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The Art of Composition for Photographers - 7 week email course


The Art of Composition for the Photographer

Reading Assignment Week 1

A 7 week course via email

Composition is possibly the most important skill for a photographer to master. Yet very few workshops and classes approach the subject. The vast majority of courses teach just exposure and other technical components of photography. The vast majority avoid this most critical component. FCCP provides an introduction to composition through our Beginning Digital Photography Workshops/Bootcamps and our Composition in the Field Mini Workshops. We are pleased to announce an email course to fill the gaps in learning.

This 7 week course will come to your email in two parts. Every Tuesday you'll receive reading material requiring no more than 30 minutes. Every Thursday you'll receive an optional assignment. When the assignment is completed, you will be encouraged to share your images with fellow students and receive additional feedback.

A sample of a small portion of the first week's reading is below. If you would like to receive the entire first week's reading at no charge, please email us at The assignment will not be emailed, just the reading. Thanks for your understanding.

Here is a list of the weekly chapters:

Chapter One - The Importance of Visual Skills

Chapter Two - The Camera is a Tool

Chapter Three - Doing the Exercises

Chapter Four - Points

Chapter Five - Lines

Chapter Six - Shapes

Chapter Seven - Thinking Like an Artist

The Importance of Visual Skills

Chapter One

Seeing is the ability to observe what is before the photographer and visualize how it will appear in an image. It is the most fundamental skill because it not only determines which visual elements will appear in an image, but also influences the decision to make the image. Many people believe that seeing is a mysterious gift, the so-called “artist’s eye.” The reality is that almost anyone can learn seeing, particularly when they understand the basic processes by which the brain perceives visual information.

For most people, the difficulty in seeing originates from a tendency to rely on analytical processing by the left hemisphere of the brain to interpret visual information. Unlike the right hemisphere, which processes visual information as it appears, the left hemisphere abstracts information and symbolizes it. When processing visual information using the left hemisphere, people register the objects they are looking at but do not really perceive them as they actually appear. For example, they will perceive telephone poles as perfectly vertical even when they are slanted one or two degrees. People are fully capable of seeing objects as they actually appear, but many need to train themselves to use the cognitive functioning of the brain’s right hemisphere more effectively.

Compared to the many other skills associated with photography, seeing is relatively easy to improve but, ironically, can be one of the biggest challenges to a photographer. Seeing is easy to improve because it generally only requires the photographer to shift into the cognitive form of visualization that is controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain. The challenge comes from the fact that most people are educated in matters that require left hemisphere skills and have not been taught skills that engage the functions of the right hemisphere. Also, developing the ability to perceive diverse elements such as shapes,emotions, temporal change, and metaphor as a unified whole seems daunting at first but becomes fairly effortless once you achieve a certain proficiency at seeing.

Composition is the arrangement of visual elements so they agreeably present themselves when viewed as a whole. Many people consider composition to be distinct from seeing, but this book works from the premise that composition is so intermeshed with seeing, that the two are best learned concurrently. While it is true that engaging in composition prior to seeing can be problematic,the brain can largely perform seeing and composition simultaneously. In this framework,there is really no need to engage in composition as a sequential analytical process. Likewise, once seeing skills are sufficiently honed, good composition can be realized by evaluating images as wholes rather than applying rules and guidelines to their individual elements.

Learning to See

Photographers can learn a lot about seeing and composition from fine artists who work in other two-dimensional media. One of first areas to examine is the learning process itself. Visual artists, when learning to draw and paint, immediately recognize the need to improve their perceptual abilities. This is because they work in media where the values are placed by hand onto a blank surface. Unless they learn to perceive how objects actually appear, it is nearly impossible to depict them realistically. Photographers are less likely to recognize this kind of problem with perception because cameras automatically address visual issues such as contour, perspective, and value. By subsuming the mental tasks associated with rendering scenes, the camera can mask areas where improvement of visual skills is desirable.

The camera’s ability to record visual features without human cognition of the scene has markedly affected how photographic composition is taught. Since the end of the nineteenth century, when photography became feasible for the masses, photographic composition has generally been taught as the application of design principles from the graphic arts. These concepts range from the very basic, such as the “rule of thirds”and “s-curves,” to the more esoteric, such as“not an,” which is a term from Japanese art that pertains to the balance of dark and light masses. Traditional art skills such as discerning edges,determining proportions, and judging perspective have not been taught to photographers because they are largely unnecessary to the process of fixing a photographic image. However, most artists learn to see by practicing these skills.

A major difference between the graphic arts and fine arts is that graphic arts education emphasizes the expression of concepts through visual images over the realistic depiction of objects. Graphic design principles are particularly useful for communicating abstract concepts such as “calm,” “uneasy,” and “velocity.” Such principles can be and often are applied to photographs and are likewise used to varying extent in abstract art. However, achieving the sense of realism associated with traditional forms of fine art requires cognitive skills that differ from those required for graphic design. The “something more” aspect is the ability to perceive the elements in a scene and depict them on a two-dimensional surface. The problem many people have with perception has been explained by neuropsychologists.

Their research has shown that the model of the eye as a camera that sends images to the brain is largely false. Instead, the eye and brain work together in several ways that provide the brain with the information it needs, depending on the tasks before it. Much of the time, the eye-brain combination disregards most of the visual information collected by the eye. For example, if you are reading a book, you probably are not conscious of the gutter where the pages connect, the margins surrounding the text, your hands, or the table on which the book is resting. Reading is an analytical skill in which the brain assembles the visual elements produced by letters and abstracts them into conscious thoughts. When people read,their brains register the thoughts abstracted from the words and suppress the extraneous visual elements from conscious thought. On the other hand, if you are looking for the attributes that distinguish one style of typeface from another, you are unlikely to be conscious of the thoughts expressed by the letters but, instead, become cognizant of features, such as the serifs, weight, and descenders, that make up the type.

Do you want the entire first weeks course for free? Email the Center requesting the entire first week reading material if you want the entire first chapter.