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THE COMPOSITION TUTORIALS

FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS

David Noton

David Noton
THE COMPOSITION TUTORIALS
FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS

A DAVID NOTON PHOTOGRAPHY BOOK David Noton Photography 2013!

David Noton: The Composition Tutorials by David Noton was first published in 2012 and 2013 by David Noton Photography as a series in Chasing the Light eZine.! First digital book edition published 2013. David Noton has asserted his right to be identified as author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, by photocopying, recording or otherwise, without permission in writing from the publisher. Layout of digital editions may vary depending on reader hardware ! and display settings. ISBN 13: 978-0-9576248-0-1 David Noton Photography, Clark House, Milborne Port, ! Sherborne, Dorset, DT9 5EB, UK

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INTRODUCTION
As we walked around the lake, my eye toyed with the visual elements in the scene: the mountains, the water, the sky and the shore. As we reached the head of the lake the view south revealed potential, even in the grey unappealing light of an overcast day in the Rockies. The shape of Mount Burgess itself from this aspect was of a jutting pyramidal peak, all that we expect mountains to look like. With the sun due to set near enough due east at that time of year (late September), the peak would be sidelit by the last rays of the day. The wind-whipped water was grey and choppy, but I knew how the glacial lake could live up to its name when flat, calm and reflective. Indeed, the colour of the emerald water in such conditions needs to be seen to be believed. With a calm evening I knew this scene had all the elements required to produce a strong picture; all I needed was Mother Nature to deliver the light, reflections and a few tantalizing clouds in the sky. However, there was just one thing missing: foreground interest. There is no law proclaiming that all pictures need foreground interest, but I felt deep in my bones this was one picture that did. Why? Well, there was no doubt that the mountain reflected in the lake would make a pleasing picture, but thats about as far as it would go. I knew the composition needed something more, so we continued scouting along the shore. There, half submerged, was a shapely piece of driftwood sculpted by nature, leading the eye in a graceful curve towards the conical mountain. The elements of the picture snapped together like a jigsaw in my mind; the light was all wrong then and I didnt even have a camera to hand, but the creative decisions on the picture had already been made. The hardest bits of finding the location and piecing together the composition had been done; all I had to do now was to make sure I was in the right place at the right time for the Decisive Moment of the evening light painting the landscape. I knew, given the right conditions and with the strong simple shapes of my intended composition, the shot would work.

Emerald Lake at dusk with the peak of Mount Burgess beyond, Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada > Canon 1Ds Mk III, 16-35mm lens at 24mm, 4 sec at f16, polarizing filter Mother Natures own art in the form of the beautifully sculpted driftwood, the stunning scenery, the colour of the water and the quality of the evening light were the elements that made this picture, but to portray such perfection I had to carefully craft the composition.

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When a photographers eye beholds a composition slotting into place, it all just seems so natural it just looks right. In such situations, the art of composition can seem effortless; in reality, it rarely is. The composition is the most important single factor that will determine the success of a picture. How I arrange shapes and colour in the frame is largely an intuitive, sub-conscious process, or was, until I started writing these composition tutorials. Then I was faced with the task of deconstructing and analysing everything that Id done instinctively for 30 years, and what a voyage of discovery it has been. I now know there are sound relevant theories of composition behind all we do within the confines of our frames. Composition alone is an art, and delving deeply into that art has produced these tutorials. Its been a fascinating process that has made me a better photographer. Im pretty sure it will do that for you, too.

Chateau St-Ulrich in the Vosges Mountains, Alsace, France The use of space, the simplicity, the dynamics of the panoramic format, the rule of thirds, the complementary colour, and the strong diagonal have all played a part in making this composition work. There are so many interrelated factors that together determine whether a composition will work.

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Man at Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar (Burma) Canon 1Dx, 85mm lens, 1/440 sec at f1.2 The art of composition is all about knowing what to include and what to exclude in the image area. Less is more, often, but sometimes more provides context and setting. Confusing, isnt it? Nevertheless, generally speaking theres a lot to be said for keeping compositions as simple as possible.

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TUTORIAL 13

SELECTIVE FOCUS
Horse portraiture isnt something Im planning to specialize in. Id been sent to Iceland to photograph in tandem with a writer a story on the Snaefellsness Peninsula, a name that really rolls off the tongue. One definite request imparted by the Art Director prior to departure was the need for a shot of the distinctive breed of horses the region is known for, so when we came across a herd in a suitably scenic and evocative setting I approached them camera in hand and all hell let loose. Never to work with animals or babies is good advice.

The ability to isolate the subject from the foreground and/or background by the use of accurate focus combined with minimal depth of field is a powerful compositional tool

Horses near Heggstadir, Snaefellsness Peninsula, west Iceland > Canon 5D Mk II, 35mm lens, 1/1000 sec at f2.8, 0.6 ND grad filter

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The blurry, out of focus background is just as important as the sharp main subject

The horses, faced with the only break from the tedium of munching grass likely that day, started jostling and nipping aggressively for attention. Trying to get a meaningful composition was certainly challenging, but somehow I managed to walk away with one image that looked as if one horse had serenely posed for me. In truth the shoot was chaos, but by using a 35mm lens open at f2.8 I dropped the background out enough to suggest the setting whilst concentrating the viewers attention on my chosen pony. The strong shape of the horses nose lay on a line of thirds, the sombre light and muted colours were suitably Icelandic, and I was a happy photographer. The selective use of focus had proved its effectiveness again. Looking back on all these composition tutorials so far, one theme stands out: the need to railroad the viewers attention around the frame to maximize the impact. Weve looked at a multitude of ways of doing that, using lead-in lines, vanishing points, diagonals, zigzags, patterns, internal frames and symmetry. All of these compositional stratagems for route marching our viewers attention to where we want it have been handed down by those with brushes, pallets, oils or watercolours, smocks, berets, and sometimes an ear missing, yet there is one technique open to us that is unique to photography: selective focus. In Tutorial 3 and Tutorial 7 weve already seen just how effective selective focus can be. Whether the subject be Vietnamese ladies in a verdant green rice paddy or a solitary poppy in a field of barley, the ability to isolate the subject from the foreground and/or background by the use of accurate focus combined with minimal depth of field is a powerful compositional tool and a fundamental photographic skill to master. Of course, this is unlikely to be news to any of you, but as is the case with all fundamentals, it pays to stop and consider when, how and why the technique works best.

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Detail of the statue of Leonardo da Vinci in front of the Teatro alla Scala opera house, Piazza Scala, Milan, Lombardy, Italy Canon 1Ds Mk II, 70-200mm lens at 180mm, 1/320 sec at f2.8 Deliberately chopping off Leonardos head and shooting through out of focus colour made for a somewhat alternative approach to this subject, but I had to do something to enliven what would otherwise have been a straight, boring shot of a statue.

Portrait photographers use selective focus virtually all the time to separate the subject from the background. Even in a studio where no clutter is allowed to intrude, using a medium long lens of around 100mm at a wide aperture is the preferred modus operandi. That same technique transfers well into the Great Wide Open: for my travel portraiture, the lens of choice is either my 85mm f1.2 prime or 70-200mm f2.8 telezoom used wide open. Distractions and clutter in the background are dropped out by the use of selective focus, but

what becomes apparent after a while of working in the confines of a temple in Burma is that the blurry, out of focus background is just as important as the sharp main subject. The tones, shapes and colours of the blurry background can contribute significantly to the impact of the image and thats true for all subjects, not just portraits. In a nutshell, when were using selective focus we need to pay just as much attention to the blurry bokeh foreground and/or background as to the sharp subject itself.

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When shooting landscapes, we strive for clarity and sharpness right through the frame from foreground to background virtually all the time. Theres nothing worse than a poorly executed landscape with the detail of the driftwood close to the lens, or the mountains in the distance, not quite as sharp as they should be it just looks awful. The inappropriate selection of focus point and aperture can easily result in insufficient depth of field, with the result that neither distant or near objects are sharp. Its the nightmare situation for landscape photographers that spells doom for a shoot; no image with such failings would last longer than an ice cream in Saudi Arabia before being despatched to oblivion by the delete button. Ensuring such woe doesnt occur is a challenge with which we landscape photographers constantly grapple, using hyperfocal distance calculators and depth of field scales. For us, selective focus is to be avoided at all costs; we always need everything sharp, right? Well, I question that. Whatever we are photographing, we have various focus options: Option 1: Front to back sharpness throughout the frame; everything appears crisp in this classic landscape look. Around the fringes of all Rocky Mountain lakes lie pieces of beautifully twisted, shaped and textured driftwood, just left considerately by Mother Nature for us landscape photographers to use as foreground interest. With the first golden rays of the day painting Pyramid Mountain beyond, I used a small aperture of f20 with the 16-35mm lens at 25mm, focused at the hyperfocal distance of 1m, to achieve the desired depth of field from 0.5m to infinite.

Pyramid Lake and Mountain at dawn,! Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada Canon 1Ds Mk III, 16-35mm lens at 25mm,! 20 sec at f20, 0.9 ND grad and 0.9 ND filters For classic landscape views such as this, absolute pin sharpness is needed from foreground to background. The merest trace of insufficient depth of field would stand out horribly. 96 David Noton The Composition Tutorials

Option 2: The foreground sharp with the background out of focus; the most common solution for portraiture. At a full moon festival in Burma I came across this novice monk with a particularly cheeky demeanour (I really must stop shooting so many monks). Using my favoured super-fast 85mm f1.2 lens wide open, I focused on his eyes and let everything else behind him become a bokeh blur. Bokeh refers to the aesthetic quality of the blur in out of focus areas, and one big advantage of fast lenses such as this with wide maximum apertures is that the bokeh looks fabulous. There is just enough information to suggest the novices behind, but the subject in the foreground is firmly separated from the bustle which, combined with the eye-to-eye contact with the viewer, makes for an engaging portrait.

There is just enough information to suggest the novices behind, but the subject in the foreground is firmly separated from the bustle

Novice monk at the Shwezigon Paya, Bagan, Myanmar (Burma) Canon 1Dx, 85mm lens, 1/320 sec at f1.2 With fast lenses such as this 85mm f1.2 used wide open, focusing on the eyes is critical. David Noton: The Composition Tutorials 97

Generally speaking for this kind of effect a medium to long lens is preferred, but a fast wide-angle optic will be able to achieve the same effect if the foreground interest to be blurred is close enough
Dawn in a poppy field in the Valnerina! near Preci, Umbria, Italy Canon 1Ds Mk III, 24-70mm lens at 68mm, 1/320 sec at f2.8 Its rare to shoot landscapes at maximum aperture, but I loved the big red blobs of the out of focus poppies that selectively focusing on the hills beyond allowed.

Option 3: The background sharp with the foreground a blur; a less common use of selective focus. Were back to a field of poppies in Umbria again; it had to happen. Shooting through the profusion of colour in the foreground, with my 24-70mm lens at 68mm wide open at f2.8 to concentrate on the mist-clad hillside beyond, the scarlet poppies became big red blurry blobs. With landscape work in particular its easy to go into automatic mental mode and just assume front to back depth of field is required, but some subjects

such as Italian poppies sometimes look better as out of focus blurs. Generally speaking for this kind of effect a medium to long lens is preferred, but a fast wide-angle optic will be able to achieve the same effect if the foreground interest to be blurred is close enough. Getting muddy knees is usually a necessity, and because wide open apertures mean fast shutter speeds, tripods are rarely needed. Getting down and dirty experimenting with foreground blur is always fun.

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Option 4: Both the foreground and background a blur, with only the middle distance sharp. This is a technique beloved by macro photographers, but can prove effective in all sorts of situations, such as in the midst of the Semana Santa Fiesta in Andalucia. They do strange things in Spain around Easter that I dont really get, such as dressing up and parading through the streets, but it all makes for interesting photographic opportunities. As the bearers carrying some sort of effigy edged towards me, one made eye contact with me through the lens and that was my Decisive Moment. The picture is made due to the fact that all the faces in front and behind are a blur, whilst the one looking at me with a whimsical expression as if to say Yes, I know this is all madness, but its our culture, OK? is the only one in focus. Its no accident that his one visible eye, which was my point of focus, is on an intersection of thirds. When the sole point of sharpness within a frame harmonizes with the rule of thirds, a strong composition usually results.

When the sole point of sharpness within a frame harmonizes with the rule of thirds, a strong composition usually results

Effigy bearers in the Semana Santa processions in Malaga, Andalucia, Spain Canon 1Ds Mk III, 85mm lens, 1/800 sec at f1.2 The only bearer looking at the camera is the one in focus. It was a moment that passed in a second. David Noton: The Composition Tutorials 99

There are times when I just need to expose. I suppose theres therapy available, but personally I know that on a summers day all I need to do to satisfy my need is to roll around in the grass amongst the garden bushes with a long lens and an extension tube; Wendy no longer bats an eyelid. Shooting through some red jobbies in the foreground, I pick out some seedy jobbies as the point of focus, subconsciously placing them on an intersection of thirds. Beyond, green fronds and jobbies make a verdant out of focus bokeh blur. I shoot wide open and my craving is sated. The image may never see the light of day, but at least for now I feel like a photographer once more. Moreover, selective focus has yet again saved the day. Sometimes its a way of making something visual out of seemingly nothing. You cant beat a bit of bokeh blur.
Tea plucker in the hills above Ella, Central Highlands, Sri Lanka Canon 5D Mk II, 35mm lens, 1/5000 sec at f1.4 Using a moderate wide-angle lens for portraiture means getting up close and personal, but the resulting out of focus background lends an important sense of place that is just as important as the sharp subject in the foreground.

Selective focus has yet again saved the day. Sometimes its a way of making something visual out of seemingly nothing
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Detail of an astilbe in a Somerset garden, England > Canon 1Ds Mk II, 70-200mm lens at 200mm with 14mm extension ring, 1/250 sec at f2.8 The combination of a long lens with an extension ring and a nearby colourful subject makes selective focus a powerful tool for making arty, graphic shots while rolling around under the bushes in the garden.

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GALLERY CHECKLIST
As a quick reference, here is a checklist based on the content of these tutorials. The frame Lines Rule of thirds The vanishing point Simplicity Patterns

Simple shapes

Harmony

Focus

Empty space

Breaking the rules

The decisive moment

Frames within a frame

Reflections in symmetry

Perspective

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GALLERY CHECKLIST

The frame

Marina, a Quecha shepherd girl, near Marras on Pampasmojo, near Cusco, Peru Canon 1Ds Mk II,! 24-70mm lens at 24mm,! 1/125 sec at f2.8 Composition is all about what to leave out of the frame.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


David is one of the worlds most renowned landscape photographers, and runs his own highly successful freelance photography company. His passion for photography, travel and the worlds most beautiful locations are the defining influences that have shaped his life, work and creative approach to photography. David was born in England in 1957 but spent much of his youth travelling with his family between the UK, California and Canada; he took his first photographs on a Kodak Instamatic he was given for his thirteenth birthday. After leaving school David joined the Navy in search of further travels and adventures; it was whilst sailing the seven seas in the Merchant Navy that his interest in photography grew. After a few years at sea, David decided to pursue his passion and returned to study photography in Gloucester, England in 1982; he has been captivated by the subject ever since. After leaving college in 1985 he began to work as a freelance photographer specializing in landscape and other travel subjects, which has taken him to almost every corner of the globe over the last 25 years. David is now established and recognized as one of the worlds leading landscape and travel photographers. His images sell all over the globe both as fine art photography and commercially in advertising and publishing and David has won international awards for his work that include British Gas/ BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 1985, 1989 and 1990. David is the author of two previous books, Waiting for the Light and Full Frame; the former was launched at an accompanying exhibition at the Oxo Gallery in London that attracted over 27,000 visitors. He also writes regularly about travel and photography for a range of photography magazines and websites, as well as his own Chasing the Light eZine.

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