A brief survey of composition books

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After learning a few basic camera controls, a useful followup is to study composition.  This is a look at four popular books on composition, lighting, and style.  A fifth book on photography in general is added as a benchmark for the more specialized books.  That general book is “Digital Photographer’s Handbook” by Tom Ang.

Learn from Paintings
It’s fairly common to see advice to learn composition by studying paintings.  Which does make sense, painters have been careful about composition and style from the dawn of man.  Before there were even definitions for these terms.  As common as this advice is, only the book “The Art of the Photograph” paid much attention to paintings.  Mostly because its author, Art Wolfe, began as an artist, not a photographer.  That book starts with a chapter on Finding Inspiration.  Which includes a half dozen of his paintings.  These are nice works, just not as recognized as what you would expect in a museum gallery or text on the history of painting.  None the less, if you are expecting any homage to painting, stick with Wolfe’s book.

Learn to See

This is essential to any hope of successful composition, but it can also be a challenge for beginners.  In a nutshell this is learning to detect the various attributes of composition within the scene before your eyes.  Typically an early topic in these books.

    Time to introduce the little graphic I will be using to try and show the differences across these books.  For explanation of the topic each book gets a letter grade: E = Excellent, VG = Very Good, P = Passable, D = Disappointing.  Obviously these grades are subjective, my personal evaluation of how the topic is presented and how thorough the treatment is.  So feel free to disagree.
    Below each grade is a number, which is the number of photos supplied to support that topic.  This number scheme gets a little tricky where a filmstrip is shown, with many thumbnail images.  To keep this from ballooning the photo count I assign an arbitrary count of “3” for each of these filmstrips.  Where a book gives the topic its own section, the count is easy, all of the photos on that page(s).  When a book does not have a section for the topic, then I look for photos that could be examples in various parts of the book.  This photo count could be regarded as an “inspiration” factor.  For readers who are hoping the book will motivate them on that topic.

Learn to See graphic

Attributes of an Image

Most beginners have already heard of a few of the “rules” for composition.  But are not aware of the wide range of attributes that can be considered in making up a composition or style.  Just see the list of topics below!  Each of these books steps through all, or at least most of the topics.  Only one, “The Art of Digital Photography”, tries to provide a quick introduction to several of these attributes in just a few pages.  Call this a good jolt for opening the reader up to what is to come later.

Organizing Multiple Objects

Each of these books displays page after page after page of exquisite minimalist compositions to support whatever attribute is discussed.  The real world is often very different, downright messy with multiple elements scattered about the scene.  So what to do with this chaos?  The obvious move is to isolate one object by cropping with a telephoto focal length, or simply moving much closer to the object.  This “get close” strategy is pretty well beat to death in the Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Composition book.  But, sometimes we do have to show the whole durned scene, ruling out isolation.  What to do then?  No one book hit the ball out of the park for this topic, however “The Photographer’s Eye” at least made a try.

Using Shapes

Outside of a studio it’s rare to come across an isolated object with a strong shape.  But working with shapes can be a subject in itself.  Only the book “The Art of Digital Photography” takes this approach, with a sub-chapter devoted to “Shape”.  This includes 8 photos.  The other books do have photos featuring shape.  Especially “Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Composition”, I counted 10 photos there.  However these photos are shown in support of other attributes of composition.  That they happen to show off shape is not the topic.


Using Repeating Elements (Patterns and Rhythm)

Patterns are eye candy.  Everybody enjoys seeing a strong pattern, even when it may not tell us much at all about the subject.  Note that the book “The Art of the Photograph” offers the most photos that are nice examples of patterns.  But I felt that the write up in “The Art of Digital Photography” was more thorough, so it got the E grade.

Balancing Elements (Visual Weight)

Compared to the other attributes, visual weight can be a little fuzzy.  Visual weight can be seen as having tie-ins with other topics such as color balance, contrast, dynamics, negative space, shadows, and shapes.  Some photographers have a preference for those other concepts and simply skip over visual weight.  Thus the grades here are all over the map, even though each book hides plenty of examples of visual weight.  They just are not explained from that point of view.

Negative Space

This is using a lot of blank or empty space in the composition for greater impact.  Pretty common practice in images for advertising.  Hardly an exotic concept, articles on negative space can be found online in blogs such as Apnphotographyschool, Photocritic.org, PhotographyLife, PhotographyMad, Photopoly.net, and School-of-digital-photography.  So I was dumbfounded to discover that none of these five books mention negative space!  Oh well, moving on.

Background choices

Even though the background is a very common element in composition, only two books provided a section devoted to this topic.  So those two got the better grades.  The other books did mention backgrounds, often, but scattered around the book as a sub-text to other topics.  The photo counts here are rather arbitrary.  Choosing whether the background treatment is really key to a photo is often a grey area.

Point Of View

Which is changing the angle the camera is at in regard to the subject.  There is room for a little confusion here.  We see lots and lots and lots of advice to get closer, to isolate the subject or even fill the frame with it.  That is not quite the same thing as changing the POV.  This concept of camera angle may seem trivial to getting the shot, but the best possible composition depends on the best possible POV, so this topic should not be brushed over.

Horizontal Frame vs Vertical

A lot of beginners never think to rotate their camera to the vertical orientation (aka portrait).  Obvious exception for cell phones!  Basic as it may be, this is something any book trying to teach composition needs to a least touch on.

To Center or Offset

The simpler guides will tell you that centering the subject is a mistake.  Even though that is not always the case.  When the subject is moved away from the center, how far?  That can be answered by numbers games such as the Rule Of Thirds.

Foreground Frame

This device is using foreground objects to block in the view somewhat.  Pushing the eye in toward the subject.  Such framing objects may be seen in silhouette, but not always.

Using Lines

“Leading lines” is a common topic in composition.  Bold lines that are not leading the eye toward something can also be an important factor.

Featuring Depth

I was a little surprised to see that style comes into play here.  As some photographers want to flatten every scene into a strong design, eliminating depth!  Oh well.

Direct Light vs Indirect

Again, style rules.  Some photographers seek contrast, which generally rules out diffuse or indirect light.  Soft light may very well find its way into some of their works, but they make no note of it in their book.

Chiaroscuro Light

The old masters used this light, essentially hard side lighting, to try and show the human form in 3 dimensions.  A very important concept, even if you don’t recognize this arcane name.  All of the books had photos that were nice examples, but only two of the books actually got around to explaining it.


Finally, a topic that got fairly even coverage.


High Key and Low Key

This topic is where background meets contrast meets exposure meets lighting meets processing meets shadow.  So there is room for some confusion, even among photographers.  My view is that it is a matter of style.  Encountered more often in advertising, editorial photography, and portraiture than in other realms of photography.

Contrasting With Color

In other words, how different hues can relate within a photograph.

Color balance and Tints

A dominate color can set a mood.  And there is more than one way to nudge a hue into dominance.


Not just black and white, but also black, one hue, and white.  Such as Sepia.  It seems like today’s photographers who are shooting people take this tradition more seriously than those shooting landscapes (with apologies to Ansel Adams).

Blurring for Effect

I mean motion blur, due to a low shutter speed.  Not focus blur.  This can have very creative results.  Once again I was surprised by uneven coverage across these books.


This is a fuzzy topic.  Also goes under other labels such as Construction, Empty Canvas, Planning, or Process.  And some successful photographers disregard it entirely.  Thus room for lots of confusion.  Approaches to the topic are also very different.  In “Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Composition” there are several nice examples of how to construct a composition (empty canvas method).  In “The Photographer’s Eye” there is much more discussion on the distinctions between visualization and reactive composition (intent).  The “D” books have no photo count because we can only guess if any of their photos were visualized.


In my view there was no clear cut winner here.  For the student seeking to nail down the fundamentals, I would suggest “The Photographer’s Eye”.  With a very important caveat: “The Photographer’s Eye” is saturated with historic references that are irrelevant for somebody seeking to just get the concepts down.  You have to learn to skip over those passages.  For any who were hoping for a more concise read than that, my second student choice would “The Art of Digital Photography”.

For those seeking inspiration through beautiful images more than composition theory, know that “The Art of Digital Photography” is rich with photos of architecture and people.  The color palettes in “The Art of the Photograph” are a dream that few of us will achieve.  “Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Composition” is always bold (or beyond!).  And “The Photographer’s Eye” often gets into story telling or style.

For advanced topics take care to pick and choose among the books.  My hope is that this little survey gives an idea of how each of these books goes in a different direction.  I enjoyed them all.