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Book Review

Michael Freeman: The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
by Gisle Hannemyr
Published: 2010-09-02.
Michael Freeman: The Photo­grapher's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos; Focal Press, 2007; USD 19.77; (26 x 24 cm, 192 pages).

(Buy this book at: - US, - UK.)

Back in 1988, photographer Michael Freeman published a legendary book named The Image. After it went out of print, used copies were sold for three figure amounts at auctions. Now, the book has been updated and re-issued by Focal Press. The new edition is called The Photo­grapher's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos. The book is in large format and lavishly illustrated with Freeman's own images.

In his introduction, Freeman discusses the conflict between the technical aspects of photography (i.e. mastering the equipment), as opposed to the aspects that shape the photograph through composition and design. He writes:

Most people using a camera for the first time try to master the controls but ignore the ideas. They photograph intuitively, liking or disliking what they see without stopping to think why, and framing the view in the same way. Anyone who does it well is a natural photographer. But knowing in advance why some compositions or certain combinations of colours seem to work better than others, better equips any photographer.

He goes on to say that there seems to be a lot of books on the market that discusses the technical aspects of photography, but no book that teaches composition and design from the photographer's (as opposed to the art critic's) perspective. What Freeman obviously want to do with this book, is to remedy this. He believes that the principles of composition and design in photography, like in any other graphic art, can be thought, and he has written this book to prove this.

It follows that this is not a general photography tutorial aimed at beginners. Freeman sticks to a single subject, described in its sub-title: “Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos”. I know about no other photography book that discusses this subject to the same level of depth as Freeman's book.

The book is illustrated with high quality photos from Freeman's portfolio. There is of course no technical data attached to any of the included photos. Technical details about focal length, ISO, shutter time and aperture is not what this book is about, and Freeman probably regard them as distractions.

Here's another quote from the introduction:

A great deal goes on in the process of making an exposure that is not at all obvious to someone else seeing the result later. This will never prevent art critics and historians from supplying their own interpretations, which may be extremely interesting but not necessarily have anything to do with the circumstances and intentions of the photographer. What I will attempt to do here is to show how photographers compose their images, according to their intentions, moods and abilities and how the many skills of organising an image in the viewfinder can be improved and shared.

The way he shares those skills should become clear from the a breakdown of the book into its constituent chapters:

  1. The Image Frame. This chapter focuses on the image in a spatial context, including frame shape, stitching, cropping, filling, and placement.
  2. Design Basics. Here Freeman introduces the two most fundamental principles of photography design: Contrast and balance, and how these may be used as narrative tools.
  3. Graphic and Photographic Elements. This chapter discusses the use and placement of fundamental graphic elements, such as horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, and the fundamental photographic elements, such as blur, focus and exposure.
  4. Composing with Light and Colour. This chapter completes the toolbox available to the photographer, discussing the use of colour and black & white in photography.
  5. Intent. In this chapter Freeman challenges all of the rules introduced in the previous chapters, emphasising that creative photography is not created by following rules, but from having a purpose and vision.
  6. Process. The final chapter goes beyond the elements of composition and design, and introduces the process of capturing a better image. Freeman does not believe great images are just found, but the result of a deliberate and elaborate process.

The images in the book compliment the words well. In addition to the photos, you get diagrams and sketches that illustrate the major points being made about composition and design.

I am very impressed with the images, the text, and the overall presentation of this book. However, I am not totally convinced that reading Freeman's book is all that is required to give me “the photo­grapher's eye”. But it has increased my awareness about photographic composition and the processes that goes into creating a better image. I hope that I shall be able to make some use of that awareness in my own photography.

One of the strengths of Freeman's book is that it goes beyond the theory of design and compositional rules. In the last two chapters, Freeman challenges the reader to look into his or her own intentions, processes and narratives. To tell the truth, I found some of the challenges presented slightly discomforting. But such discomfort is probably necessary if one is serious about doing creative photography.

I think the best way to read this book is in a group, either in a classroom, or just with some photographer friends. By going out in the field and practising the rules and processes described in the book, and discussing the resulting images afterwards in a class or group setting, should be fun and challenging. However, the text is well written and clear, and most photographers will probably also benefit from reading it alone.

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