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Tips from the Experts: Composition

Winslow Homer Breezing up a Fair Wind

One of Bill Clinton’s most famous quotes that helped him win the Presidency was: “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

Carried over to photography, the analogy is: “It’s the Composition, Stupid!”

With billions of photographs now being made every day by smartphones and other cameras, the question for each of us becomes: OK, I have a picture. Is it any good? Does this picture convey what I had in mind when I pushed the button?

A GREAT place to to learn photographic composition is your local museum! And so we have a photo composition safari taking place at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday afternoon, October 30, with art historian Professor Hollis Clayson, examining 17th century Dutch and Flemish paintings, to help you attain that goal! Check out the works of the great masters of art (Vermeer, Rembrandt, Renoir, Corot) and of photography (Lange, Cartier-Bresson, Steichen, Capa, Adams). Do more than just look at the artwork. Study it. Where does your eye go when you first look at it? Why does it grab your attention? What is the placement of the visual elements? Where are the leading lines?

Woman with a Balance Vermeer

For example, in the painting above by Johannes Vermeer “Woman Holding a Balance”, done in 1664, look at how the soft light comes in from the window on the left and falls gently on the woman’s face. Our eyes are then drawn down to the balance on the kitchen table. Her body, on the right side of the frame facing to the left, makes a right-side bookend to the image, which is then framed on the left side by the lighted window. Her face looks IN to the scene.

In the DC area we are blessed with many excellent places to study artistic composition, most of them with free admission. Check out the paintings in the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum, the Phillips Collection or the Kreeger Museum. Check out extraordinary examples of nature photography now on display at the National Museum of Natural History.

Another benefit of studying great visual art is that it teaches us humility! As good as you think your pictures are, there is always someone who is better! Whatever you can learn from the great masters makes you a better photographer! Join us at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday afternoon, October 30 with Professor Hollis Clayson to learn more about composition!

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