Photographic Composition - Where to Start

Photo Tips Podcast - Photographic Composition Where to Start #11

Photography Composition Tips Podcast


If you haven’t listened to the previous two podcasts on composition please do so.

Although I said it’s hard to learn composition and creativity in the abstract, there are a few things you can do to get things moving in the right direction. It won’t get you to the finish line but I think at least it will get you out of the starting gate. One of the best ways to start improving the artistry of your photography, is to look at other people’s work and to ask yourself what you like about it and what you don’t like about it. And in my opinion you also have to look beyond photography. Look at paintings. Look at abstract art, look at realism. Although it is helpful to look photos, when you look at a painting, you know the painter got to controlled everything about it. The light, the composition, the exact placement of each object, in this way there is nothing happenstance or lucky about their work, it’s incredibly intentional. And once you’ve analyzed the work, think about how you can bring these elements into your photography. When you’ve looked at too many paintings and need a break head over to film. Some of the greatest visual artistry comes in the form of a movie. When you’re watching a movie, watch how the actor moves across a screen. Look at where they’re placed in the frame. Look at the lighting. Look at the depth of field. How does it work with the music? Pay attention to how it makes you feel. A few weeks ago, the composer Ennio Morricone passed away and the news brought me back to the movie The Mission. If you have never watched it, it really is a masterpiece both visually and musically; I just find it amazing how the two work together, so beautifully. I listened to the sound track again, and I know it sounds corny, but it simply moved me to tears. The music just ebbs and flows. Even if you don’t know the story, I think you can’t help but feel the emotion of the music. And as I listen to his music, I ask myself, “How can I make my work feel that way? How can I make it ebb and flow in the same way?” If this isn’t your thing, listen to  Gershwin, Queen, Prince, Jay Z, how about Lizzo? BTW, she’s my current favorite.

I also want to be clear that I’m not talking about any particular genre of art. I’m talking about classical music, rock and roll, rap, abstract painting, realism, sculpture, poetry… You name it. Find something you enjoy and dissect it. Think about why and how it moves you and translate that into your photography. If you look at the NYC Photo Safari Facebook page you will often see posts that are simply meant to inspire you to look beyond photography, because we think it’s important.

Another thing you can do is read or listen to artists talk about their motivations for their work. is a great place to find inspiration. There are definitely some great talks there. But I think at the end of the day you have to have a dialog about your own work. Listening to photographers talk about their work is great if you want to understand their work. But will not allow you to understand your own work and where it’s heading. Until you get a real critique and a back and forth with others about your work you won’t really won’t understand how your work is working. It’s kind of like therapy, it’s difficult to be your own therapist.

When I was at Art Center one of my mentors suggested that I copy my favorite photographer’s work. Yea, straight up copy it. As a young artist at art school you think your work is the most unique thing on the planet. And if you don’t think so, the reason you think you are at art school is to become the most unique thing on the planet. So the idea of copying someone else’s work felt downright offensive and inappropriate. At best it was dubious advice. But alas I chose him as my mentor for a reason. So I took the advice. What I found along the way, was not only did it help me better understand the photographer’s point of view and his techniques, my personal vision became more clear. So copying other people’s work is also a great way to learn composition.

As I said in the previous two podcasts, to learn how to create art, you really need a dialog. Even when I copied those photographers I had a mentor with whom I could talk about my work and the work I was copying.  So again these podcasts concentrate on the technical stuff of photography because the technical stuff is the easiest part of photography and it doesn’t require a dialog. Although we can find the answers to almost any question on the internet, this is not the case with your own personal artwork.

I hope these last two podcasts will help get you get out of the gate, but next time you find yourself in NYC join me for a safari and let’s talk about your work and your vision.

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