A lesson with Sam Abell – Micro-composition

Recently I took a workshop called “Sharpening your Photographic Vision” with Sam Abell, a veteran National Geographic photographer, at the Julia Dean Photo Workshops studio. This lesson is about macro-composition and micro-composition.

Sam and I were walking up the beach when we saw the curved boardwalk winding through the sand. I commented that it might make a good macro-composition. Sam was teaching us to find the macro-composition, the overall composition and lighting, and then fit a subject inside with, what he calls the micro-composition. On the macro-composition, he would tell us to mind the corners and make them strong. On the micro-composition it was all about find a clean space for all the elements. He would call the macro-composition “The Setup”.

The Setup

So Sam helped me frame up the macro-composition, using the path to create strong corners and we took a few shots comparing our ideas. He then agreed to be my subject and took deliberate walk down the path. But Sam knew something I did not. Sam knew that this composition would not work. There was no space for the micro-composition. No space for the subject to fit within the scene.

First Series

As you see in this sequence, there are only two reasonably strong frames: the first and the last. In the first frame, Sam just simply overpowers the scene behind. Unfortunately, to keep his head, and really just his hat, above the commotion of the roller coaster, I had to cut off his feet. The last frame is interesting because, however small, it shows Sam cleanly composed against the green fence. I needed to find a macro-composition that would allow room for my subject while they were still strong in the frame.

Second Setup

I shifted to a new position a few steps to the right. I was still using the background and the strength of the pathway into the corners, but this time I had room for the subject to move through the image. Sam walked again. The outcome was more successful but now illustrated that I had left too much space for the subject and also inadvertently cut off the edge of the trash barrel and the edge of the roller coaster. Note however, the clean composition around Sam and each trash barrel. This is the micro-composition.

Final Setup – macro-composition and micro-composition in balance

The final positiong produced our objective. With just a slight modification of my position, I achieved a clean background of sky, roller coaster, trash barrels and path. There is a good balance between the space for the subject to walk and the presence of the background. Moreover, look at how the shadow fits within the frame. The micro-composition fits Sam just right in between both the two large trashcans and the two smaller ones.

Thank you Sam for your patience and lesson.

11 thoughts on “A lesson with Sam Abell – Micro-composition

  1. ajay goel December 25, 2011 / 6:12 am

    Very Nice post. Although I must admit, I had not heard of the macro/ micro composition before. But it’s a nice frame of reference, thanks for sharing.
    And a merry Christmas and a great new year ahead to you and yours.

  2. A Professional Photographer January 5, 2013 / 12:54 pm

    Heck, I’d just move the trash cans in Photoshop or take ’em out altogether. That’s how I roll…I mean, compose.

    • inancy January 5, 2013 / 1:02 pm

      Yea, I know how you roll 🙂 See, I must earn my title of “Professor / Dr. Lehrer”

  3. Thomas Stephan January 2, 2014 / 12:24 pm

    Nice Post! I would like to send Mr. Abell an eMail, but I can’t find his eMail-Adress in the web. Can you help me please?
    Thx! Thomas Stephan (from Germany)

    • inancy January 4, 2014 / 11:15 am

      Thomas – I’m not sure how Sam feels about having his email out in the public. I would suggest perhaps to contact him through the Pacific Northwest Art School https://pacificnorthwestartschool.org/. He teaches at 4 place each year – Pacific Northwest Art School, Sante Fe Workshops, Maine Media workshops, and Julia Dean (in Los Angeles, now called the Los Angeles Photo Center)

      I highly recommend taking one of his workshops.

  4. David A. Dobbs December 21, 2015 / 1:23 pm

    We are all blessed to have Sam sharing his insights. Where is the one of Sam returning from the amusement park? Enough is never enough. Great thing about visual communications. Thanks for helping me understand a new way of seeing and composition. Did not know I needed to get out of my isolating subjects rut. Sold a few stock images to NG Traveler in my day.

  5. Jeff Bell December 4, 2018 / 8:27 pm

    That is a very good lesson. So many photographers are teaching workshops nowadays that we can learn things from them that it may take us years to learn otherwise.

  6. Aldo Diosdado January 3, 2021 / 1:03 pm

    I really enjoyed this lesson, very well explained by the way. Thanks for sharing.

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