Advanced Compositional Techniques: Level Up Your Photography | KC Nwakalor | Skillshare

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Advanced Compositional Techniques: Level Up Your Photography

teacher avatar KC Nwakalor, Documentary Photographer & Producer

Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Class Orientation


    • 3.

      Visual Awareness


    • 4.



    • 5.



    • 6.

      Entry & Exit


    • 7.



    • 8.

      Visual Style


    • 9.



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About This Class

Learning compositional techniques is not just for the beginner. Having a deep understanding of composition helps you train your eye to improve your visual awareness. It is that visual awareness that ultimately leads to you developing your unique visual style. 

Join documentary photographer and photojournalist, KC Nwakalor, as he teaches you how to push your photography to the next level with tried & true compositional techniques. 

In this class, you will learn:

  • What is Visual Awareness? Master the art of seeing
  • Shapes: Utilize shapes as a framing tool 
  • Repetition: Maximize depth by noticing patterns in shapes, colors, lines, textures & forms
  • Entry & Exit: Give intention to the way your viewers travel through the photo 
  • Layering: Bring more dimensionality to your work by utilizing all three layers
  • Visual Style: Analyze how your use of compositional techniques over time develops your unique style

This class is suitable for all levels. If you are just starting out, you will learn the foundations of great composition. If you are an intermediate or advanced photographer, you will learn how to increase your visual awareness and define your photographic style.

Meet Your Teacher

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KC Nwakalor

Documentary Photographer & Producer

Top Teacher

KC Nwakalor is a Documentary Photographer, Producer & Educator based between Manchester, UK and Abuja, Nigeria. He has worked extensively across West Africa, and through his work, he humanizes real socioeconomic, health and environmental issues within Africa and the African diaspora.

He has been commissioned by notable International publications and Organizations like The New York Times, Bloomberg, The Financial Times, CNN, Le Monde, USAID, UNICEF, World Food Programme (WFP), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Adobe, Seplat Energy, OSIWA, OXFAM, Global Citizen, NPR, Rest of World, Open Government Partnership, Sightsavers, Mines Advisory Group (MAG), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Amnesty International, ... See full profile

Level: All Levels

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1. Introduction: Composition is very critical, and it could ultimately determine the difference between a good and a bad picture. Strong communication, sound picture relies heavily on composition. Understanding how it works and the various techniques you can apply your photography could ultimately improve the outputs of your work. My name is KC Nwakalor. I'm a documentary photographer and producer based in Abuja, Nigeria, but I work extensively across West Africa. Through my works, I try to humanize real issues within the continent. This issues are mostly socio-economic, environmental and health. You probably attended my other class on basic compositional techniques and you're looking for a way to push it a bit further. This is the right class for you. On this class, I'm going to be teaching you advanced compositional techniques that can take your photography to the next level, so that you are able to understand and apply skills that can ultimately help you develop your own visual style and improve on your visual awareness. Jump right in and let's get started. 2. Class Orientation: [MUSIC] It's great to see you on the other side of the world. On this class, we are going to be delving more into advanced compositional techniques that you can apply in your work, in your photography, and you push it even further. To get the best value out of this class, you would need to have a camera, be it DSLR or a smartphone, whatever you have that can take decent pictures should be fine. You also need a photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom, or Snapseed, or even Lightroom Mobile. Whatever you have that you can use to edit and sort your pictures is perfectly fine. Do well to complete the class project, which is basically you taking three new pictures applying the compositional techniques that you've learned from this class, and uploading them so that I can give you feedback. You can only get better if you do. You have to go out and shoot [MUSIC] and you have to walk the scene, you have to leave your comfort zone, nothing good grows there. I'm super excited to go on yet another journey with you. Jump right in. Let's go. 3. Visual Awareness: Great photographers have mastered the art of seeing. They are able to see beyond what they look at. Visual awareness refers to being aware of the visual elements that you can utilize in your picture to make the best outcome using the knowledge of what you've learned based on all the compositional techniques that are available, but you being aware of seeing those opportunities when they happen in front of you. Have you looked at a picture and you're wondering like, how did that person see that? It's because they are visually aware, and you can develop it. It comes natural for some people, but for the most part you have to work, keep improving, and practicing to develop yours. Visual awareness is ultimately the difference between seeing an opportunity, taking it, and missing an opportunity for a good shot. In my practice, sometimes when I'm out and I'm not with my camera, I see interesting stuff and I pretty much visualize it in my head. What are the picture opportunities there? What are the compositional opportunities that I can utilize? Sometimes I even use my hand to form like a frame to think and visualize what the picture would look like. This level of awareness would ultimately improve your work because you don't need your camera to think. You basically see opportunities and you're looking at, what compositional techniques can I apply? Where are the lines? Where are the patterns that I can utilize to tell a story? This picture was very, very instrumental for young people to show how excited they were. This thing that they have been protesting about has become a reality. It's just awareness of someone being in the foreground, smiling, happy, and the concept of what the protest is about behind him. That stood out for me. Visual awareness is an exercise. You have to do it every single time if you want to be a photographer for life. You would have to look at scenes and visualize, how would I photograph this? What is the opportunity? What angle do I need to take? Where is the light source coming from? What is the background? What way do I need to frame this picture? What angle? When you keep looking at these things and processing them in your head, even without a camera in your hands, you're developing your visual awareness. It's an exercise that every photographer should be doing every time. Next time you're on the subway or a bus station, think about compositional opportunities, good pictures you could make, and if you have a camera, try and take them. But in this practice, you become more aware of the visual elements in front of you and how you can make best use of them to create a sound and well composed image. With that being said, let's head over to the next lesson as we talk about an interesting compositional technique that could take your work even further. 4. Shapes: On this lesson, we are going to talk about shapes as a compositional technique. This is taking it a bit further from lines. In basic school they teach you the various types of shapes, which is basically triangle, square, circle. In photography, and also by extension, in graphic designing or design, when you understand that every single thing is made up of different shapes, so a combination of various shapes, you as a photographer, being aware of all these shapes that are coming together, then you can utilize it to make a good photography composition. One way that shapes are often utilized in photography is in terms of framing, and this is basically utilizing a shape to form a frame around your subject. Example is maybe picture of someone in the rear view mirror, in a car, or within the window of a house, or a door frame, whatever it is. Putting your subject in the middle of a frame, makes them more elaborate, makes you notice them more, and that could ultimately improve your photography. Just placing this subject in the middle of this frame, balances the picture. There is something going on here, and there is something going on here, and just placing her in the middle places all the attention on her. This is also a good use of shape. The square here, placing my subjects somewhere here, and also the interesting intersection of the lines like the grid lines in your camera, placing her head, in the middle of this intersection point, makes the picture interesting. Like in this picture, using this shape here, with her face, added more visual value to the picture. Then there is another compositional technique at play here, the rule of threes, because of the switches, three, you assume there are more ahead. It helps to be aware and utilize the shapes, the natural occurring shapes in your pictures and incorporate it into your work to drive home the point or make your subjects more visible and more relatable. Understanding shapes is important because not all shapes are clearly visible. Some are implied, for instance, the curtain, the arch shape of the curtain, could also be like a triangle. You as a photographer, needs to keep training your eye so that you able to notice the various shapes that occur in nature, and you find ways to utilize it in your photography. This is a good use of shape here. The boy, standing in this black, rectangular shape. I used the rectangular door frame. Though there is no door there, but to make my subjects more elaborate. Having learnt that shapes occur in nature, you as a photographer need to train your eye to be able to see them and utilize it in your photography, and one of those ways is through framing. I want you to go out and try to take pictures of various shapes you can see and utilize it to make your composition more interesting. Most importantly, use it to frame your subject and see the outcome. Head over to the next lesson as we discuss another interesting compositional technique. 5. Repetition: [MUSIC] On this lesson, we'll talk about repetition as a compositional technique. Repetition is basically when you utilize elements that occur in your environment in repeated patterns in your pictures. These elements could be shapes, it could be colors, it could be lines, it could be texture, it could be form. Whatever it is, it's occurring numerous times. This takes us to the rule called rule of threes. It's very, very different from the rule of third. Rule of threes talks about the ability of the brain to process things as repetitive once it's up to three. What that means is when things are two, it's double. But once it becomes three and upwards, the brain processes it as repetitive. We could feel as though there are more behind, even if it's just three. This is implied repetition in the sense that this is a man taking his kids to school. It's just interesting how they're all lined up wearing similar color. It just makes the picture interesting. If it was just him and maybe one of his sons, it wouldn't be as interesting as it is now. But because there are 1, 2, 3, then 4, you enjoy the flow. There is no face showing in this picture. It's not the best picture, but there is the fact that the same thing is happening here, happening here, happening here, just makes the picture interesting compared to if it was three different people wearing different clothes, not interacting, there is nothing repetitive about the picture, you're probably wouldn't have been this interesting. Think of before when civil more and there is break in transmission, so there is one black, one black, one black, then two blues, one black, two blues. It's also a form of implied repetition. In addition to the repetitive nature of these police officers wearing different uniforms, there is also repetitive rhythm between the blacks and the blues and the blacks and the blues. There is this interest that your brain picks up and your brain is able to group the pictures and enjoy it. In your pictures, just try and look out for opportunities. What are the things existing in repetitive nature? Do you want to include some sense of mystery in your picture? Maybe showing three would be more interesting. Giving people the room to imagine there are more. Because I mean, if you see three police officers lined up like this, it puts your mind in a space where you're wondering like what about the other line. There are other people there. This is just the fundamental application of the rule of threes. With this knowledge, you can add depth in your pictures. People can look at your pictures and it becomes more satisfying to look at. Always look out for opportunities where you can infuse things that are repetitive in nature, or you frame things in a way that it feels like those items are repetitive. [MUSIC] Having learned this, I want you to go out and take pictures of things that are repetitive in your environment and use it to compose a picture. Place your subjects within that space and see how it works. Jump into the next lesson as we discuss another compositional technique. 6. Entry & Exit: On this lesson, we talk about another compositional technique that is very fascinating, and this is called entry and exit. The concept is very simple, but sometimes difficult to achieve. It's basically composing your pictures in a way that it feels like it has an entry point and an exit point, so this way your viewers travel through your pictures. A typical example of entry and exit is when you photograph people in a dark house and they are walking into a brighter environment which is outside. It adds depth to your pictures and your viewers feel they're on the journey with the subject in the picture, feels like they are going in, they're entering and they're exiting. Photography is basically in two-dimension. When you have the opportunity to create a three-dimensional image or a picture that feels like three-dimensional, one way to do it says utilizing entry and exit as your compositional technique. This is basically having an area of darkness and an area of light where it feels like there is a transition, there is a movement. The viewers can feel like, "Okay, I enter through here, I enter through here, and I exit through there. It's an illusion but it's interesting. Looking at this picture, you just know, you walk through here, the way your eye journeys through this picture is literally looking at this place, then travel into this space, go here, and disappear from here. That is the entry and exit pathway that I have created in this picture as the photographer. Nobody knows when they do this, the brain just processes it that way. Once you look at this picture, you're going to go through this place, through here, get through here, and probably leave through here. That's the concept of entry and exit. You can use it to direct your subject. Let's say there is a banner somewhere here, it would be interesting to look at. Looking at this person and maybe his eye pointing somewhere here, you have a banner passing any information you want, that would also be interesting. But the concept of entry and exit is using lights, intensity, darkness, and light to create an illusion of entry and exit. Like other compositional techniques, you have to be visually aware for these opportunities, and make the best outcome possible. Simply put, entry and exit is basically you composing your picture bearing in mind where the entry point is and where the exit point is. It's more like your viewers are on a journey with you, they go through the pictures and they leave the scene. Having learned this, I want you to go out and take a picture that captures an entry and exit point. This could be literal or implied, but just try to explore this compositional technique and see the type of outcome you get. Join me on the lesson as we talk about another compositional technique. 7. Layering: [MUSIC] Since photographs are taken in two-dimension, an interesting compositional techniques can add even more dimensions to your photographs. This is called layering. Layering is the idea that you utilize various layers of your frame to be able to tell a story, which is the foreground, the middle ground, and the background. For most photographers, they only utilize two layers, which is basically the foreground and the background. Layering brings in that next dimension where you utilize the three aspects by placing interesting compositional elements in these various layers. It leads to the main subject, which could be in the middle, or in the last layer, or in the first layer, whatever it is. All the layers are building up, and gives your viewers a sense of three-dimension. It gives depth, like people are going into the picture. For those that don't know, foreground is basically what is closest to you, middle ground is in the middle, and the background is what is farthest away from you. Creatively positioning important visual elements in the foreground, in the middle ground, and in the background can ultimately lead to what is called layering. It's basically working in synergy with the various layers of your photo so that every single layer works in tandem with the other to be able to show clearly what the key subject is. I photographed an orphanage. It shows what's living in this dormitory. Feels like someone is sleeping in the foreground. This boy just woke up from his bed and he's just sitting, getting some sunlight, and also observing who is this photographer or this guy that's in my room or something like that. Then you have the background of other people's belongings in the picture and in the background. It gives a who. There is this movement, there is this three-dimensional feel, your eye starts out here, you see someone sleeping, then you notice this boy, then you're wondering where is he, what's this place. Then you look at the background and you get more information about who he is, and where he is, it's clearly a dormitory. For me, I'm directing your eye whether it's intentional for you to follow this path or not. The idea is for me to be in control of how you look at the picture and make sure that your eye goes to where I want it to go to. Layering requires time and patience. The first part is you attending this class, while also about you being visually aware when these opportunities create themselves. Now that you've learned about layering, bearing in mind the various layers in a photograph, which is the foreground, the middle ground, and the background, I want you to go outside and try to capture things that occur naturally, actions that are happening. But frame and compose your pictures in a way that you are utilizing the three layers. Make it in a way that all the layers are working together to push the eyes of your viewers [MUSIC] to the key subject of that show. I guarantee you, you will be really intrigued by the outcome you get. [MUSIC] 8. Visual Style: On this lesson, we're going to talk about how to develop your own visual style. Visual style talks about your own unique style of taking pictures, and it can only be developed over time. If you've developed visual awareness, and now you are practicing and seeing opportunities where you can utilize all the compositional techniques you've learned, visual style starts developing over time. Basically, visual style is that compositional technique or set of compositional techniques, that occurs frequently in your work or in your output. It takes time like every other thing. You evolve as a photographer and as a storyteller, but over time, based on the compositional techniques you're utilizing, that tends to become your visual style. The more you take photographs utilizing these various compositional techniques, you will start noticing that there are specific types or patterns, in terms of the compositional techniques that is always coming out in your pictures. In my own practice, I've always been drawn to pictures that are intimate, and it makes me to use lenses that are purely prime lenses. I want to get in close to the action. I like to capture images that would make people feel something. In as much as I know most of the compositional techniques, I see some of those opportunities, but I tend to go towards more direct in-the-face intimate type of pictures because that's my style. It's something that developed over time. Like in this portrait is my typical approach. I like to utilize a lot of light, darkness, and I like a lot of dark pictures if I need to show emotions in my picture. But the primary thing is that, this is something, it wasn't very intentional, it's something that evolved as I kept on practicing and improving, and learning new compositional techniques, and understanding why I'm taking pictures in the first place, what my motivations are. If you look at my pictures, there is this repetitive style that is going on in the pictures. I mean, apart from the editing style and everything, but when you look at the picture, you also feel it's the same person that took it. I like to be in people's faces. I like to be close to people. I like to share a lot of dark and light mixed together. I like to be close. You see, there is this repetitive pattern in my pictures and it came from a place of practice over the years that my style started taking that shape. In as much as I know most of the compositional techniques, I wouldn't necessarily use a lot of them in my work, because I know how I want to capture stories, I know what looks like my vision. You get what I mean. Starting off in photography. It's okay for you to try a couple of things, apply different compositional techniques, but over time, your style will start coming through. Your style is a function of your knowledge, in terms of the various compositional techniques you can use, and primarily your vision and why you do your work. What motivates you and how you see. You see the same concept is over and over. I'm so drawn to intimate pictures. I just want to be close to people to be able to capture their stories. Think of visual style as your voice, as your visual voice. There are so many talented artists, for instance, Rihanna and Beyonce. What separates both of them? It's usually how they sing, apart from their voice, but they have a style that they have developed over the years. Your visual style is what separates you from the next photographer. It takes time to develop. Even in my practice, I'm still evolving, but I have a style. Visual style is that thing that makes you different, that makes you unique from every other photographer. It's that thing that makes people look at a picture and say, "Hey, KC took this picture. That person took that picture." It takes time and patience. As you keep practicing and keep taking pictures, utilizing all the compositional techniques you've learned in this class, you will start seeing your own visual style come through. I'm super excited for you, and I know you'll do great things. 9. Conclusion: [MUSIC] It's been a very long journey with you guys, and I'm happy that you made it this far. I'm very confident that you've learned new things that could ultimately improve the outcome in your photographs. In this class, we talked about various compositional techniques that could improve your work, and also we talked about how to develop a visual style and become visually aware, to be able to sight and see opportunities as they unfold. Please do not forget to upload your class project, which is basically you taking pictures, utilizing the compositional techniques that have been taught on this class. Kindly upload your three pictures and I'll have a look and give you feedback. Remember, just like every other rules that I've talked about, they are meant to be broken. Once you've learned them and understood them, feel free to creatively break them and make the best out of your photographs. Until we meet again, see you.