Sam Abell

A Perfect Composition – by Sabrina Henry

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When I was first asked what makes a good photograph, I had no idea but I started to think about how to recognize a good photograph not just when viewing the work of others but also when making my own pictures. I began to study photographs through books and in discussions with my mentor and later on also with my circle of photographer friends.

calf castration sam abell
© Sam Abell

This photograph by National Geographic photographer, Sam Abell, is one image we have examined on several occasions.  It has also been discussed and written about by Sam Abell himself as well as many others. Here is a short video where Abell reviews how he made the photograph.

Compositionally this is about as perfect a photograph you will ever see. It comes as a result of Abell’s process of making photographs, which he attributes to both his father and his mother. He is known for his “compose and wait” approach where he first finds the background and then finds something that will move through the frame. He also literally “makes” a photograph by building it from back to front. Being very particular about his compositions, Abell always pays attention to internal framing and micro-composition. Let’s take a look and see what this all means photographically.

The world is highly chaotic in visual terms. It’s out of control, really, visually. I don’t know how you can take pictures without composing and waiting.

This photograph is complex because of the number of moving elements within the frame and yet Abell has the ability to make it appear very simple because he has captured the moment at precisely the right time. The background is important to this image because the sky and the horizon line allow us to see the first of three internal frames, a man on horseback. Abell’s point of view, crouching down, has made it possible for him to place this cowboy and his horse where both are completely visible and recognizable. The second internal frame is found in the middle ground where you see two more cowboys rustling a calf to the ground. The position of the calf and the two men lets you still see the background. The third internal frame is in the foreground where one man is holding down a calf while the other prepares to castrate it. Once again the point of view does nothing to interfere with the other two pictures we see in this photograph. Abell has said he made one other decision when making this photograph and that was whether or not to include the man holding the red bucket. It was a split second decision and the results of Abell’s attention to micro-composition are very clear. The inclusion of the red bucket elevates the picture beyond what it might have been otherwise. Just cover that part of the photograph and then see how you feel about it.

The composition is why this photograph works. It is the reason why we remember it and probably why it is the most requested Sam Abell photograph by his National Geographic colleagues. These days many photographers walk around hunting for things to photograph. Abell’s approach shows what can happen when we slow down and think about what we are photographing, how when we have the patience to wait for the photograph to reveal itself, we are rewarded.

To learn more about Sam Abell’s photographs, check out this video where he talks about some of the images in his book The Life of a Photograph.