Harald Mante's The Photograph (Rocky Nook, 2008) – translated from German by Thomas C Campbell III is my first text on picture composition and design. I've read books about the technologies involved with photography and books that explain why a particular photograph really works, but Mante's book explains the principles behind good photographs. And the value of this is that it gets you past understanding why a particular picture looks good and into how you can replicate the success of that photograph.
How exactly does Mante go about doing it? He breaks his large book down into the basic elements of interest in a picture. There are five major sections on photo composition in the book dealing with points, lines, shapes, universal contrasts and color contrasts.
Take the first section on points. Mante starts by discussing pictures with a single point of interest and how its position can change the perception of a photograph. Then he introduces additional points, carefully explaining how collections and groups add perception options to the composition.
All through his text, Mante deploys copious photographs – some almost thumbnail size. I found this to be hugely useful because it gave me lots of data points for each of the principles described by Mante. There are multiple elements at play in each of the pictures, but instead of explaining all of them at once, you tend to focus only on the ones being described. This allows the reader to understand the mechanics contributed to the picture by the immediate principle alone.
In the next section Mante explores the use of lines (real and perceived) in photographs. By the time the next section rolls around on shapes, the book really pops because you can see how the various elements of points, lines and shapes are interacting within a photograph.
What I enjoyed most in the final two sections on contrast is that while the discussion can tend to be obtuse, Mante offers a lot of practical details. In one instance Mante talks about how wide-angle lenses and long-angle lenses contribute to contrast in a picture. We all know that happens, but Mante articulates it in a way that is reused by photographers.
All wide-angle lenses support the impression of spaciousness on the two-dmensional surface by exaggerating the perspective and the sizes of the objects between the foreground and background. Long focal-length lenses can convey impressions of depth only by contrasting the sharply reproduced detail in the plane of focus with the blurred, out-of-focus background or by showing shapes that overlap ambigously.
This level of practical detail is excellent.
I had some minor problems with the book. While I appreciated the photographs in both quality, volume and relevance – I wish they had been captioned exclusively to drive home the underlying principle. Because Mante describes theory, the book tends to be difficult to read in long stretches – so I would recommend keeping aside enough time to absorb the information in it.