Michael Freeman

Photography Foundation

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Course Description

Composition is nothing less than the underpinning of photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the master, wrote, “This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements.”

Composition is the way in which photographers turn real, chaotic life in front of them into images within a frame. As such, composition begins with a clear understanding of what the subject is, what it means to you, and what you want to say about it. Cartier-Bresson again: “You can’t compose gratuitously; there must be a necessity, and you can’t separate form from substance.”

In keeping with other Foundation Courses, and tracing back to the original Basic Course at the Bauhaus, this course gives a thorough grounding for pursuing photography seriously. It covers all aspects of composition, far beyond the idea of simply making a vaguely satisfying image by following so-called rules (least of all the trivialised rule of thirds). It is designed to be the basis for further courses of any kind in photography.

Learning outcome: this Foundation Course will equip you to create distinctive, meaningful images that express your personal way of seeing, an essential first step on the path to developing your own photographic style.


You will not need any special photographic equipment for this course. A DSLR is preferable, but a compact camera or even a camera phone could be used to complete the assignments. A tripod would be useful, but not essential, as well as a selection of prime or zoom lenses ranging from wide angle out to telephoto zoom.

We also recommend purchasing The Photographers Eye and The Photographers Eye: A Graphic Guide as a way of enhancing your learning experience, as additional reading is suggested in the course notes.

Course outline

  • The Job of Composition

    Composition has a purpose in both art and in photography, otherwise it’s just an exercise. It has three possible jobs: Create Order, Direct the Viewer, Create Interest. Depending on the subject and on the photographer’s style and ability, sometimes just one of these three dominates, but there are also images in which two or all three play a part. The examples used to demonstrate these will also underline that universal rules are anathema to meaningful composition. Rather, individual photographers develop preferences for certain methods. Creating order by means of structure Strengthening the geometry in an image Range of structure from formal to engineered disorder Ways of directing attention to elements Using vectors to direct attention Building delay into an image Adding interest through the unexpected The contribution of composition to the image varies

  • Frame and Framing

    The frame is the bounding shape, artificial and yet the accepted tradition of imagery since painting left walls to become objects. This is the bounding area within which you decide what to include, and what to exclude. Framing the shot is the part of composing that deals with the broad sense of what part of a scene to enclose, how it divides, and where a main subject goes. The shape of the frame, its format, has a strong influence on composition, with the added complication that digital photography allows extending the frame in any direction. Dynamics of the frame alone, and when it dominates Influence of different frame shapes The most common: 3:2, 4:3, 1;1 Vertical framing Longer formats: 16:9, 2:1, 3:1 and continuous Extending the frame when shooting; stitching Cropping Filling the frame Subject size in the frame Placement: three zones Notional gravity Dividing the frame Historical ratios: golden, harmonics Figure-ground Negative space Frames within frames

  • Contrast and Balance

    One of the most fundamental concepts in imagery id that of contrast—contrast between elements and parts of the image, from brightness and texture to sensation and meaning. In one sense, images exist because of contrast. This in turn leads to the concept of balance, in which the audience’s values play a part in deciding whether relationships in a composition are comfortable, elegant, interesting or challenging. We explore different kinds of balance, from static to dynamic, and finally the conceptual balance between content and the graphics of the image. The principle of contrast Pictorial contrast Contrast of sensation Contrast of meaning and idea The concept of balance Visual centre of gravity Resolving tension Static and symmetrical balance Relationship between balance and tradition Classic balance Dynamic tension Content: weak or strong

  • The Viewer's Eye

    Photography is today’s most widely used form of visual communication, and the role of the audience cannot be ignored. Photographs have a life only when put on display. We look at the psychology of perception as an aid to composition, and consider the different visual weight of subjects. Attraction and repulsion. Expectation (gestalt) and its influence on closure, rhythm, pattern and texture. Perspective and depth in two dimensions. The role of the audience The principle of visual weight according to subject Visual attractants: people, faces, lettering, spot colour Scanpaths Spontaneous and task-relevant looking Audience ideals of beauty Harmony and viewer conservatism and familiarity Satisfying or challenging the audience Viewer interaction and the ‘beholder’s share’ Gestalt and the psychology of completion and continuation Exploiting the appeal of repetition in rhythm, pattern and texture The appeal of strong perspective and depth The counter appeal of flattening and abstraction

  • The Graphic Elements

    The pure geometry of the image uses a visual vocabulary which is usually broken down into the following. Points (one, two, several), Lines (horizontals, verticals, diagonals, curves, eye-lines), Shapes (triangles, circles, rectangles) and Vectors (moving parts and anticipated movement). Even when separated from content, they have definable effects. When reviewing other photographers’ work, Cartier-Bresson famously and idiosyncratically used to view the images upside down for this reason. Single-unit subjects Points: one, two, several Lines, real and implied Horizontals Verticals Diaginals Curves Eye-lines Shapes, real and implied Triangles Circles Rectangles Vectors: actual movement, anticipated movement

  • The Photographic Elements

    The mechanics and optics of the camera and lens create their own graphic elements and effects in the image, and additional visual vocabulary unique to photography and which has become understood and accepted by everyone. Here we look at these in the following order. Focus (deep, shallow, tilted), Shutter and Motion, Focal length and the family of lenses, from wide-angle through standard to telephoto, seen both as an influence on the graphics of the image and as giving more deep-seated sensations and character. Focus and drawing attention Deep focus Shallow focus Inverted focus Tilted focus Shutter speed and motion Frozen motion as an attractant Motion blur as an attractant Focal length and depth perception Wide-angle near-far juxtaposition Telephoto compression and plane flattening Focal length and lens character Wide-angle immersion and subjective camera Standard lens moderation and quietness Telephoto coolness and distancing

  • Composing with Light and Colour

    For this week’s assignment, take a series of photos from the list below, based on this week’s lecture, and submit just 3.

    Before you go out shooting, first think about what shots you might want to make, using the list below as a starting point. Once you’ve decided on the kind of photograph you think will best make the point, you should plan how, where and when you need to shoot it, taking into account factors like the lighting (which might depend on the time of day and weather), equipment, and predictable events happening.

    Here are 8 topics, from which you should choose just 3:-

    -A high-key image. The exposure and processing will need to be distinctly light and bright, but just as important is your choice of subject and background. The lighter and airier they are, the more effective the high-key feeling will be. You may find this easier to achieve if you process the image in black and white (and think in black and white also as you take the picture).

    - A low-key image. This is the reverse in concept to high key, so choose a setting that is already dark. The subject itself will have to be lighter, but not too much, or else partly shadowed. Expose and process appropriately for an overall dark result. As with high key, you may find this easier to achieve if you process the image in black and white.

    - Chiaroscuro—a scene in which there is strong and slightly confusing contrast, such as dappled light. Expose and process for high contrast, and in particular deep shadows. 

    - A scene in which one colour dominates.

    - A two-colour scene—one which is mainly made up of two contrasting colours. Try to frame the view in such a way that the brighter colour occupies proportionately less area (as described in the lesson).

    - Colour accent—a scene in which there is just one small splash of colour.

    - A scene in which all the colours appear distinctly rich OR muted OR pastel.

    - An image processed as black and white for the purposes of showing EITHER stark contrast OR a range of rich deep blacks and greys.

    When you have completed the 3, and refined down the shots you took to 3 images (one for each), process the Raw files to make JPEGs and please upload them to the classroom. Say which topic each images refers to and, which is very important, also write for each image a total of between 50 and 100 words stating the following:-

    1.  What you were trying to achieve 

    2.  To what extent you think you succeeded3.  How you might have improved on the result if circumstances had been different.

  • The Process of Shooting

    Camerawork in its broadest sense, not limited to the technical, helps to realise the ideas already explored above. We look at ways of searching and hunting for images to bring them to realisation as photographs, and also at the concept of a repertoire of satisfying images (or at least, images that are felt to work) that each photographer develops, whether unconsciously or deliberately. We look at the techniques of reaction and of anticipation, exploration and construction, and juxtaposition, which holds a special place in photography. How to search for possible images The hunting analogy Repertoire and how to develop it by analysing your images Reactive photography Anticipation Photography as exploration Planned photography The constructed image Juxtaposition The documentary approach Expressive photography Simplification and clarity Ambiguity and complexity

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    Discover the benefits of group learning in an online interactive classroom of no more than 20 people. Get the most from shared knowledge and community study

    • Start course whenever you like
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Meet Michael Freeman

Michael Freeman - Photography

Michael Freeman, is one of the world's most respected and prolific photography writers and teachers.

Amateur Photographer Magazine
Michael Freeman is the world's top author of photography books, drawing on a long career as a widely published international editorial photographer. He has published to date 133 books, of which 66 are on the practice of photography, with 4 million copies sold, published in 27 languages. He has an MA in Geography from Oxford University, and in a career spanning 40 years has worked for most of the world's leading publishers, including Time-Life, GEO, the Sunday Times Magazine and the Smithsonian Magazine, with which he has had a 30-year, 40-story relationship.

Much of his work has focused on Asia, beginning in the early days with Thailand, expanding outwards through other countries in Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, with several books published on Angkor and other Khmer sites. This was followed by several years photographing in Japan, and more recently, China. His most recent book of documentary reportage is Tea Horse Road, tracing the ancient trade route that began in the 7th century between southwest China and Tibet. Before that was the 2005 Sudan: Land and People, still the only full visual record of the (now two) countries.

On the craft of photography, Freeman's best-selling volume is The Photographer's Eye, which has sold more than 800,000 copies to date. He conducts photography workshops in locations as varied as the Gulf states, Indonesia, Singapore and China, and speaks regularly on photography, at venues varying from the the Royal Geographical Society, to the Smithsonian in Washington and the Asia Society in New York.

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