Purpose

I often tell students in my workshops that "seeing" your composition is the real skill in photography and it's a skill you can't learn in a day or rush in any way.  'Seeing' is a great part of defining your personal style.  Most people looking at the exact same scene don't 'see' the scene in the same way.  Sometimes they notice different elements of the scene others don't, and sometimes they miss elements others see. And then there's the other compositional elements such as focal range, perspective, exposure, depth of field, and more.  Its entirely possible to make someone a 'technical expert' with the gear with several days of instruction, but you can't rush the creative.  If we could then English and writing teachers across the world could teach us punctuation and sentence structure and we'd all be Hemingway's by the end of the week.  Knowing the rules, or how a camera works, is not the 'end all' to the creative process.  It merely allows us to use our instrument of choice (camera) to express our creativity.

This short tutorial will attempt to show you the type of composition most will be shooting as they come into a workshop, and then I'll take you through my own creative thought processes to alter the composition as I would during instruction.  Please keep in mind there are no right answers or single ways of doing things.  I might explain one creative process for one scene, and another for a different scene.  This is where experience dictates your choices.  The more experience you have the more choices you have available to form your composition.

 

A Students Eyes

While looking at the new BTS Skytrain station I asked a young student to explain how they would photograph the scene.  Having some experience already he set up his camera on a sturdy tripod to ensure sharpness and make possible longer shutter speeds.  It was an hour before sunset so he set the aperture for a suitable DOF, a working shutter speed (considering the tripod), and an appropriate ISO.  Framing the shot he made the exposure.

 

This is a correct exposure and you can't fault the composition as it includes both the skytrain and the station and you can see both clearly.  Sharp, well exposed, and appropriate camera settings.  This is what you'd expect from someone who knew how to use the camera on a technical basis.

Canon 5d Mark II, 70-200mm F2.8L IS @F8  1/50th  173mm  ISO 400

 

This is a correct exposure and you can't fault the composition as it includes both the skytrain and the station and you can see both clearly.  Sharp, well exposed, and appropriate camera settings.  This is what you'd expect from someone who knew how to use the camera on a technical basis.

I felt there could be more.  Actually, I'd already worked out "my" composition, how I would do it, but I wanted this student to come to his own conclusions and discovery.  I asked "can you think of a way to include more story telling, or more action, or something more in the composition?"  Smiling with confidence I was told he could do that.  And he did.

 

Nice!  Now he included a moving train entering the station and a great deal more of the cityscape in the background.  By decreasing the focal length to 70mm we can see more of the scene.  But I felt there could be more and I said as much.  "Push your boundaries" I said, give as much 'impact in the scene as possible.  Settling back behind the viewfinder he studied the scene while waiting for the next train to appear.

Canon 5d Mark II, 70-200mm F2.8L IS @F8  1/80th  70mm  ISO 400

 

Nice!  Now he included a moving train entering the station and a great deal more of the cityscape in the background.  By decreasing the focal length to 70mm we can see more of the scene.  But I felt there could be more and I said as much.  "Push your boundaries" I said, give as much 'impact in the scene as possible.  Settling back behind the viewfinder he studied the scene while waiting for the next train to appear.

 

With a bit of cropping we'd now have a train leaving the station with a mosque for the background.  The composition was improving in increments and I was making my own shots through the same set of gear as time allowed.  I encouraged more and my student was up to the challenge.  As darkness was falling he made some changes to the ISO and aperture.

Canon 5d Mark II, 70-200mm F2.8L IS @F8  1/60th  110mm  ISO 400

 

With a bit of cropping we'd now have a train leaving the station with a mosque for the background.  The composition was improving in increments and I was making my own shots through the same set of gear as time allowed.  I encouraged more and my student was up to the challenge.  As darkness was falling he made some changes to the ISO and aperture.

 

With a bit of cropping we'd now have a train leaving the station with a mosque for the background.  The composition was improving in increments and I was making my own shots through the same set of gear as time allowed.  I encouraged more and my student was up to the challenge.  As darkness was falling he made some changes to the ISO and aperture.

Canon 5d Mark II, 70-200mm F2.8L IS @F5.6 1/50th  200mm  ISO 800

 

I Get Involved

Now he was bringing in the Expressway behind the skytrain station and again I couldn't fault his composition but I knew there could be more.  By now it was almost dark and he figured the shooting opportunities disappeared with the light, and to be fair he had reached the limit of his current skill set.  In the coming days he'd learn much more, but for now he asked: "Show me what you would do, what you see, and walk me through the process?"  I'm glad he asked.

The first thing we must realize is that there are no 'bad' shooting conditions, there are only different shooting opportunities. Darkness can often help make dramatic differences in the same scene.  With darkness comes street lights, car lights, building lights, and today even clouds and lightning!

 

A nice enough composition, but more like an ad in a brochure than the dramatic image I was envisioning.  I made this image as an example of the techniques for my student, otherwise I would have just skipped the opportunity and moved on.

Canon 5d Mark II, 70-200mm F2.8L IS @F8  1/5th  125mm  ISO 800

 

To start I used panning and shutter drag techniques to impart a feeling of speed.  This isn't exactly easy, but you can become competent with a few days practice.  I locked focus on the front of the train with my center AF point and panning horizontally, and on the tripod for stability, I slowly decreased my shutter speed in increments of 1/2 stop until I had what I saw in my mind.  Keep in mind the skytrain is barely traveling 15kph at this point yet it looks like it's going 120kph.  Panning kept the skytrain in focus as it moved and separated it from the background as far as movement was concerned, and dragging the shutter gave me the 'depth' of the desired effect even though the train was moving slowly.  By now it was mostly dark and the lights under the tracks gave off a sort of orange glow.

A nice enough composition, but more like an ad in a brochure than the dramatic image I was envisioning.  I made this image as an example of the techniques for my student, otherwise I would have just skipped the opportunity and moved on.

 

What I was trying to do from this point was to capture the skytrain, stream the head/tail lights together from the cars on the Expressway, show a nice cityscape, all with lightning in the background!  I could have easily used F5.6-8 and ISO 200 but the quality was there at 800 with a Canon 5d Mark II and this was for illustration only so I only made the three adjustments (aperture, shutter speed, focal length) to save time.

Canon 5d Mark II, 70-200mm F2.8L IS @F20  1.6secs  73mm  ISO 800

 

What I was trying to do from this point was to capture the skytrain, stream the head/tail lights together from the cars on the Expressway, show a nice cityscape, all with lightning in the background!  I could have easily used F5.6-8 and ISO 200 but the quality was there at 800 with a Canon 5d Mark II and this was for illustration only so I only made the three adjustments (aperture, shutter speed, focal length) to save time.  There was a bit of lightning in the background, but no skytrain!  I needed both at the same time.

 

The darkness increased and still no lightning so for fun I explained how to show both the head/taillights on the Expressway stream together AND show  the effect of speed of the train.  It's all about balancing the settings.

Canon 5d Mark II, 70-200mm F2.8L IS @F8  1.6secs  73mm  ISO 800

 

The darkness increased and still no lightning so for fun I explained how to show both the head/taillights on the Expressway stream together AND show  the effect of speed of the train.  It's all about balancing the settings.

 

This is as close as I came to the composition I had in my mind.  You can see 'some' lightning showing behind the clouds, the Expressway lights streaming together, the skytrain in the station properly exposed, and the cityscape properly exposed.

Canon 5d Mark II, 70-200mm F2.8L IS @F8  1.6secs  73mm  ISO 800

 

This is as close as I came to the composition I had in my mind.  You can see 'some' lightning showing behind the clouds, the Expressway lights streaming together, the skytrain in the station properly exposed, and the cityscape properly exposed.  If you include the lightning, building lights, train lights, car lights, station lights, street lights, and other misc lights you can see there was a heck of a lot of balancing exposure wise.  With 3-4 heavy bolts of lighting I would have been pleased.  With 3-4 heavy bolts of lighting and showing the effects of 'speed' like I did above I would have been ecstatic.

 

Summary

You can see the progression from the ordinary to the fun and almost.. almost to the dramatic scene I envisioned.  All within an hours time from the same location.

The lesson here is that being a 'camera technician' is fine, it's an absolutely necessary skill towards a great composition.  Even with the camera on automatic we could have captured the first four images.  But this student is well on his way to much better compositions precisely because he can control the camera.  The next few stages of his growth is applying that control to the scene around him.

Our feet never moved, same location, same equipment, an hours difference in time.  But several remarkably different compositions.  By taking the time to study the scene and determine what we wanted our composition to be, we were able to enhance the final image tenfold.  It doesn't begin and end with a standard exposure.. Any camera in Automatic mode can do that.  It only starts with a standard exposure.  It never ends.  The possibilities are infinite.