Cracking Composition: My Favorite Books and References

Composition lies at the center of photography, painting, and drawing. Capturing the viewer’s attention, telling a story, invoking a mood all rely on composition at some level. In my quest to make better images, I have spent much of the last six months studying lighting and composition. I suppose one way to talk about composition is having an “eye” for what looks good. My concern is whether composition is something that can be mastered without having an underlying eye. Never one to be dissuaded by a challenge, I went looking for books and other resources. The jury is still out, but I am having fun learning!

To me, composition happens on two levels. The first level is the technical aspects of the image. For example, a tree coming out of someone’s head in a portrait is a technical failing unless intended. Lighting, color or black and white, and location fall into the technical side of things. However, the next level, and again, this is my personal view, is the story, beauty, or why anyone should care about the image. A perfectly composed picture could be sterile and unappealing, while a sloppy one might be compelling. This level is far more subjective than the technical one. The technical level is readily taught, but what about the second level??? I have no idea. What I have settled on is learning basic rules of composition,  then looking at example images in an effort to discern which rules an image adheres to.

There are many books on composition, and like everything else in the world, quality varies. Initially, my goal was to locate a reference that clearly defined basic composition rules. I discovered that beyond the Rule of Thirds, there seems to be little agreement as to what the remaining rules are, what they are properly called, and when they should be used. I like exactness, and the arts are anything but. After a lot of searching, I found a post that was exactly what I was looking for.

Barry Carroll’s post on PetaPixel, “20 Composition Techniques That Will Improve Your Photos,” offers a clear set of rules with logical names. I poured over that post for hours, made a few notes, and went through photo books and magazines looking at either award-winning photos or those by famous photographers. I found that the rules Carroll put forth worked very well. Specifically, they made me pay much closer attention to each image. Thus, instead of glancing at an photo for a few minutes, then moving on as I had been doing, I tried to match each image with one or more rules, then decide what about the image did or did not work. For example, I would ask questions such as “what draws in one’s eye?” or “how does light affect the mood?” or “would a different angle have been better?” Becoming more critical of my images was one immediate effect of analyzing published images using Carroll’s rule collection.

I also noticed that I began to separate snapshots from intentionally-made images. For example, sometimes, I take shots of a flower because I want to document its size and that it came back in the spring. Other times, I want to make a portrait. For snapshots, I use expired Fuji 100, but for portraits, it is Ektar or Portra. Nothing I am saying is in any way profound, but to me, it is a big deal because I got the first Maxxum 7000i to take snapshots, and the fact that I’m now trying to make portraits is a little surprising to me.

After making good use of Carroll’s post, I went looking for books. The books use the same naming terminology as Carroll about 40% of the time, and they also differ among themselves, which I find frustrating. However, the value of the books is they offer more images and more detailed discussion of each image. Here are my favorite books.

Marc Silber’s, The Secrets to Creating Amazing Photos: 83 Composition Tools From the Masters, like Carroll, gives rules and image examples. Silber has 83 rules, which vary from principles to what I would call suggestions. For example, he offers “blur” and “primitive, simple bold” as composition techniques. Though he provides image examples, many seem to overlap and be only slightly different ways of saying the same thing. Though it may be obvious to Silber, how “stable” differs from “primitive, simple, and bold” is not at all obvious to me. That being said, this book has provided ideas to consider, so it has been helpful.

In Mastering Composition: The Definitive Guide for Photographers, Richard Garvey-Williams also takes the approach of offering a set of principles and suggestions. What I find most helpful, though, are the absolutely beautiful image examples. The explanatory narrative is also more detailed overall. Every time I look at this book, I want to load a roll of color film and head out into the world.

Finally, we come to Better Photo Basics: The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Taking Photos Like the Pros, by Jim Miotke. This book is structured somewhat like a class. The first part has lists of what to do and what to avoid, followed by a series of assignments. It is not a composition book in the same way as the others, but the lessons and advice boil down to composition advice. What I like most are the explanations that discuss why taking a picture in the manner suggested is a good idea. The assignments cover everything from macro images to portraits and are a source of inspiration and instruction. The photos here are also pretty good.

Using these sources, I have been able to get some idea of how I want to approach still life photography. I have other books, but these are the ones that I find most useful. Meanwhile, my lighting experiments are progressing. Only time will tell if I have an eye for still life photography. Now that winter is coming, I can devote the hours usually spent managing the garden to photography. I can’t wait to apply what I’ve learned!

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