Classic Compositional Rules
It's all about balance for me and balance comes in many forms. I don't think there's any sweeping rules where I can be like this is exactly how you balance an image every time. I think every image calls for different decisions and I think a really obvious way to understand this is to begin with symmetry. So, I'm gonna start with some symmetrical compositions and then I'm gonna show you how, as we start to break down that symmetry, as long as you break it on both sides you still maintain that sense of balance. I think that's a really good way to think about it. So, let's say symmetry is our baseline composition of a balanced image. So, this is one of my all time favorite New York City street shots I took. It was a foggy day in the park, I don't know if any of you guys go to New York a lot but it's very rare to get this low fog in New york. It's much more of a San Francisco kinda thing. And there was this broken street lamp that was kinda shooting this light out side-ways and the fog was...
sitting in this tunnel, and again I set up this composition because it was this beautiful symmetry. Even the two white lines of snow going in, the bridge, all the buildings, the trees, everything is just balanced. So, I preconceived this scene because I knew that people were gonna walk through this. And I probably stood there for twenty minutes and just let people walk through and finally this woman wearing like this hooded cloak with the dog, it was like the perfect subject. And luckily for me and lucky for my composition she walked straight down the center of this scene and I was able to make this image. So, the reason that this is centered is because she's centered, she's right in the middle, it's a almost perfectly symmetrical, not mirrored but symmetrical and I think that this is a good example of like, this image just sits well, it just has a sense of balance. I don't know if you can see it but I see in that but even the yellow lights in the building behind, kind of like aligning with the yellow light underneath, in the bridge. So, that's one of my favorite examples of a symmetrical shoot photograph. Again, working with spaces, architecture is often very symmetrical, especially classic architecture, this is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I did a project with them over the past few years, called MP Met, where we brought photographers in during closed hours to kind of like make art in the space, like making art in the art institution. That's been a really fun project. My friend Jacob Jonas saw that project and he created his own project called Cameras and Dancers and this event, we combined both of them together. So, he invited dancers, I invited photographers and we went to the Met, and we made, a bunch of dance photos. Again, this isn't complete, we're moving, not really away from symmetry, the subject is less symmetrical but this is again a balanced image because of the symmetry, because of the lines, because of where we are and it all kind of leads into this one frame and then you have them, very intentionally, dead-center in the center of that. If they were standing a little over to the right; it breaks the composition down and it's less balanced. But again, symmetry is the most basic, easiest thing to understand. So, forgive if it's a little redundant here. Again this isn't completely symmetrical but as we start to break it a little bit. I want you to notice the different kind of balance of elements. So, the fact that we have one big hill on this right side, is like to me, counterbalanced by the repeating hills on this side and it's not a perfect symmetrical shot but those elements kind of pull, like they kind of again, like scales, like you add something over here, you add something back over here and I think the different things you can play with are almost limitless. This was shot down in Mexico with like a 200 millimeter lens and when you shoot with telephoto lens, it's like a longer lens, it really compresses the scene and that allows you to add a lot of different compositional elements because everything on the sides kind of comes in toward the center and that's a really fun way to work. Also an example of back-lighting. (laughs) Little call back there. Again, working with symmetry, to me like just trying to find what's balancing what. So, like to me this box over here is balanced by this chair, this shadow is kind of like pinning everything down into the middle and this just works as an image for me. This is one of my favorite spots and a rare spot to be able to shoot from, this is 42nd Street in New York. There's a Tiffany's clock, it's a big glass clock and it opens up and if you do, there's a special tour there that you can do and you get this view and you take turns looking out this tiny little hole but again these criss-crossing shadows, everything kind of converging in the center. Like, for me the balancing elements here, this big block shadow here, the light, the light, and then this big block shadow here is counter-balanced by this beam of light coming from the other direction. So, it can be subtle, it can be obvious, obviously like the converging buildings are symmetrical in themselves. So, true symmetry Is automatically balanced and if we break it on one side, I think we break it on the other and then that's the way that you can continue to maintain a balanced composition. The further we move from symmetry and I think it's really important that we move from symmetry, even looking at four images in a row, I was like this is getting boring. The further we move from it the more shifts we have to make and the more balance we have to work on. I think darkness balances darkness and light kind of balances light. In a black and white photograph it's really easy to see how you achieve a sense of balance with exposure value. So, this is an image, this is very inspired by a classic photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. It's this guy stepping off a ladder into a puddle and it is often referenced as an example of like the decisive moment. Meaning like the exact instant that you're supposed to make the image. So, I hung out by this puddle because I really liked the, it was such a wide puddle that people were taking running jumps to get over it and I saw these kids who just got out school and they were just running and jumping and running and jumping and I was like, thought of that image in my head. I was like oh, it would be so cool if I could make something like that. So, this is like my homage to that photograph but the reason I included it here is because it's one of the rare black and white, one's that I made black and white intentionally. And there's a lot going on, if you look really. Like there's people all over the place, there's cars, there's water, there's buildings and everything like that, but to me there also is this sense of balance. And I wanted to show you guys this one because it's very asymmetrical but it's also to me has a very strong sense of balance, it kind of holds together in a way. And I think that is because of a lot of different things, like without this guy here I think there's a little too much weight on this side of the frame. Without a steady stream of these people in the background, all kind of like as one continuous line, if it was just one person I think that might break the composition of the image because your eye goes right to that but since it's like this steady pacing of people all across and you have all these vertical lines coming down, there's just kind of like this grid-like sense of balance to this frame. And even yeah, leaving this guy in on the left kind of counter-balances the woman who's almost interrupting the subject, underneath his legs. Again, using it in portraiture, how do we use foreground and background elements to counter-balance each other. So, originally I was just shooting this straight into the mirror, kind of getting this nice frame but them I decided well it's a little just, it's a little boring, why don't we include a little bit of the foreground? So, I moved back a little bit and I kind of counter-balanced her in the frame with the door, I kept the focus on the mirror 'cause that's kind of what I was going for but adding her shape in the foreground too, is a really nice counter-balance that counter-weights that image. And then the stripes of white and black kind of all balancing. The next image is very similar without a mirror. So, positioning him where it's like the last light of day and we were working with this golden light and you can actually see the shadow of the fence kind of poking up, poking up there too but if we take this out, he's on the third line, it's still a fine composition, I think, but this kind of unites the foreground and the background in a way that, again, really balances out the frame in an interesting way. This one and the last image I think are very similar and are balanced in the same way. So, let's move on to a little bit of color and see how we balance with color. So, this is that same foggy night and the reason I'm including this is because this is an asymmetrical frame where, again, I think there's a sense of everything being held together and everything being in it's proper place. That's something I really like about composition. So, this one to me, this is definitely like referencing a kind of golden ratio, if you see where they are, if we superimpose the golden ratio on this I think you'd really see it. But it's really this kind of, these sweeping lines everywhere that kind of converge on the subjects that create this sense of balance in this frame. And they're definitely in the biggest pool of light but that continuity of that glow that goes throughout the entire image, it kind of falls off here in the same place where it falls off on the right. And again, so we're just talking about like, are things in their proper place? Is this a weighted image? And this is one that I looked at for a long time to decide whether or not to include, like is this a balanced image? And something in my gut is just, it's not even something I could point to specifically but it just works and it just is balanced to me. Again, if we tilted it I think it would be off, if that light pole was coming up between them, I think that would be off, I think that'd have to re-approach the scene. Shooting New York streets is a really fun way to practice composition, there's just so much going on. The reason I included this one is to show how color affects your composition. So, kind of every element in this picture has another counter-weight. So, if you look at the car on the right, there's the same yellow glow in the cab to the left. If you look at the subject, like why isn't the subject dead-center in the frame? It's because that steam stack in the back, those two things need to kind of push off each other. So, the true center of this photo is really right here but as long as we have an element right on both sides of the true center, you're kind of maintaining that scale. Back and forth, that tipping back and forth of what's in the picture and what's not in the picture. And then this subject over here kind of counter-balances this big dark mass over here. And just kind of like, I just like to feel the way an image sets and I'll make the smallest little adjustments to bring it all together. This is another example, on the bridge I was having a really hard time getting people, you know my instinct is when you have a bridge that where it's a very symmetrical architectural feature. The temptation is everything should be center, everything should be pointing, all lines should be converging but I started to realize that depending on how you frame things and what's in the picture and what's not in the picture, you can go side-to-side on that. So, the fact that I really wanted them to be backlight by that police vehicle but that means that they're not in the center of the frame, so I noticed that, I didn't even notice this when I was shooting but I'm too busy shooting to really think too much about it but when I go back to the studio and I'm working on my post processing, I have like a little bit more room to work and I notice that this light was out and so basically this light and this light and this subject and these subjects, they all play off of each other. And so that, that to me is that beautiful geometry where we don't need things to be symmetrical, we don't need things to be center, we can be off a little bit. They're also not right on the line of thirds, which is another technique of composition. So, it's a slight off centeredness that really balances out. Even the subtleness of the silhouettes on the right, kind of counter-balances this dark patch here on the left. This is another shot from Cuba, Cuba's like a street photographer's dream. I had a blast there. But to me this is another frame where this part of me instinctually wants this to be centered and wants it to be really like perfectly laid out but this repeating pattern and just even the fact that the guy on the right, you can see more of the guy on the right than the guys on the left but there's two of them so they like add up. You see where I'm starting to get into this putting one thing on one side and then always putting something back on the other and kind of just weighing the image out like that. This is also an example to me of how color can really work. Like blue and orangey-yellow are like, they are complementary colors so they really pop of each other and that's why this image has such depth because the blue pops off the screen and like sits really nicely against the yellow background. So, thinking about color, color and composition is something that I'm really getting more and more into. Color theory is really fascinating to me. I love working with mirrors. I think I'm gonna show you guys in a little bit, about how I use mirrors to add layers. So, this is like a shattered piece of a mirror on a boxing gym in like a little alley, in Havana. And this is kind of like, if you look at the black and white one of the girl I showed you earlier from that, from this street shot I learned how to do this kind of technique, which is like, you don't have to disinclude somebody from the foreground, they can actually help balance themselves out and like this to me, if I'm just shooting in the mirror and I do have a shot of just the mirror, it looks like a hole in the wall, right? But now that you see him in the foreground, it tells a completely different story. It's a well balanced frame but now it's like a frame about contemplation and not a frame just about a portrait. I almost like, I kinda broke my own rule here with that thing, that little piece of blue plastic coming out of his head. I didn't notice that before. (audience laughing) So, if I went back and took this photo again, I would make sure that I covered that with his head 'cause that's kind of distracting to me honestly. Huh, learning. I took this just last week in Germany, I was at Photokina with Manfrotto and I included this 'cause it was just a moment where I was really looking for composition, it was really tough, I loved the light and this was kind of a rare example where, I know I said earlier that light balances light and dark balances dark but this is one where I kind of thought the shadow balanced the light and I thought it was a really interesting thing. So, you can break your own rules and your own instincts as well. So like, to me, this big, long shape here that kind of sits nicely in this little frame, is counterbalanced a little bit by this, counterintuitively, counterintuitively counter-balanced, gonna trademark that. (audience laughing) So, I just included that to show you guys. You can, even your own rules can be, can surprise you. This is another example definitely not a symmetrical image but I think this one is held together just because there's such a prominent subject on the left, counter-balanced by such a prominent, interesting subject on the right and it's, again, the juxtapositions we make, I think balance each other out. So, like this to me, there's also balance between the new and the old, it's like one of the newest buildings in New York with one of like the oldest looking ships in New York, right? So, there's kind of push and pull between old and new, so like it can be these metaphorical balances too. I think it's something really interesting to think about and it's the reason I included this particular frame.