Jeff Morgan - Considering Composition

29th March 2015
Considering Composition - Words by Joy Allison

Jeff Morgan from the Isle of Wight came as both our speaker and to lead a full day workshop for us the following day. His topic was ‘Landscape Composition', so hopes are high we can improve in this area. Jeff took an interactive approach, involving the audience in a discussion about their thoughts on composition and the images he used to illustrate his talk.

Members suggested a long list of features which set an excellent image apart from an average one. Jeff summed up saying the best images stir an emotion, not always positive, depending on the intent. Turning to rules and guidelines, Jeff began with 'the rule of thirds' and the ‘hot spots’ - the four points where a 'noughts and crosses' grid superimposed on the image would intersect. These are the most powerful areas of the image, where the subject has greatest impact. Groups of three objects are pleasing and when placed on any three of these four points add strength to an image. They define an 'implied triangle', which is the route the eye travels moving between them.

Living in a society which reads from left to right influences how we respond to an image. We tend to start towards the top left and a skilled photographer will create a visual path for our eye to follow through the picture. Images giving us nowhere to go or leading the eye straight out of the frame are perceived as less interesting. We like to feel that a living subject has room to move into, created by it being placed to one side of the frame, ideally on a third. Jeff suggested that a bird moving from right to left brings the eye back into the picture.

Jeff considered how composition influences the mood of the resulting image. Horizontal elements tend to be calming, while diagonals are dynamic and verticals exciting. Similarly colour affects perception with vivid colours adding excitement. He enjoys tranquil images with a small colour palette and low contrast. A subject which stands out from the background creating a point of interest unhampered by distractions usually works best. Likewise shapes creating an 'S' curve, catch lights in eyes, odd numbers, repetition, separation from the surroundings, balance and humour are generally good, while text which does not add to the story, cropping living subjects in the wrong place and wonky horizons are not. Water on the horizon must be level or the brain imagines it flowing out of the frame. Breaking the rules can be successful if done with care and one rule at a time.

In the workshop Jeff had more time to explain some of the technical issues involved and went discussed why vibration destroys depth of field and how errors are cumulative.The group worked through the kit needed for serious landscape photography. Jeff’s advice was to invest in a good, secure ball head which would hold the camera absolutely still while the tripod legs, which are liable to be damaged by grit and water, can be cheaper as long as they are sturdy as they will be replaced more often. Jeff also modifies his tripod to remove the centre column so that he can set it up virtually flat on the ground for low level shots.

Jeff finds that prime lenses suit him best and he has three which he uses most 17mm, 24mm and 50mm. As a landscape photographer he invests in lenses which can give work at f2.8 or below but without image stabilisation as this is not desirable when using a tripod. Sports or street photographers would hand hold and need stabilisation and zoom more often. Jeff advised strongly against transporting a camera with a lens attached as a knock can damage the alignment with the sensor. He suggested always using a lens hood for protection rather than a filter, which could negate the money spent on a good lens. A remote shutter release and kneeling mat are other essentials and a waterproof designed to shield the camera in use and a chamois leather were desirable.

There was an interesting discussion on setting up the camera to focus with a button on the back and also on focussing at the right point to get the image sharp from back to front. Jeff repeated the advice given by most speakers that we should check the histogram on the back of the camera before deciding we had taken our best shot. Unlike many others, he advised against setting the white balance on the camera to auto.

The morning concluded with a fascinating demonstration of controlling the camera remotely using a tablet. This enables the photographer to be distant from the camera and also to view a much larger screen to check focus before and after shooting.

After a break attention turned to processing our images. Jeff selected on one of his own images which showed virtually nothing other than a light area, a pier and a dark foreground. Explaining the tools he was using, he worked through the processing of the image to bring out all the detail which was not immediately visible. By the end of the afternoon he had produced a beautiful seascape with a pebbled shoreline in front of the pier.

After such an interesting and in-depth workshop we will hope for many more beautiful landscapes.