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Morguefile : Classroom : lesson 1

Welcome to Lesson One!

When I was first looking into writing this course for Michael and Kevin, it sounded interesting to
me. I thought that getting back into the mindset I had when photography was all new, fresh and
exciting would be a great creative opportunity for me. After writing the first few lessons of this
course, I can honestly say that I had no IDEA how much writing this course would enhance my
creativity and how enriching it would be for me.

After years of taking photographs, the basics had all become second-hand to me so much that I
didn't really think about them much anymore. Starting to consciously consider composition,
lighting, shutter speeds and apertures and put more thought into all of those details again really
brought me back to those early days when I got my first manual camera and it was all new to me. I
remember clicking the shutter and - whammo! - an instant masterpiece! Well, that might be
exaggerating a little, but I was shooting exclusively film at that point in my life and I could never
wait to get my slides developed and back from the lab to see what I'd captured - the potential for a
masterpiece always lingered about in the back of my brain somewhere. I assume that many people
taking this course are at that same point, and I'm looking forward to sharing that enthusiasm and
excitement with you.

If you're taking this course, I also assume you've fallen in love (at least a little bit) with the art of
photography and want to move on to the next level. When I look back at the photo courses I took
and the volumes of books that I read when I was so eager to take my photos to that next level, most
of them started out with the basics: how the camera works, from aperture to shutter speed and how
it all works together in conjunction with light. We will get to that in future lessons, but I want to
start out a little differently.

Composition And Impact - It's A Beautiful Photograph, But Do You Know WHY It's Beautiful?
Let's talk a little bit about pictures and why we love them.

Pictures can be beautiful. They can decorate a home or and office; be published in books,
magazines and calendars; they can even win ribbons or prizes in contests. A breathtaking landscape
can transport the viewer to another time and place, if only for a moment. A beautiful still life can
capture a mood of serenity, warmth, even magic. A great portrait of a person can look into their
soul, and let you share their smiles or tears. A great picture *communicates*. Think about it. There
is a huge market out there for photographs because publishers know that the people who buy their
materials will be drawn to good photographs that reach out to them. Visual communication is
something that we're all born being able to relate to. The subjects out there to take pictures of are
limitless. The only boundaries are within your mind.

But what makes a photograph successful? The answer is a fairly simple one, and you can improve
your photography *today* by learning a few very basic rules.

One caveat, however. As the old saying goes, rules are meant to be broken. Some of my favorite
photographs very purposely break a lot of the basic "rules" of photography. But to break the rules in
a way that enhances a photograph and effectively turns it into a great photo, you first have to
*know* the rules and have a reason for wanting to break them. So today we're going to talk about
simple photographic rules that will *make your pictures better*.

Number one: Get in close. No, closer. Nope, still closer. There! You've got it!
The first, and most important, rule: Simplify. The more you simplify a photo, the more attention
you draw to your subject. The more attention you draw to your subject, the more successful you are
in communicating your message to the viewer. There are roughly a million and two ways to do this,
so I'll keep it simple and stick to my favorite technique here, and that's to get in as close as possible,
thereby eliminating anything in the background that may detract from your subject.

Over the years I've belonged to a number of photography websites where people post photos and
then others can critique them. I can't count the times on these sites that I've looked at photographs
of beautiful flowers. Haven't we all taken photographs of flowers? They're inherently beautiful,
readily available and seem to just scream out to have their pictures taken.

Before you snap your next flower photo, though, do this: look up close at the flower. Really close -
literally. Put your eye right down there and examine the petals, all of the delicate little parts in the
center of the flower, any sort of unique characteristics the flower has. Ask yourself what it is about
this specific flower that is crying out to have its picture taken. Is it the plastic Barbie doll laying on
the table behind the vase that's really attracting you to it? Maybe the wooden table, or the placemat
that Barbie is reclining on? The vase itself? How about the green stuff in the vase with the flower?
Are any of those things what you really want to emphasize in this photograph? No! It's the blossom
itself that wants to be the star.

So try this. Set your camera up on a tripod (we'll talk about tripods later - if you don't have one, I'd
strongly advise getting one, but for now you can always sit your camera on a pile of books or
something else sturdy) as close as you can get it to the flower, while still keeping the flower in
focus. This distance will depend on your camera's lens, which we'll also talk about in a future
chapter. You may have to include some of the greenery in the photo, or perhaps even some of the
vase or table. If so, for heaven's sake, get rid of Barbie and that placemat. The people you show the
picture to in the end will be looking at a rectangular-shaped print, and if what you want them to see
if the flower, it should take up as much of that final rectangle - we'll refer to it as "the frame" - as
you can possibly get in there.

Getting in close seems like sort of an obvious thing when you think about it, but I can't tell you how
many background "Barbie-doll" type distractions I've seen in photographs, where the flower takes
up maybe 1/10 of the final image and the rest is composed of distracting elements. One way to
eliminate distractions is drag them away, like Barbie, but my favorite way is to just get closer and
closer until there's nothing else in the viewfinder. That way, whammo!, you hit your viewer smack-
directly in the face with your subject. This is referred to as "filling the frame". There's no question
about what the photograph's subject is, and you've communicated with the person who sees the
final image!

The bottom line is to focus the attention on your subject by really thinking about what you want to
emphasize. Try it the next time you're taking pictures and see what you think. Here are a couple of
examples from my own portfolio.

My husband gave me a dozen roses for

Valentine's Day one year. Never one to let a photographic opportunity go by, I took several photos
of the entire bouquet, but my favorite picture turned out to be this one, focusing on just one single
rose. The petals were so soft, it seemed that if you touched them, they'd melt like butter. I think that
focusing so closely the rose really communicates that message to the viewer in this image. I titled
the photograph "Butter", which many people didn't understand, but that's part of the fun of being an
artist. You can keep Ôem guessing and call it your artistic prerogative.

This is (so far) my best-selling stock

photograph of all time. It's an image that's very useful for designers in advertising because it
communicates so well. Once again, I got in close. There's no question that this photograph is about
laughter. The smile stands out because of the bright red lipstick that contrasts with the rest of the
image that is mostly white. No distracting elements, not even the rest of a face to give a personality
to the image and make you wonder what the situation is - just a mouth, laughing.

Number two: Photographic Composition

Most really strong photographs position their main elements in certain specific places of the frame.
When you think about where you put your subject in the photograph, you are *composing* your
image. Think about it. When a painter starts out with a blank canvas, he or she has free reign to
decide where to put that river, those mountains, the trees, clouds and anything else that needs to be
included. Creating a photograph, you should go through the same process.

Remember the flower we talked about photographing in rule one? Nine times out of ten when I've
seen that photo of the flower with Barbie lying in the background, the flower itself has been dead
center in the frame. This is simply natural instinct for us to compose a photograph this way. When
we are looking at the flower, our eyes are focused directly in front of us. We don't put the flower on
the table, bring our ear down to the flower and then try and shift our eyes to see the flower out of
the corners of them. Some part of our brain knows that and wants to place the subject right there in
the middle of the frame, where our eyes would normally look. The trick is to realize that when the
picture is taken and all is said and done, you will have that small rectangle to hold out in front of
you and look at, and then you can look at it by focusing your eyes straight forward. Until then,
forget about centering your subjects. This is a harder concept to master than you might believe at
first. Once you try it a few times and see for yourself with your own images the difference that it
makes, it will get much easier.

There are several "classic" ways to compose a photograph. To use these methods, you will need to
train yourself to see your subjects in terms of lines and shapes. Sometimes lines in a photograph are
obvious, like the horizon in a sunset picture. Other times, the main lines in a photograph are not
nearly so obvious. One way to see the main shapes in your photographs is by squinting your eyes
until the image almost becomes a blur, then you'll see any lines and shapes created by the shadows
and light. This is a great way to look at a scene when you're thinking about how to compose a
photograph. You may notice how shadows blend together in a way that might not be immediately
obvious otherwise, creating shapes and forms that the viewer may not consciously notice when
looking at a photograph, but that will definitely impact their perception of the image, nonetheless.

The Rule Of Thirds And The Golden Mean

One of the most commonly talked-about rules in photography is the rule of thirds. The concept is
best explained by taking your canvas and dividing it up into thirds, both vertically and
horizontally, so that you essentially wind up with a tic-tac-toe board.
The rule of thirds should be used as a guideline for when you have vertical or horizontal lines in
your image. You will probably hear more about this photographic "rule" than any other, so I'll
explain it fairly in depth here and try to give you an understanding of why it is so effective. The
rule of thirds is derived from another rule called the "Golden Mean" that says that the main
subjects of an image should be placed at the intersecting points created (roughly) by the lines
mentioned above, thusly:

So if you are composing a photograph of a sunset, try placing that horizon line one-third of the
way from the top or bottom of your image, to include either more foreground or more sky. You'll
notice a stronger landscape this way.

I'll interject a little art history and math lesson here to explain the theory behind the Golden Mean.

The Golden Mean is a number sort of like Pi, from your high school days in math class. Whereas
Pi is equal to 3.14-yadda-yadda-yadda (math was never my best subject) and is handy for all sorts
of geometrical things, the Golden Mean is equal to 1.618-yadda-yadda-yadda. Mathematicians
use the Greek letter Phi when they're talking about the Golden Mean. This is derived from
something else you may or may not remember from your math days called the Fibonacci Series.

Fibonacci was an Italian mathematician born around 1170 A.D. who, for reasons unbeknownst to
me (What really possesses mathematicians to do anything, I wonder? Maybe the same thing that
makes us take pictures?), decided one day to start with the numbers zero and one and add them
together. Okay, that just gave him the number one again. Big deal. Then what? Then he added the
last number he used (one) to his new resulting number (one) and got two. He did it again by
adding one and two and got three. Then next time... Well, let me just lay it out this way, it's easier
to visualize:

0+1 = 1
1+1 = 2
1+2 = 3
2+3 = 5
3+5 = 8
5+8 = 13
8+13 = 21
13+21 = 34
21+34 = 55
34+55 = 89
55+89 = 144
89+144 = 233
144+233 = 377
233+377 = 610

And you can keep going like that forever. All right. What does that prove? Nothing, as far as I can
tell. BUT, if you take the ratios created by these numbers, an interesting pattern appears.

(I promise, this is all going to get back to photography... just keep reading...)

Ratio = 1 to 0 = 0
Ratio = 1 to 1 = 1
Ratio = 2 to 1 = 2
Ratio = 3 to 2 = 1.5
Ratio = 5 to 3 = 1.6666
Ratio = 8 to 5 = 1.6
Ratio = 13 to 8 = 1.625
Ratio = 21 to13 = 1.61538
Ratio = 34 to 21 = 1.61538
Ratio = 55 to 34 = 1.61764
Ratio = 89 to 55 = 1.6181
Ratio = 144 to 89 = 1.6179
Ratio = 233 to 144 = 1.6180
Ratio = 377 to 233 = 1.6180
Okay - whew! - the boring part is mostly over. Now we'll talk
about what this actually means in the world of taking pictures. Let's look at this diagram:

If you look at the gray lines in the image, they make up squares. When all of these squares are put
together in the way they make up this picture, they come together to form a rectangle. The ratio of
the squares in this rectangle is composed of our magic number, 1.618!

Here's where it actually gets interesting. If you've hung on this long, I commend you.

This ratio is found all over in the natural world. Have you ever seen a nautilus seashell that's been
sawed open? Its growth rate follows the curve in this image, 1.618 - exactly. Same with the little
spirals that compose the interior pattern of a sunflower, where the seeds are. Leonardo DaVinci
based all sorts of his artwork, experiments and theories on the Golden Mean. The vast majority of
flowers have petals that number 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 or even 89. Even symphonies by Mozart
and Beethoven can be broken down into this ratio - whether that was on purpose or coincidental is
anyone's guess. Mozart is rumored to have been a hobbyist mathematician. A study was done a
few years back on top fashion models. Their faces, interestingly enough, have a number of
characteristics with exactly the ratio 1.618. These numbers are everywhere in nature, and on some
basic, instinctive level, the human eye tends to find beauty in things that correspond with this
So that tells us where the idea behind the rule of
thirds came from. Technically, if you draw grid marks on your frame and break it up into eighths,
then draw your dividing lines down at the mark of three eighths on each side, you've got the spots
where the Golden Mean hits.

However, when you're looking through your viewfinder, it's not like you're going to get out your
tape measure and divide everything into eighths, hence we use the rule of thirds, which is very
close for all practical purposes.

This was one of my earliest landscape photographs, and

one of my best received to date. Upon close inspection, the image is split up into three distinct
areas: the orange sand, the blue and white mountains with a few bright clouds, and finally, the
dark purple stormy clouds in the upper third of the image. The photograph is much more
interesting this way than if I had centered the horizon line right in the middle of the photo.

Roll over image >>

Back to flower photos for this example. Notice
the subject itself, the pink daisy blossom, is placed at one of the "Golden Mean" points. The
background itself is not distracting. The blue of the vase melts into the blue background, and all of
that blue really makes the contrasting pink stand out and grab your attention.

<< Roll over image

There are other ways besides the rule of thirds and the Golden Mean to use lines and shapes to
strengthen an image. Here's a quick overview of six additional methods of composition that can
strengthen your images.

The Triangle
When you take a photograph in a rectangular frame, basing the composition on a triangle that
goes from any one corner to the two opposite sides, like this diagram, is always a good way to
create a strong image. Note the following example:

The eyeglasses and the newspaper chart that they are laying on each create their own implied
diagonal line. Notice the way that the eyeglasses are placed. The eyeglasses and the line work
together here to divide the photograph into triangles. It won't be very often that you're
photographing subjects that are actually triangular, but by placing objects in your composition
along strong diagonal lines that create a triangle, you'll add strength to your image.

Another way to use triangles that fits in with the Golden Mean is in the following manner:

You can see how the photograph above is loosely broken down into three sections that fit in with
this. Upon first appearance, if someone told you this image was composed of triangles, you'd
probably tell them that they were nuts, but that's where the idea of implied lines comes in.
The Frame Within A Frame
Another way to strengthen a composition, especially landscapes, is to use materials near you in
your foreground and include them in your photograph around two or more of the edges to create a
sort of "frame". This is most often done with trees or branches on two or three sides of the image,
as seen below, and you can be very creative with this. Oftentimes rock formations will have holes
through them - you can use this sort of natural "frame" by including it in an image and taking a
landscape view through the hole. Another interesting thing to try is taking a photo through a
window frame of an outdoor scene. Archways, doorways and all sorts of other architectural
features work great for this as well. I would suggest staying away from doing this with only one
edge of the frame, as that tends to make a photograph feel off-balance.
Leading Lines
Roads and footpaths are another great way to use leading lines to your advantage. The path in this
image really stands out because of the vivid green foliage that contrasts with the rich brown path.
The line created by the path then leads the viewer into the photo, as if they were standing on the
trail, ready to walk right into the image. Any sort of path or roadway can be very effectively used
in this manner, as seen in the following photo. I have a gazillion of these types of shots in my
portfolio. I just love taking them.
Notice that the road leads your eye into the
image, meeting the horizon line, which is one third of the way down into the image. Next time
you're taking landscape photographs, try playing around with your placement of the horizon. Our
natural instinct is to place it square down the middle, but placing it in the upper portion of the
image to include foreground or in the lower portion of the image to include a dramatic sky can
give a photograph much more impact.

Leading lines can be found in many other ways, not just paths and roads. A wagon wheel's spokes
can work together to lead the viewer's eye into the frame. The edges of the petals of a daisy can be
leading lines moving into the center of the flower. A row of trees or street lights that vanish in the
distance can create very strong leading lines that take the viewer's eye all the way through an

The Circle
After my long-winded explanation of why it's best to use the rule of thirds and the Golden Mean,
I'm going to toss in a rule that breaks that rule. The circle can be used very effectively when
composing a photograph, if the subject is right. Going back to the idea of getting in close, let's
look again at the picture of the rose.

The petals that all overlap each other naturally

make the viewer's eye move in a circle in this image. The effect is similar to a whirlpool, drawing
the viewer in. The main circle of the composition also takes up virtually the entire frame, so none
of the image's space is wasted on unnecessary elements. Those two elements of the photograph
work together here, giving the image a strong composition, even while breaking the traditional
rules. "The Circle" is a tricky element to use in a photograph effectively, but when done well,
makes for an outstanding photograph.

Another way to create dynamic impact in your photograph is with the use of "visual rhythm". This
is a way to use repetition of form and shape in an image to create interest.

In this image, the little lines created by the

rows of chickens and the zoom blur work together to really make the viewer's focus shift to the
blue chicken. Rhythm is combined with leading lines here to really bring attention to that little
blue guy.
Another use of rhythm, created by the replication of the lines of each glass snifter.

Negative Space
Negative space is a term used in photography that implies only a tiny fraction of the frame is
taken up by the actual subject. Negative space is usually used either to make the subject seem
very small, or to give the impression of the subject being in a wide-open space.

In this image, technically the subject is the wheat. However, since they are surrounded by so
much vivid blue space, the feeling that you get is that of a wide-open sky - turning the negative
space itself into as much of the subject as the wheat.
Learning To Use These Methods Through
Abstract Photography
One of the best ways to learn to see compositionally is by taking abstract photographs. By
abstract, I mean that your subject matter is unrecognizable for the most part. Get in close, use
color and lines in your composition to create the whole image. When you're done, look closely at
it. Does the photo feel "balanced"? Following are a few of my more popular "abstract" images
that have all either won awards or been published numerous times.

The soft lines and the soft pink color inspired this close up photo of a calla lily. Another instance
where I used the "get in close" technique. Notice the diagonal giving strength to the composition
and where the petals meet each other at the bottom third of the image. The diagonals in this image
are implied diagonals, like we talked about above.

Roll over image >>

This photo was taken of a tulip leaf. I noticed the light
falling just right on a red object in the background and captured just a little bit of each in the
photograph to make a vivid abstract. Once again the rule of thirds comes into play in the
composition of this image.

<< Roll over image

This is the side of a trailer that was covered in yellow,

cracking paint. I placed the line of rivets by using the rule of thirds and the texture creates an
interesting abstract. It's the vivid colors, texture and the line of rivets that hold this image together
and make it interesting.

Abstract photography is definitely not for everyone, but it can be a marvelous learning tool. It
forces you to pay attention to things that might not come naturally, like the rule of thirds

Roll over image >>

Number Three: Is there a Better Way To Do It?

The last thing we'll talk about in this lesson is point of view. Specifically, your point of view, as
the photographer. How many times have you seen something worth taking a photo of - maybe a
barn, a tree, or your dog - and picked up your camera to snap a picture right then and there? If this
is the way you go about taking photos, you can dramatically improve your technique with one
simple process. Walk around the subject. All the way around it. See how the background changes
as you move 360 degrees around your subject. Then lie down on the ground and point the camera
up at your subject. Okay, if it's your dog, you might have to watch out so he doesn't come over
and lick the camera lens, but you get the point. Climb a ladder and look down, trying the same
thing. Tilt the camera vertically, even diagonally. Take a whole roll of film (or fill a whole
memory card if you use a digital camera) of the same subject from drastically different points of
view and compare the results. You might surprise yourself. You'll definitely surprise the viewer
by trying something different and that will add impact to your photo.

This photo was taken of the model by having her lie down, then I put the tripod over her to look
down on her from a rather unusual angle. Again, I used my "get close" style to make sure nothing
was in the image but the model, no distracting backgrounds, and the diagonal line adds visual

When you're walking around your subject finding different points of view, watch out for what is
in the background. Not "Barbie the distracting element" that we already covered, but if you're
taking a photo of your Aunt Sally sitting in the back yard knitting a sweater, watch out for that
tree behind her. Many a photo has been ruined because Aunt Sally's hair is the same color as the
tree bark and when you've taken the pictures and are looking at the final product, you notice that it
actually appears as if that tree branch is growing out of her head! The trick is to look - really look
- through that viewfinder before you snap the shutter. Make sure every single element is
something you want in the photograph and that each element is in the exact spot that you want it.
Now for the assignments. Your chance to apply all of this stuff to your personal photographs and
see what you think!

First, if you're taking the class, drop me an e-mail at jodiecoston @ morguefile.com and tell me
about yourself. How long have you been taking pictures? What do you like to take pictures of?
What do you hope to get out of a photography class? I plan to use the last couple of lessons to
address specific things students are interested in if the class hasn't touched upon them already, so
please let me know what you'd like to see.

Next, your real assignments:

Assignment 1: Take at least one abstract photo based entirely on some of the compositional
rules we talked about. Subjects should not be recognizable. Post your photo online and send me
a link, along with an explanation of why you think the composition makes a visually interesting

Assignment 2: Students will take pictures of a subject from various viewpoints (near, far, from
above, below, behind). Creativity is encouraged. Likewise, post your best two or three photos of
the subject online and send me a link, along with an explanation of which you think is most
visually appealing and why.