Skip to main content

Masters of Photography

Lesson 8 of 34

Ideas For Composition

Joel Meyerowitz

Masters of Photography

Joel Meyerowitz

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

8. Ideas For Composition

Lesson Info

Ideas For Composition

(soft music) Composition is anything you wanna make of it really. You've got a frame, you're gonna fill it with the things that appeal to you. But you know there's some funny things that people do early on in, it's a way of helping establish your sense of what's important in a frame. So sometimes people do a picture within a picture, or you could say a frame within a frame. For example. Here's a photograph that I made, that's basically about a frame within a frame. It's a doorway in a building with another door in it and then I put the frame on. And really what was so interesting to me was that as I walked by this building, what I first noticed was a little square of blue, which was the sea, and the sunlight on the sand, and the quality of the sky and the little cloud in the sky and it struck me that the sea looked like a square, and the square was inside the rectangle of the door and the door was inside the rectangle of the building and the whole building was inside the rectangle of...

my camera and I thought, oh, it's such an interesting way of entering the frame and going out the other side into the sunlight, and so the call to make this picture came in a very direct and persuasive manner and I stood there and made the photograph and went on about my life, but it brings to mind that this is something to kinda stay open to because photographs, when we look at them, should invite us in. They don't necessarily wanna push us away. You want people to look at your photograph and enter into the moment that you responded so fully to. Because those are often poetic moments. A moment when your consciousness is so excited by where you are that you enter the space yourself and you record the entirety of the space, and that's what makes art. Your consciousness and your attention. (soft music) So another way of thinking about composition or space is to think about the beautiful chaos that we see in the world at large. I remember many years ago I was walking past something in the countryside and there was a chain link fence and behind the fence was a great big, hairy guy with his shirt off and he was talking into a phone booth, a phone box on a telephone pole. Not a phone booth, one of those emergency telephone boxes on a pole. So his head was covered, all I saw was a hairy body on a big guy with his head covered, and then layers of chain link fence and shadow coming through it and the whole thing looked like somebody had taken a photograph of a man and then had erased it and crossed it out, and it was about complexity rather than simplicity. And I responded to it immediately. And yet at that time I was pretty young and it was a kind of, an odd thing for me to do and when I showed that picture to John Szarkowski who was the head of the Museum of Modern Art's photo department, he said, "Oh, I wanna put that "in an exhibition," and there I was, a young photographer and I made a risky photograph and someone who knew about photography thought it was interesting enough to hang it in exhibition. So you never know what chaos is going to bring to you. I'll show you, I have another photograph here that in a way is about the beauty of chaos. I was doing a commissioned work in St. Louis many years ago and I was walking down the street and I saw these three old buildings. The rest of the neighborhood had already fallen down and there were these three old sort of limestone apartment buildings stuck to each other. And I thought, wow, they're so tender and tragic and this whole neighborhood is falling apart but they're still together. However, there were some trees in front of them, and as I looked at the building I thought, ah, these trees are like a screen over the building. I'm gonna add them to the picture rather than working around and finding a position where there were no trees, and so, I added a layer of density, a layer of complexity, and it was only for fun. I could have just walked around it and made another picture but when I saw the result, it just felt absolutely right to me. And I think that's the way composing on the fly works. Something appears, you feel a gut response to it and then, you have an adjustment of your mind, should I or shouldn't I? I think you just should. If your first impression says, ooh, this is interesting, go with that because you must trust your instincts at every level of life. Your instincts are gonna save you. They're gonna help invent the persona that you want to project into the world because they're your instincts. They're not the guy standing next to you. So what you are as an instinctive human being creature, a human animal is what you're gonna photograph with. I think, I think you've got a great tool, a great asset right there. (soft music) There's something else I'd like to add to your arsenal of tactics in terms of composition, and remember, composition is anything you wanna make it. But the world offers you lots of opportunities and sometimes, something comes up that you might wanna keep in mind. I call it the freeze. I'm gonna show you. I call it the freeze. Sometimes you're in a place and you know what a freeze is? A freeze is usually on top of a pediment of a building, it's lots of figures in Greek and Roman times they would put a freeze in. But a freeze is sometimes a whole bunch of people sitting on a bench, walking across the frame. They're in some kind of alignment, and they form a freeze right in front of you, and behind them, you can see the rest of the image. It's something to keep in mind, that's all I'm saying is that opportunities present themselves and you could say to yourself, oh, there's too many people there blocking the shot. Or, you could say all of these people in front of this place are adding a layer of interest to the scene behind, because when you make the photograph, you will have both the layer in front and the space and the depth behind it, so it's important in thinking about composition to just remember that a photograph flattens space. A photograph is a two-dimensional object. We see three-dimensionally, but if you cover one eye, you will begin to see like a camera. You take away the third dimension. So it's important to act like a camera and see like a camera and remember that the background and the foreground are all in relation to each other. That will give you plenty of opportunities to make photographs in which you bring these spaces up to the front plane, which is where the photograph happens. And you can do it with people, you can do it with landscape, these things are all interchangeable, and in fact, the frame within a frame, and beautiful chaos and the freeze are all parts of the same puzzle that you work with when you walk around in ordinary life, whether it's the landscape or a city or the countryside or portraits, it's all a game. (soft music) You know, there's one more consideration of what composition can do for you, and that is the portrait. I mean what is a portrait and who is it of? Those are legitimate questions but let's just deal with the portrait, the portrait's of somebody you wanna make a picture of. It could be a family member, it could be a stranger. It could be a group of people. How you go about a portrait is really up to you, but consider where the person is in the frame. And you bring them close to you, you leave a little space maybe for something in the background to be seen, you have them fill the frame, you turn the frame sideways so they could appear on one side and there's emptiness over here or you bring a bunch of people in so they pack the frame. It's a live consideration happening in the moment and really as inventive and playful as you can be when you're dealing with a portrait, is part of the pleasure of making photograph. Come in really tight, maybe you start tight so that you're just dealing with eyes, nose and mouth, and then you pull away for the whole head and then you pull away for half a figure and then you pull away so it's the whole figure and then it's the figure small in the space with a lot of space around them. It's rich with possibilities, so I urge you, when you're in any of these situations, feel playful, don't allow yourself to become rigid and fixed in a way where you tie yourself down. Photography is an endless stream of click click click click click click click, you can make as many pictures as you want, and you make it on the revelation that you have that your instincts are driving you, go in close, you know, pull over to the side. If you listen to that little Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder if you remember Pinocchio, you'll have somebody giving you a kind of whisper in the ear, do this, try that. And it makes it much more fun and after all, living is fun, seeing is fun and making photographs is really the most incredible enjoyment you can have as a passionate pastime.

Class Description

Internationally renowned and award winning photographer Joel Meyerowitz is known for his iconic images that encompass decades of capturing all genres of photographs. Masters of Photography is bringing Joel’s class to CreativeLive to share the learnings from his vast career.

You’ll learn:

  • How to find a subject to photograph
  • How to improve your compositional skills
  • How to determine correct lighting
  • How to print your images and also create a photo book

Walk with Joel through picturesque Tuscany, bustling Siena and the vibrant streets of New York as he shows you how he creates his photographs. He will shares ideas, experiences, and his secrets on how to make great images. Joel will also suggest ideas for projects to try yourself. You can use any device from camera phone to DSLR, but in the end it’s all about you and your photography.



I have an all access pass and thought oh no, I have to pay for this one? I bit the bullet and I am so glad I did. Joel has a great deal of wisdom and experience because of his age. BUT, despite his age, he exudes a fountain of enthusiasm, playfulness, curiousity and constant wonder surrounding his subjects. He opened within me the possibilities of exploring different photographic subjects and allowing myself to experience the fun in pursuit of those subjects. I love the way he shows how someone can take the same ho hum scene, but then look around for a different point of view. He is indeed a Master and I thank Joel for the class.


This is a absulutely fantastic class. Joel Meyerowitz takes you on an journey of little but important advices. In each short video you got some jewels to improve your approach, your view and your art. I own a lot of classes here on CL, but this one is one of my favourits! Gentle and human. Thank you Joel Meyerowitz, you helped me a lot on my journey to develop my photography.

Cosmin Dolha

What do you do after you learn all the mechanics, the technical stuff, exposure triangle, lights, where do you start? Because I am starting, now! You will find encouragement and guidance, and real applicable wisdom. If you are new to photography as I am, this course will point you in the right direction. What a treasure! Thank you CreativeLive for this and thank you Joel Meyerowitz for taking such a gentle approach to such a complicated subject, that is photography.