Composition Thought Process: A trip to Tamtams

This blog post is part of the Compositional series - A series of articles that essentially go through the good and the bad photographs of every session, but more importantly, the thought process that eventually culminated in taking good photographs from bad ones within the same shoot. 

We had long considered the values of simplification - setting up outings and other sort of events where students can simply come together and practice, gain from our experience, insight, guidance but most of all - enthusiasm. It was a long day as I'd been teaching all day. I even squeezed in an interview between the morning and afternoon session - a crucial position of an events manager that will be tasked with stitching together an incredible community and a multitude of activities. 

I'd gotten in touch with some of my intermediate students. Having spent so much time with them in the past and over several different programs, we happen to have a great Alumni community and while most couldn't make it, Michael said he could make his way to Tamtams. The session was different this time round of course. I was no longer advising Michael on settings and compositions but rather it had turned into a discussion, which is always incredibly gratifying from an teachers standpoint. 

The shoot started as expected. There was some apprehension when the time came to following Capa's philosophy. But in case you forgot, here it is again:

If you're photos are not good enough, you're not close enough.

It took some time to get accepted and really feel one with the crowd. They were obviously on cloud 9 and besides, who were these guys trying to take photos of them? This is often the feeling associated as we often times put ourselves in their shoes and wonder if we'd like to be photographed in that way. The truth is always alarming - no. Photographers - what hypocrites. Still, you are there now and you have to believe, not that you are selling the photographs to profit from their activities, but that you're capturing photographs that will serve a greater good - perhaps be part of the story that culminates in your becoming a better photographer, someone more cultured, or even spreading the knowledge of such an event and having more people attend it the next time round. Of course, in order to do this, you have to honestly believe in it yourself and this requires things like not selling the photographs - ever - lest you reveal to yourself that your intuition cannot be trusted. 

Common rules to ensure acceptance include such things as partaking in the fun. Some dancing and slow approaches to the crowd are always welcome. What is quite incredible though is picking up on a musician and focusing on the details of what they're doing. Your focus isn't on their face but rather in the manner in which they are hitting the drums. Your focus isn't on their face but rather the drums with a bunch of people dancing in the background. Something that can never be underestimated is a smile. A smile can go a long way in re-assuring people that you're not there to profit from the situation - and in fact, being accepted opens several doors from a composition standpoint.

The first photographs start out with apprehension. It's a testing the waters moment where we're looking at how people react to having a camera around them. You always need to gain the trust of your subjects before proceeding. I switch lenses to take portraits of people and then suddenly see the clouds turn warm. In the past, I've always come to appreciate these moments and underestimated the duration of time such an occasion would last for. I quickly switched lenses to the wide angle. The first shots were terribly wanting. It was time to take silhouettes and create a story. I search for Michael, keen on him not to miss the light. I see him at the distance, probably doing the same as I was and with similar ideas.

An important thing to remember about any aspect of composition, something that our students are well aware of, is that of simplicity. It's something that we need to embody, especially when dealing with shadows.

Each shot needs consistent feedback. This is as we teach it in our composition and outing class but ultimately, the little screen on every camera provides a crucial guide to how the next photographs should be framed. This is the power of digital photography - of consistent testing and retakes of images until the perfect photograph is taken or at least something quite good and legible. 

For me, apart from taking stellar silhouettes of Michael for his profile pic, I was interested (as I am always interested) in capturing the moments. I wanted to capture the shadows of figures as they danced away but even here, the hands are exceptionally important. Someone standing and dancing looks much like someone just standing in a silhouette. There are few cues to show that they are indeed moving about - perhaps just their hips or their head (me for example). The best people to photograph though, are those that are dancing with their hands. 

So using a simple formula

Photographs to search for in this situation = Robert Capa Formula + Simplicity in composition + incredible light and silhouette + moving hands


Robert Capa's formula = If your photos are not good enough you're not close enough
Simplicity in Composition = Montreal Photo Course composition rules
Incredible Light and silhouette = An important part of the composition
Moving Hands = the special things that make your photo come alive

Ultimately, as with any situation - good photographs involve being lucky as well as working hard to get through the thought process and finally getting yourself to compose the right photographs.

In this case, we were lucky to have started shooting before the light turned better but it was barely the case. Anyone arriving slightly later might find that they are just getting warmed up when the sweet spot of lighting came to be and they suddenly found themselves running out of time just as they were taking the sort of photographs they expected from the situation. Experience's job is essentially to reduce this time, solve the issues of approaching a person to take their photo - even though they are simply being used for the way they gracefully move their hands - all part of a higher purpose of art and composition - all so that someone can come back and write a blog article that magically involves waving hands as part of some crazy formula.