This kind of exercise is designed to practice composing objects in a frame. As you move around a set of objects, the various compositions depend entirely on the objects themselves (For instance, in image 1, I wanted to see the corner of the Viewmaster and the end of the slide rule. I liked the wheels of the train along the side, and i hoped to get the top of the Viewmaster in frame, but when i tried i didn’t like the sliderule in the foreground.
Composition is often wiggling around, adjusting position, to fit the things in the frame in interesting ways, sometimes massaging them into place with small motions.
This exercise pushes you to think about what you want to show as more important, and what literally looks interesting or dynamic. By moving the camera position, often in very subtle ways, the focus and meaning of the image shifts, you can start to feel how your eye hone in on different points in the image and how it holds your attention in that first instant.
Rubin: Hey Suzanne.
Suzanne: Hey Rubin, how are you?
Rubin: [laughter] I'm OK! Can we try an experiment today?
Suzanne: Ahh, sure...Should it be scared? [laughter]
Suzanne: [laughter] you're like, can we try an experiment? Should I be scared?
Rubin: Oh yeah, yeah. You should be very afraid.
Suzanne: Be Very afraid, it's not our Halloween episode.
Rubin: [laughter] You know, I'm always bringing up composition,
Rubin: You know, and I'm, and I've made a big deal of that. I think the rule of thirds is kind of bogus. It, you know what, and I would actually retract that. It's not that it's bogus, it's all those rules of composition. It's not that they're bogus, it's that they don't help people learn how to take pictures. I think it's, it can be interesting to look at pictures that you like and notice things like, uh, if, if it has a rule of thirds, if it's following like a composition like that or there's leading lines are, there's triangles, us, those terms that people use when they talk about composition, they aren't, I think the problem is they're not really for taking the picture. Therefore it sort of Monday morning quarterbacking, deciding what's interesting about the picture in some ways.
Suzanne: Analasis Paralysis.
Rubin: Yeah, it's, but I don't think it's important. I literally don't think it's important. And, and the reason I bring it up is that I actually think it's harmful to learning to take better pictures. And because of that, I'm trying to come up with something that I think is useful. Like what, what would I, how would I teach composition if I'm not going to talk about any of those things?
Rubin: And I've talked about in earlier, in fact, our first episode was talking about just sort of being on the fly and walking around and composing things dynamically.
Rubin: But I think there's another way to teach this. I'm trying. So I'm trying a new method so I'm trying it out on you.
Suzanne: Ok, Great. I'm ready to be the canary in the coal mine, [laughter] whatever.. Whatever
Rubin: the canary in the coal mine. you really...
Suzanne: Well you said i should be scared
Rubin: Okay. All right. Um, so I grabbed a bunch of objects just off of my shelf and they're just, and so this is what I, I think I'd like to encourage people to try. Grab a bunch of things and it doesn't matter what they are and set them on a little table
Suzanne: Do you have a ruler? ...Maybe an architectural ruler
Rubin: That as a slide rule.
Suzanne: That's a slide rule.
Rubin: Have you ever seen a slide rule?
Suzanne: Not until this moment.
Rubin: Wow. Okay.
Suzanne: slide rule, I see a view master.
Rubin: It's a lot of old, like why would I have on my shelf?
Suzanne: sunglasses and a magnetic toy
Rubin: That was my old, wooden. No, That was a little wooden train that I had when I was a kid
Suzanne: and it used to have magnets on the front and back. So that it snap together
Rubin: NO it was not magnets, this is old school. I was born in the 60's they head little hooks
Rubin: they would hook together. [laughter]
Suzanne: OK, [laughter]
Rubin: alright...and ahh
Suzanne: They had magnets in the 60s [laughter]
Rubin: the magnets had not been invented in 60's [laughter] [laughter] Okay. Maybe they had magnets, but they didn't have them on their wooden trains. That was an advanced feature to combine magnets and wooden trains.
Suzanne: Ok, that's more eighties...Got it...Noted.
Rubin: Yeah. Okay, so, but the point is grabbing a bunch of objects and I want you to put them on the table and don't think about the organization of them. Your, when people do still life photography, they're generally arranging the objects. Okay. And I'm suggesting not to arrange the objects, throw them onto the table and kind of a weird random way. It doesn't matter.
Rubin: Okay, Because the point is, in the real world, things are like this, things are just sitting on a table in a random way. If, if you're a professional photographer and you're in a studio, you get to move things around, you get to say, hey, go to your left, squat down, hold this thing up a little higher. I'll move the light over here. But that is again, I don't think constructive to a beginner who's just walking around with their smartphone. So if so now I've thrown everything on the table and kind of a ridiculously random way. It's not aesthetic, arguably. Now take your phone out, take your camera out. Okay. And we will do this and post a video of it so you can kind of see the process. But I, I want to talk you through it because I think this is the nature of what you do as a photographer. Okay. So if I said take a picture of this, what's your first, what are you going to do? Like how are you going to come?
Suzanne: ahhhm, (inaudible) I don't know.
Rubin: It's hard. It's hard to think about where you put the camera. So I want you to try to get as much of that stuff in the picture as possible so you could be sort of top down.
Rubin: You know when people are are discussing how to take better pictures, they're often saying
Suzanne: I just get a weird shadow when I do top down.
Rubin: Okay cause you're in the
Suzanne: cause I'm in the light
Rubin: right? So you need to consider that, right? So here's the thing. If by moving your camera position down in the plane with the objects, you're going to be much more of the way you are taking pictures of things. So you're down there right
Suzanne: and these are very big items,
Rubin: right? So what you want to do is look how the items fill the frame. And as you move around this, this strange assortment of objects you're going to, some things will be large and in front, some will be smaller in the back, something that will be cropped a little bit. But the game of photographic composition isn't about moving those objects because you don't control them. It's about moving yourself around those objects and filling the frame with them in different sort of ways, right?
Suzanne: can I move this platform just because
Rubin: well you can move the camera around. That's how you would do it. Right. Okay. Keep in, keep low....This is going to make terrible radio.
Suzanne: This is, um, [laughter] watch,
Rubin: I mean if they could see the pictures,
Suzanne: well I'm taking a video and then I'm doing screenshots as I go. So
Rubin: it's interesting. So,
Suzanne: And like the backside of the v Master, which,
Rubin: so when your camera is low, well I'm looking at sort of where the objects are in the frame and then the, the negative space around them. Like in this case you're, you're behind it. And so that changes. Like I'm going to move around and I'm going to get closer to some and farther from others. This is the practice of composing photographs, (inaudible) right? And notice, um, as you're doing it, the very subtle motion, like, because these things are so close and the camera's right here, tiny little motions of up and down or left and right. Like when I'm a little bit too far to the left, I'm, I'm covering up that the little train car and maybe I want to, or maybe I don't, maybe I need to move back a little bit. So you see all the wheels of the train car where I want to see more of the slide rule. But um, but I think the thing that I'm doing in this exercise is concentrating on filling the frame, you know, and what do all those things look like. So let's see if I did that. This is, but this is the exercise I don't, and I don't know how we can do this in the podcast and like show people this process and (inaudible) as you start to see like being up here is one way he being down here as another, like in the real world, you're on the same plane as all the things you're shooting for the most part. I mean you could be shooting up, but you'll notice in none of these compositional exercises we're doing, they're all about filling the frame and thinking about what the object is and how much you need to see of the object to kind of make a statement. And it's never about like is there a leading line or is that a third over? It's like it's not about that. It's about what are these objects and how am I seeing them in the frame. So I'm not, I'm not sure the way to do this on the radio. It's definitely an exercise I think will help people in real life and practice doing it. Pick the objects on your side table, pick some things in your living rooms, throw them on a on a table and now once you start playing with that compositional game of moving around these objects and thinking about how big they are in frame and what you're seeing and is the frame full or, or like as a weird, then you start noticing what's behind the objects. What's in the background is do I want, like if I put something black behind this, they would be much more isolated. If your, if I'm shooting it here and I can see you now, I need to incorporate you into that compositional structure and that's when you want to know those other things about photography, like Oh, short depth of field that would make her disappear in the background or deep depth of field. I want to see her in the background. Like I don't care about those things as much and tell I'm trying to get the picture of the train car and I'm thinking about, oh, that's complicating my image. There's too many things going on back there. I want to simplify it.
Rubin: And I'll do that with that depth of field. Um, so I find that this kind of exercise is going to be useful in teaching all of those elements of photography and getting people to think about their frames and not, and I think it would be not useful if we
New Speaker: just said, shoot one object on a plane thing.
Rubin: Because that's like how often do you do something like that?
Suzanne: Well I think what was actually surprisingly helpful about that little exercise was they, when [laughter] you first dropped them all down, I was, I'm thinking, okay, I'm going to rearrange these. And then you're like, "no, you're not arranging these. You can't touch them. They have to stay just as they are." And then when you go you go down because there were so close together. And because there's so many of them and they're so small that the idea, kind of the things that we've been talking about with like parallax and just going up a little and down a little with the, the frame of the camera is so exaggerated that you realize how small those movements can be and you're able to kind of get that understanding and when you go really low or when you were kind of level with this small, you know, platform of stuff, what that looks like and how that changes the scale. So I think it was, it's great to do something like this, even if it's a 10 minute, five minute, um, practice cause you just, you start to really see things differently in such an exaggerated way. You're able to learn from it very quickly.
Rubin: I think it's more like real world than you think. I mean, I know these are tiny objects in a room and we're kind of moving the camera around. But that's, it's really what you're doing when you're standing out on the street and there's a bunch of people and there's a building and there's a car and there's a and a flower.
Rubin: And you think, I want to take a picture of the flower. You go through the same exercise, you and Parallax, you know, you know, it's funny when kids don't know how to drive, they will sit with a steering wheel and they turn it hugely.
Rubin: And when you get in a car for the first time as a kid, I think the first thing you realize is, oh my God, to turn as a tiny little, it's tiny little motions, which are all of the motion that you make when you're driving. Once in a while you turn the wheel a lot to make a hard thing. But most of the time you're doing these nuanced little things and that's what you're doing in photography. You think in your head like, oh, I need to change my position to an aerial shot too. I can even just scrunch down.
Rubin: And that's what they tell you, like change your point of view. And while that's true, I think the thing that you want people, it's like turning the wheel to turn the car. Yeah.
Suzanne: I think that's a great kind of metaphor where it's just, it's not fully a change doesn't have to be a huge change.
Rubin: It's a tiny change and this and this exercise, because you're small with your phone and shooting small objects, you start to pay attention to how tiny a change you make affects the image enormously.
Rubin: And I think that practice again is more constructive than just getting people to squat down.
Suzanne: Yeah, no, I, I completely agree. And I think that it's because it is so so small, it's so simplified that you can take the lessons to them much to the bigger world that your changes can still be very small to make such a big impact.
Rubin: Do you think your composition has changed since we've been talking about stuff? Do you do anything differently?
Suzanne: Yeah, definitely. Um, it'd be hard to pinpoint. I think again, the biggest thing is just is being more mindful of, you know, it really is sort of stopping and not just a rushing through photos but actually just stopping and taking a moment to sort of see and
Rubin: what are you doing in that....? And when you take an extra moment, what's different? Like what do I know you're slowing down? Are you looking around the frame more or you like taking a second picture where you might take one and be done and now you're thinking, okay, I got it. Is that the best one? Is it, could I get it better by moving a little over here or trying to walk around a little bit? Like what are you, what's your process?
Suzanne: Yeah, great question. I think, I mean we just went through my career pictures and so I think that you sort of saw those pieces and those changes of, Oh, I see how you moved in the arch to frame the temple differently or you know, you changed the camera angle to kind of get to, to have it fills the frame in a better way. Um, and so I am looking around the frame. I'm, I'm taking that moment to sort of stop and honestly, I take a breath and then I, then I'm looking, so how do I like to see this? I'm moving the camera a lot more. Um, I'm shifting. I mean, just even just minor adjustments where the, for example, the arch with the temple,
Suzanne: it's, you know, it was two steps, you know, to the right to kind of get it a little bit more, um, a little bit more centered. I still didn't want it perfectly centered, but moving a little bit to the right was a better, you know, a better adjustment.
Suzanne: So it's, I'm just, I'm looking for not only what I see in the frame and whatever, what's around the frame, but then what happens when I go on my toes or when I, you know, take a step to the left to the right.
Rubin: Hmm. Are you, um, when we first started talking about composition, we were talking about, I'm not making it about the temple exactly. Or once you see the composition, there's a temple and there's an archway and you've got all that. Would you ever then wait for something else to make it like a bird to fly in or someone to walk by or someone to walk past? Like did you ever wait for that kind of moment?
Suzanne: Absolutely. And actually there is some of the pictures that, um, again, just cause we were just going through the Korea photos, but um, I was waiting for the people to. Well in South Korea, if you go to a temple, you can actually get in for free if you dress up in like the traditional Korean Hanbok. And so there's all these places around the temple to, um, to rent these costumes. And so you have all of these people and tourists, not just Koreans, but anyone can do this, um, that are dressed up in these traditional outfits. And so it's very interesting to sort of see, wait for them to wander into the photo. So I think for one of those type of pictures, I was waiting for these two girls to kind of hurry up and get in the frame because that was, it was just, it was interesting, this juxtaposition of a modern time. I'm taking this, you know, in an iPhone and they are dressed up in very traditional, uh, traditional carb and we're at this very historic palace.
Rubin: It seems like just in you saying that you need something in the picture that shows the cat like it could be an ancient picture, an old picture. I know you're taking it with an iPhone, but I need maybe something where they're in these traditional garbs and they're holding an iPhone or they're holding something that could only be to modern.
Rubin: So it looks like an older kind of moment.
Suzanne: Well, if you zoom in, you see their shoes.
Suzanne: and so
Rubin: they're wearing like sneakers or
Suzanne: I mean they don't rent the shoes. So [laughter] everyone has the international
Rubin: so maybe that's Like a closeup of their feet in the shoes and the traditional garb.
Rubin: Be Fun.
Rubin: I dunno. Yeah. All right, well that sounds cool. Well, let's, um, take a look at these pictures. We'll post pictures from Korea.
Suzanne: Yeah, we can picture post some of the ones that I've mentioned and some of the ones that we've gone through and um, as well as this video with the snapshots of the glasses and have the v masters and this,
Rubin: it's a strange little
Suzanne: slide rule
Rubin: we'll go out. Let's go out and shoot that and make a little better. Okay, cool.
Suzanne: Well, our show is recorded and produced in San Francisco. Go to neomodern.com/podcast to get show notes, see photos and post comments. Please could leave reviews and ratings on iTunes and don't forget to subscribe.
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