of the things that's important is watching for overlapping lines and things that are touching each other. In some case I may, I may be like a four year old kid, stop touching me, stop touching me, stop touching me. Don't don't touch that, don't touch that. I wanna have a little bit of space around that. And so I wanna have a little bit of space around the rock, around the tree or around the space needle and the building. I don't wanna have those touching unless I specifically want them touching for a reason. And so be aware of those minor nuances of moving two inches to the left or two inches to the right. Your eye is drawn to many different things. The brightest object, the sun in this case. Also to contrasty objects, the shadow lines down in the bottom and so that can kind of keep your eyes going around. So the not touching me thing, you know keeping the subjects a little bit distance and having that little bit of space around them. The way the heads are turned I think is a very good balance. Usually, the idea is to get closer to your subject but sometimes, you wanna get a little bit further away to get a sense of where they are and what they're doing. And so finding natural frames for your subjects is a lot fun. Because on his own, it's just one kid standing there not that interesting but when you see the environment that they're in, it becomes a little bit more interesting. And so framing up this tower between the two buildings. Down in Antarctica we found this really tall, wonderful iceberg and then I looked and I saw about a quarter mile away was this hole in another iceberg. And okay if I go around to the other side, frame one in the other, that would be a good place to go. Down in the Redwoods, there's this giant tree that you can actually crawl in so I feel like a hobbit in there. So this is the hobbit's view using that as part of the frame for the rest of the forest. I was planning to go photograph the New Year's fireworks here in Seattle and I picked out this perfect spot and then the security guard came away and said we're closing off the whole area. And I was stuck 15 minutes to midnight looking for a location to shoot. And trust me, every good spot is gone for viewing but not for photographing. Because people don't wanna stand behind something else to view the fireworks but adding that extra little element as a framing element, I think works just fine with a fireworks shot like this

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Ratings and Reviews

Kanoelani Patenaude

I am a pro photographer in my dreams, where I know the in's and out's of my camera; however, reality proved differently, as real life would tell you, I was a deer caught in headlights just looking at my new 7D Mark II. I am a photographer enthusiast without the skills, but a lot of love for the moments one, or the profession/hobby of it can capture. I mostly shoot my husband, friends, and community surfers in the lineup, and of course, my children, who rarely sit still. Thus, I switched from Nikon to Canon, venturing on the 7D Mark II for the grand reviews of how stellar of camera it is for action shots (surfing, and kids, this was a no brainer). That said, and overwhelmed with the way beyond my skill set, but noted desire and aspiration to grow, I made the purchase, and sought help rather quickly as I wanted to feel confident with what I was utilizing to capture the best memories possible. I came into this John's courses knowing the "on/off" button, and "auto" shoot mode. I came out of the course feeling like the pro in my dreams, and ready to shoot manual. John's teaching style is on point, and his detailed visuals are a huge plus. My first shots post this photography kit course, I thought were great for my first educated shoot, and shockingly, I even received and email from one of the sponsors of the surfers I captured, asking if they could use my image for their sites and publications. Not bad for a newbie. Though, my intent was never a business purpose, I did not know if I should charge a small fee, or give it for free. I don't mind free as it's not my business, yet I don't want to ruin it for any professional photographers in town doing the same thing that are charging. Perhaps another course to help me with that. I highly recommend courses by John Greengo! Thank you so much, John!


I'm not sure my first review posted. But I LOVE this class! John Greengo is a great, engaging teacher who is really adept at representing the concepts visually and excellent at explaining them verbally. I love how he goes through examples with photographs he has taken. Even though I only have a Nikon Coolpix digital camera, it does have Manual, Shutter priority, and Aperture priority modes. Through his class I've gotten a really good sense of how to balance ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. It's a great overview for me especially since I am new to photography, I can play around with some of these settings, and I have a greater understanding of what I might need in a higher level camera in the future. Money well spend! (For $29, this is an absolute steal). John Greengo is an awesome teacher and I hope to take more of his classes in the future!

Megan Wagner

John is extremely articulate and is a great teacher with lots of visual aids and metaphors to help understand photography. I have been doing photography for a few years now and this class was a tremendous help in boosting my knowledge and refreshing my memory in multiple aspects of photography. The graphics that John uses are helpful and he even goes through images and asks which settings would be best to use and will go through the why. He makes things easy to understand and is very clear about the information he provides. I am so glad I took this course and I would highly recommend it even to an experienced photographer. Thank you John Greengo!

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