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COMPOSITION AND THE ART OF STORYTELLING : An exercise for the emerging photographer in travel portraiture

Hopefully you have been mastering “the dance” as proposed in Exercise #1; the dance being your ability to capture an image while your body moves in ways that allow for unusual approaches to documentation. If you missed it, or any part of “Capturing The Light” in my prior blog which can be found here [http://masteringphoto.com/portrait-study-in-travel-photography/]. Take a read and combine it with this one (Exercise #2) – an introduction to Composition and the Art of Storytelling detailing fundamental properties of the art of the photographic image. To begin with, you are still on assignment with travel portraiture as your objective. The exercise requires a camera with a variable focal length zoom lens (average range –70-300mm) for flexibility. Once again, for simplicity sake, leave the flash at home as available light is part of the plan. And, since you are getting into advanced photographic territory, I strongly suggest additional reading and in-depth study of the elements that make up composition.

Aesthetically speaking

“One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. It’s on all the time.” – Annie Leibovitz

Granted you may not have been born with that “eye”, but with a few essentials outlined in these Quick Tips you will gain insight as to what the pros look for in capturing an image, as it is a complex mixture of artistic sensibilities that complete the picture. Understanding the art of composition or the arrangement of objects visible in your camera’s viewfinder is key to achieving successful or pleasing portraiture. And, not to be left behind is the impact or story that is told.

To begin with composing the shot and framing, which leads your eye to a desired subject, includes using your camera alternatively in horizontal or vertical positions, as the subject placement within the picture area is the most important factor. Composition may include “The Rule of Thirds”. This entails breaking down your images into a grid that is composed of two lines across and two lines down resulting in nine equal squares – a guide to the proper placement of important compositional elements. Consider the point of interest in your shot and where you are intentionally placing it. Placement may be made along these lines, or their intersections – power points. Some cameras, including Nikon allow for a menu option to display the grid. Many photographers, including myself agree that there are no fixed rules. Nonetheless, it is a basic formula and will serve the beginner with an opportunity to work in a format designed for laying compositional ground rules.

What you choose to focus on must be carefully regarded as you may decide to zoom in on a subject positioned in the distance to gain importance. Note the foreground/background relationships and don’t be afraid to lend blur to those parts of your image that are not the center of interest. Allow for symmetrical or asymmetrical imagery, as both have merit – and can make for a striking composition. Pay attention to positive and negative spaces – essential to create proper balance. Enhance your travel portraiture with the use of dynamic color to add contrast, and heighten moods. (Note: black and white to be discussed in another article.) Lines, patterns, shapes and textures add dimension and are an integral part of the choices you have when composing your shot. If it shouts, “notice me,” chances are it should be included. You are invited into an array of choices and with time you will learn what to keep in and what to cut out – crop. And, of course, light – the consistent player – the crowning glory that adds richness by offering shadow and definition.

Much can be done in Photoshop© with composition and cropping, but this is not about using computer programs or other applications for a resource. For the purposes of this exercise, mastery of composition is confined solely to your placement of subjects and objects in your field of vision. Generally speaking, it is left to your own devices.

Legend has it…

In concert with composition, is the motive behind the photograph. Each picture tells a story and you are the storyteller. And by this, I mean your personal commentary or narrative. Photography is a visual language that replaces words with images, and what you record will communicate and/or convey a message about a subject and of a culture. How remarkable it is to capture a moment in time through a smile, a stance, a pose, and, of course, the eyes – the windows to the soul. Look for every nuance, every subtlety. At every turn there are countless individuals begging to be noticed – each with a story eager to tell. Whether your subject is engaged in an activity or perfectly still, this is your opportunity to present something rich and spontaneous. For those who view your work, you may find they offer different interpretations.

Travel in itself will inspire you to structure a tale or a theme. As the storyteller, you decide what should be dominant and what is supportive in every shot, every frame, as you learn to craft the compositional elements. This is key to making a great image not just a good one. It will take practice, as you proceed in your quest for photographic excellence.

In a nutshell

In travel portraiture, time is fleeting, and capture takes practice. Be fast on your feet; yet ground yourself in knowing that patience is required. Every step you take to learn the aesthetics of photography will prove to satisfy the creative energy you possess. Review the following items and consider them a steppingstone to powerful imagery. To recap:

1. Identify your subject.

2. Determine your light source.

3. Position your body for capture.

4. Compose/frame and check for balance.

5. Note the relationship of your subject to surroundings elements.

6. Identify patterns and lines, contours and colors and, embrace blurred backgrounds.

7. Ask yourself, is this a compelling image?

8. Click and shoot.

9. Click, shoot again and again, each time adjusting your angles/zoom.

10. Is there something more than a shot – a story?

As rules are meant to be broken, and in art so many of them are successfully, this exercise is designed to present you, the emerging photographer, with a photographic platform of foundation. With a concentrated effort to practice Exercises #1 and #2, you will have entered a new arena of study where each image brings you closer to mastering the art of the image. I suggest, you make a slide show, or create thumbnail prints of the images to review your progress.

“Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.” – Edward Steichen

All Images: © Renay Elle Morris

2 Comments
   hilde price-levine said on September 28, 2013 at 4:36 pm

As a beginning photographer, I thoroughly appreciate Ms.
Morris’s writings. She has the ability to describe important skills and
techniques with clarity and verve.

   hilde price-levine said on September 28, 2013 at 4:40 pm

As a novice photographer I thoroughly appreciate Ms.
Morris’s writings. She describes important skills
and techniques with clarity and verve.

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MasteringPhoto, powered by bestselling Routledge authors and industry experts, features tips, advice, articles, video tutorials, interviews, and other resources for hobbyist photographers through pro image makers. No matter what your passion is—from people and landscapes to postproduction and business practices—MasteringPhoto offers advice and images that will inform and inspire you. You’ll learn from professionals at the forefront of photography, allowing you to take your skills to the next level.