The Photography Starter Kit for Beginners

Lesson 16/17 - Composition


The Photography Starter Kit for Beginners


Lesson Info


And relax because we're all done with the technical now, okay? So now we're just on to the composition of the photograph. And there's a lot of ideas on composition. And I gotta admit to ya, I've had a hard time coming around in the composition side of things, because when I got started in photography, I was very technical. I wanted to know about shutter speeds and apertures, and how all that sort of stuff works. But composition is really important and it really encompasses a large degree of things. And it's really where you can probably have the most impact into making a great photo. Here in Seattle, over at the Ballard locks are some metal sculptures that I think are kind of interesting. And I tried to photograph them the way I would think a standard tourist would just walk across the way and go, "Oh hey, that's kind of interesting," snap. And this is the way a lot of people would probably take their phone out of their and shoot a photo, and just, this is, "I saw something, it was int...

eresting, "and I took a photo of it." Is it a good photo? Well, I have an interesting subject here, but there's a lot of other junk in the frame. And what's interesting is relatively small in the frame. So a first step would be just get closer to your subject. Fill the frame a little bit more with it. Well, we still have all this other junk in the photograph. So perhaps if we move around our subject, we might find a more interesting place to shoot our subject. Okay, well you know what? We still have junk in the background, and I don't know that it's possible to shoot all of these spiral sculptures without junk in the background. It's just a junky environment in my mind. And so, wait a minute. Who said that we had to photograph all of them in one photograph? Okay, why can't we just shoot little bits and pieces of them? It depends on what you're trying to do, and what you want to show in your photograph. In this case, I'm just gonna show one. I'm gonna get down really low on the ground, and now I have just a clean, white sky, just a clean backdrop for my subject. Or maybe I'm gonna put it on a telephoto lens, and I'm gonna play around with depth of field. And when I photograph subjects, there is a little bit of experimentation. My first photograph rarely ever is my best photograph of a situation. I'll shoot a photograph. I'll look at it on the back of the camera. And I'll go, "That's not bad, but I think "I could do better with this little change." And so you learn from your experiences. This is my favorite version of this. And if we compare that to the first version, okay if I work for the police department, or the insurance agency, this more artistic photo here at the end isn't gonna cut the cheese. I'm gonna lose my job. But that's not my job. My job is trying to take nice photos. And so not showing the whole thing, showing elements that work well is kind of the idea in this whole composition section. So we have to kind of address this one step at a time. The first thing to address is your point of view. Where are you in taking your photograph? This is one of my favorite places in Morocco. It's the goat tree, all right? There's all these goats up in the tree. And we were there for about a half an hour, and there was bus after bus that stopped. And basically most people got off the bus, they took this photo, they got back on the bus, and they went on to where they were going. And when I'm leading a photo tour, we're not making five minute stops. You can't do anything in five minutes. You get 30 minutes. And so when you get 30 minutes, you got time to walk around. And so I found a better location, over here where now I can have more blue sky underneath the goats, so that you can really see that they are way up in a tree, compared to our original photograph here, where it's just kind of a muddy photo. And if it's small, you can barely see what's going on. And also, in the second shot, you get to see the tree. That tree kind of has that angled trunk that comes up out of the side. And we'll talk about angled lines are nice as well. And so it's a better point of view, but it requires a little bit of time and a little bit of effort. If you photograph kids or animals, you want to shoot them from their eye level for many types of their shots. Don't always shoot them from what's comfortable for you to shoot. Get down nice and low to them, so that you can look at them eye-level, see the world the way that they see them. I coached a high school cross-country team, and they'd get together before the race, and they'd get this big chant going. All cheered up, you know, getting ready for the start of the race. And I wanted to shoot them from a different angle. And so what I did is a put my camera on a monopod, just a long, single pole, with a fisheye lens, and put it right over their heads here to get the camera in a more interesting point of view. And so I love shooting down low. I love shooting from up above. This is looking down on a tannery, and it's a nice, simple graphic image. I'm eliminating clutter and other things that I don't want in the photographs. So there's a lot of reasons why you should move to a better angle. You should always investigate, where can I shoot, where can I be to make this a cleaner, simpler, better image? And the one I'm gonna go straight towards is the last one. The better background. It seems these days and times, where everybody has a camera on them at all times, anytime anything interesting happens, somebody pulls out a camera or a phone, camera on a phone, and starts shooting photos. How often do you see someone go, "Oh, this isn't really the right background. "I'm gonna move around to the other side." And so photographers think about backgrounds, because backgrounds can be very, very important. They are part of the scene. And so what you're often looking for is a clean background. Now, this is kind of an interesting little walkway over this little lake here. But one of the things that bothers me are these power lines in the background. All right? Now, I suppose I could not take the shot. I could spend a lot of time in Photoshop eliminating the power lines, which I don't like to do, or I could just get down a little bit lower, and yes, the power lines are still there, but they're diminished, they're smaller. There's fewer of them, there's less that you can see in there. And so I've minimized the bad while still keeping the good. And that's what we're often trying to do when we're talking about better composition. Long before I photograph the subject, I notice the background. That's a good background. If I'm gonna shoot a portrait of somebody, I'm gonna have them stand here, I'm gonna stand there, and that's gonna be my background. Kind of keeping good backgrounds in your back pocket for whenever you might need them. A general philosophy is that darks kind of tend to retreat to the background, and lights advance to the foreground. We kind of tend to see lighter subjects in front of darker subjects. As an example, this is a dingo in Australia. And that's not a bad shot, you know? But I really like the one where it's in front of a dark-trunked tree. And it just seems to be a little bit easier to see. And one of the things that I notice is that you get this little rim lighting off of the ears, and those triangles really stand out and pop out at you. They're very, very engaging in my mind. One of the areas that your eyes goes first towards in any photograph, is whatever is lightest in the frame. And so you see that little background area that's got that white light coming through it? That's where your eyes often are just intrinsically drawn. By moving the camera just a few feet off to the side, we can have the same subject with a slightly different background. And so can you move? Keep your subject the same, but have a better background. And so one of the best places to photograph people is in doorways. If you're on the outside, it's gonna be darker on the inside. And so, have someone stand in a doorway, they're gonna have probably nice even lighting coming from outside, and it's gonna be fairly dark on the inside, and it's just like a natural little studio environment anywhere there's a doorway where it's lighter on one side and darker on the other side. Angle of view. So, should you shoot with the wide angle lens? Or should you shoot with a telephoto lens? There is no easy answer to that. As I mentioned before, every photograph is a story. You are the director of this story, the author of this story. And you get to decide what the story is about, and who and what is involved in that particular story, and you're gonna choose a lens based on that fact, that you're in control. All right, so I'm gonna need some participation, and this is the fun part for you. Tell me what you don't like about my photo here. Tell me about something about this photograph that you are not a fan of. So let's pick up those microphones, hand it around to somebody who's got something to say. Please critique me. Over here, you got something? The power line pole in the back. Power line pole in the back. That's a good one. Do we have another one over here? Too much sand. Too much sand, gravel there, nice bright, I totally agree with you. This is the type of scene where you're just kind of walking along and you go, "Oh, there's something kind of interesting." And the non-photographer would just go, "Oh, where's my phone?" Click, "Okay, I'm gone." You know and they found something they liked, but they didn't really hone it down. And so this is where you either zoom in, or you zoom with your feet, and find something a little bit tighter that you think works for you. And so we get rid of that power pole, the power lines, we get rid of all that bright area down below, and we're honing in on the elements that are most important. So here, the telephoto lens helps us eliminate all that extra junk that we don't want in our photographs. In this case, the wide angle. I got the penguin, I like the penguin, you gotta like the penguin. But look at these beautiful mountains, and it's kind of a nice day, and we get to see all these other ones in here. The wide angle looks really good here. This is great, wait a minute, could we use a telephoto here? Well you know what? I really like, I like the form. Did you know penguins, when they sit, they kick their heels back, and they use their tail as a tripod, and they hold their fat into their belly to stay warm? And you can't really see that in the wide angle shot. But you can see it here in the telephoto. So sometimes it takes multiple shots to really tell the story that you're trying to tell. Up north of Seattle in Skagit valley, we have this great tulip festival of all these fields of tulip. And I was up there photographing, and there was this huge field of pink tulips. And behind me was an empty field, except it had one tulip in it. And of course, that's the one that's gonna be interesting to go shoot. So I go shoot the tulip. And I shoot my shot. This is my good shot. And I walk away, and then I suddenly realize that somebody else comes along, and they photographed the tulip exactly the same way that I photographed it. Now granted, I did not have the matching jacket, all right? Did not have the matching jacket. And then I kinda got mad. I'm like, "Well if that's how everybody does it, "I've got to go back and try harder "and do something one step better." And so I was using a telephoto lens here. So I said, "Well okay, maybe I'll go back "and I'll try a wide angle shot." And so I went around to the other side of the flower, and shot the wide angle shot. And so it isn't that the wide is better, or the telephoto is better. It really depends on what is the story you are trying to tell in that photograph? Where is your subject in the frame? And so, we talked about focusing, and I recommended using those center focusing points, because they're very sensitive. And I still agree with that. But I think it's pretty rare that it's gonna be the best place for your subject to be. And so you want to experiment moving your subject around to different parts of the frame, so see what naturally feels right. And there's a number of rules, but it often just comes down to what naturally looks and feels right to you. So, the age-old rule of thirds comes into play here. This is one that's been around for a long time. And the idea here is that we break the scene up into thirds, left, right, top, middle, and bottom. And where those intersections are, and where the lines are, are good places to put your subject. Now you can put your subject in the middle, but it can seem a little bit static. Not real interesting, a little boring if it's always in the middle. And so by moving it off to one of these other areas, it might make it a more interesting photograph. And so it's just gonna be up to you as to whereabouts it needs to be in that frame, and what you think looks good, given that particular scenario. And it's a technique that some photographers get angry and mad at, and they write comments on internet web pages and go on and on how they don't like it. But the fact of the matter is, if your subjects are always in the middle of the frame, it's gonna look a little static. And so strong lines over on those thirds, or just away from the center. And it doesn't have to be exactly where the crosshairs are. It's just get your subject out of the center of the frame. To make things a little bit more interesting. Can you put things in the middle of the frame? Sure, absolutely. But moving them off the center of the frame is one of the good ways of making it more interesting. Now, if a subject is not in the middle, you want to be thinking about the direction of your subject. And so, there is a certain emotional impact and feel that this photo will have, which is very different than the next photo, which is one of the most highly manipulated photos in today's class. This one here. Very different feel to it. And so generally we like people looking in the frame, walking towards the middle of the frame where there is more space in front of them. And so you can see these two people walking, they're on the right hand side, but they're walking over kind of towards the left hand side of the screen as you see it. And so if you have a subject, have a bit more space in front of that subject than behind that subject. And so this works in two ways on this. Which way is he leaning? Which way is he facing? Which way is the curve of that chair going? More towards the center of the photograph. I tried to explain it to the penguin, I asked him very kindly to turn around, because it would make for better composition, and feel free to break these rules whenever you want. This just tells a different story. If you know about the penguins, the King penguins, the babies are the brown ones. The adults are the fully colored ones. And you can see all the babies on the left hand side in daycare, so thusly Mom or Dad here is ignoring the kids in daycare. And so, just tells a different story. One of the ways that we judge beauty is symmetry. And so when we have symmetrical items that we may not expect to be symmetrical, then I say embrace it, go with it. I love symmetry in my photographs. There's a certain fascination with that. "Hey it's the same on the left as it is on the right!" And so whenever I am shooting something that is very symmetrical in nature, I'm very exact about getting that exactly right in the camera. I'm not just kind of close to the middle. I've been in some cases, I think I was, I was in Grand Central Station in New York City. And there was kind of like a best spot to get into. And I come there and I'm like right down the seam, right on the mark. And I can't tell you how many people would just kind of come up to me and like, "Yeah, that's close enough." And, hey maybe it's because I was standing there for such a long period of time. But you know, if I'm going to get to the center, I'm going to get right to the center. And so, I love these symmetrical photographs. And they can be found all around us. One of my favorites, I was in Rome, and I was just visiting churches. And there was this one church, that had this big glass mirror, so that you didn't have to crane your necks back to look up at the ceiling. You just come up to the mirror and you look down on it. And it's like, mirror, instant reflection for symmetry. But there was all these fingerprints. So I took my microfiber cleaning cloth, and I walked around the whole mirror, cleaning up all the fingerprints before I shot my photograph in there. And so that way I'd get this perfectly clean without the fingerprints. Balance, little bit harder to define. But having different subjects, in different parts of the frame, that balance each other out. And so there's not too much information on one side or the other, or on the top or the bottom. And different elements within the photograph can help balance the photograph. And you know, these compositional elements of the mops. Just help this photograph out tremendously for me. You could have given me those two mops and brooms, and said, "Place these in the scene." And I would have never come up with that particular location to put them. But I absolutely love it in this particular photograph. A lot of times you have to be very careful about subjects touching each other. Different subjects. So I want to have that little bit of space gap between the rock and the tree. And I've found that, you know, I'm careful with this wherever I'm shooting. Do those subjects need to be touching? Do I want them touching? Because maybe I do, or maybe I don't. And so positioning things and giving a subject a little bit of space. And so I've broken my rule about facing in the frame. I have some really strong compositional elements. These columns in the background, that are balancing the scene out on the left hand side. Your eye is attracted to very bright things, so the sun in the top left. But it's also attracted to areas of high contrast. And so this white and dark line of the salt flats down here in the bottom right. And so that keeps your eyes going around in a circle. Keeps you moving from one to the next. Anytime you can include framing, that is a good element right there in the camera. And so shooting one arch through the other arch. Built-in frame to the photograph. And so I'm always looking for doors and hallways, and just regular openings to photograph my subjects so I can have a natural frame on that subject. Buildings framing up the bridge. Natural frames. Even just the little bit of grass down here in the corners is acting as a framing element, bringing your eyes to the inside of the frame.

Class Description

“This is a great starter class. I thought I understood how shutter speed and aperture worked together, but this class made it come together in a matter of minutes. I'm already taking better pictures and this is just the beginning!” -Jennifer Manley, CreativeLive Student

Learn how to take the kind of photograph you’ll want to print and pass on to the next generation. John Greengo is back to teach this updated photography for beginners class. You’ll learn the principles of good beginner and intermediate photography and get the skills necessary to create amazing photos. 

Advanced cameras are available at modest price points, but learning how to use them takes an investment.

  • Learn the the most essential functions of your camera 
  • Gain confidence in putting new functions into action 
  • Get the swing of basic photographic terminology 
  • Feel prepared to move on to more advanced classes 
  • Gain a solid understanding of must-know lighting and composition techniques 
  • Lean to position yourself and your subject to capture the best photo possible with the camera you have – no additional gear needed 
If you want to take more memorable and inspiring photographs of your travels, your friends and family, or the great outdoors then this photography for beginners class is for you. Learn how to make average pictures amazing photographs and gain the ground necessary to continue your photography education.  

“This is a super introduction to photography for anyone who really wants to learn how to understand and begin to use the camera to its full extent. John is an excellent teacher, very easy to follow, with great graphics and examples.”  -Sarah, CreativeLive Student  


Kanoelani Patenaude

I am a pro photographer in my dreams, where I know the in's and out's of my camera; however, reality proved differently, as real life would tell you, I was a deer caught in headlights just looking at my new 7D Mark II. I am a photographer enthusiast without the skills, but a lot of love for the moments one, or the profession/hobby of it can capture. I mostly shoot my husband, friends, and community surfers in the lineup, and of course, my children, who rarely sit still. Thus, I switched from Nikon to Canon, venturing on the 7D Mark II for the grand reviews of how stellar of camera it is for action shots (surfing, and kids, this was a no brainer). That said, and overwhelmed with the way beyond my skill set, but noted desire and aspiration to grow, I made the purchase, and sought help rather quickly as I wanted to feel confident with what I was utilizing to capture the best memories possible. I came into this John's courses knowing the "on/off" button, and "auto" shoot mode. I came out of the course feeling like the pro in my dreams, and ready to shoot manual. John's teaching style is on point, and his detailed visuals are a huge plus. My first shots post this photography kit course, I thought were great for my first educated shoot, and shockingly, I even received and email from one of the sponsors of the surfers I captured, asking if they could use my image for their sites and publications. Not bad for a newbie. Though, my intent was never a business purpose, I did not know if I should charge a small fee, or give it for free. I don't mind free as it's not my business, yet I don't want to ruin it for any professional photographers in town doing the same thing that are charging. Perhaps another course to help me with that. I highly recommend courses by John Greengo! Thank you so much, John!

Megan Wagner

John is extremely articulate and is a great teacher with lots of visual aids and metaphors to help understand photography. I have been doing photography for a few years now and this class was a tremendous help in boosting my knowledge and refreshing my memory in multiple aspects of photography. The graphics that John uses are helpful and he even goes through images and asks which settings would be best to use and will go through the why. He makes things easy to understand and is very clear about the information he provides. I am so glad I took this course and I would highly recommend it even to an experienced photographer. Thank you John Greengo!