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Big People, Medium People & Small People

By Zabrina Deng

“Composition is the foundation of image making. It is the spatial relationship between all of the parts in an image. Whether a drawing, a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, or an installation, how a thing is composed determines its look, its feel and its meaning. Compositional variation, like musical tunes, is limitless.” –Piet Mondrian, 1922

In the beginning of my photography career, I used to shoot second camera for a good friend of mine, Tauran Woo, for his high-end weddings and engagement sessions in San Francisco or in LA. Tauran taught me to photograph a session by showing different perspectives, especially when it comes to engagement photography. With Tauran’s background as a former TV producer, he emphasized that to produce one-of-a-kind engagement sessions, a photographer should show a variety of perspectives through framing.

Compared to the wedding day, when I photograph an engagement session I have the luxury of time and flexibility so there’s no excuse not to make such variety. I think this through in advance for my clients so they are getting the most bang for their bucks. I refer to the overall approach to presenting a variety of perspectives as Big People, Medium People & Small People. It’s the foundation of every engagement session I produce just as if I was filming a movie.

You can change the size of people within the frame just by using a single focal length and getting closer to them or backing farther away. I use different focal length zooms to change the size of the people and their relationship to the rest if the elements in the frame. That affects not only the size of the people in the frame but also their relationship to everything else in the photograph.

Here’s how I do it with several examples from an engagement shoot in Vietnam.

Big People


Lens: Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA

The 55mm slightly compresses the background which brings the landscape or buildings that are farther away, appear closer than they actually are. The goal of creating the Big People perspective is to feature the beauty, the mood & the pose. These are the most important details to pay attention to.

I frame Big People very tight to the subject’s face. How do I know what’s close enough? If I’m able to see the lipstick color of my client’s lips—when the people occupy about 40-50% of the frame—then I think it’s close enough.

The Big People perspective is important because we are helping our clients to make memories from this day. Youth and beauty are fleeting. If we don’t preserve such memories for our client today, nobody knows what tomorrow will hold. Also, our clients are putting effort into looking their very best for this day and it’s obligatory to help them remember how beautiful they both were. I photograph as if I’m looking at her from his perspective, or looking at him from her perspective—I see nothing but beauty.

Medium People


Lens: Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS

The exact range varies, but shooting around the 35mm focal length gives me the perspective of the way I seeing things normally—the background isn’t compressed and there’s some depth to the scene.

For Medium People compositions, the framing of the shot should include environmental elements such as the place, the time of the day (light), the mood of the couple and the pose. To me this is probably the most interesting composition because I’m trying to accomplish a lot in a single photograph. I’m framing a complete story. The couple, the environment, the pose, the time of the day…everything plays important role in their story. And this story is created through the eyes of the photographer and witnessed through the viewer.

I think this perspective is very close to photojournalistic reportage. It’s as if the photographer/reporter (me) just arrived at the scene where this is happening and I’m on the verge of beginning a conversation with them. Before that, I’m taking a moment to observe the the entire scene. Is the couple going to start a quarrel? Are they on the verge of being separated by miles? This is their last time seeing each other? The natural landscape and the couple’s pose creates a juxtaposition of calm against subtle tension. The complexity and subtlety of their dating relationship for this story is revealed by their poses.

Small People


Lens: Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS

When I create the Small People composition, I am featuring the landscape, setting or architecture as the main subject. I’m usually some distance away so I often use a medium-zoom lens in the wider half of its range. This maintains some depth without making the background elements too small. A longer zoom will compress and flatten the overall scene.

How do I achieve this small people composition? I compose as if I’m a bird man (a bird woman in my case) flying by, then photographing them from far far away. I imagine I’ve witnessed a private, intimate moment from a distance. Whether they are holding hands, hugging or kissing, the moment was real and I noticed it thru my “eagle eye”.

The couple aren’t the main subject, but they are an essential part of the photograph. Without the couple being present, the photograph is diminished. It becomes just any ordinary landscape. By having the couple in the frame, even when they are small or tiny, still challenges our mind to look carefully at the photo and helps viewers to easily imaging themselves as the subject too. It creates a great deal of mystery and imagination for the viewer. In addition to being an integral part of our engagement sessions, the Small People composition photographs make wonderful marketing pieces for engagement and wedding photography.

All photos Sony α7 II, Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSSSony Vario-Tessar T* FE 16-35mm f/4 ZA OSS lenses

Location: Haalong Bay, Vietnam

Date: January, 2015

Clients: Tuan & Linda

Photographer: Zabrina Deng

Retoucher: Jeremy Chan

Hair & Makeup: Syzen Liew




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