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Book Review: The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman

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The Photographer's Eye is a book about learning to see and visualize a photograph before you ever snap a picture. The composition and design of a photograph is one of those enigmas that some people seem to naturally have, while others have to work at to get it right. The fact is, though, the composition and design of an image is one of the most important aspects of your vision. To get it wrong is to lose the grasp of the viewer taking in your work.

The digital age has brought two new elements to design. First, there is the instant feed back from the camera. This gets the photographer more involved at conception. The second element is the image editing capabilities that are available today. These allow one to continue the design process long after the shutter has snapped.

The Photographer's Eye sets out with the goal of making anyone envision and shoot great digital photographs. It intends to be different in that it wants to explore the actual process of taking photographs — to show how photographers compose an image. The Photographer's Eye breaks down into six chapters covering 191 pages.

Chapter 1, "The Image Frame," examines how photographs are created within a spatial context called the viewfinder frame. You will look at frame shape, cropping, filling the frame, placement, and how to work with frames within frames.

Chapter 2, "Design Basics," shows how composition is essentially the organization of all the possible graphic elements within the frame. It is formed from graphic design principles and follows the same guidelines as would any other graphic art. These include Gestalt perception, balance, dynamic tension, patterns, visual weight, and content.

Chapter 3, "Graphic and Photographic Elements," explains what graphic elements are; two dimensional forms that appear within the picture frame. Because in painting and illustration there is no need to be realistic, abstract treatment is acceptable. Most times though, in photography, you have to use what is there to direct the viewer to your intentions. Here you will explore points, horizontal and vertical lines, curves, motion, moment, and exposure.

Chapter 4, "Composing with Light and Color," brings out what the effects of tone and color have on an image. Tone and color are two separate, yet related concepts that influence our perception of a photograph's meaning. Freeman explains the dramatic modeling through the use of lights and darks. You will examine chiaroscuro, color in composition, relationships of color, muted colors, and the use of black and white.

Chapter 5, "Intent," explains why, in the end, what determines the composition of a photograph is the purpose. What the purpose is should be examined before you make the compositional decisions. These intents can be reactive, planned, simple, complex, conventional, or challenging.

Chapter 6, "Process," within photography, is one of those things that is difficult to analyze. This is partially due to the fact that the composition and taking of the photo is, in comparison to painting and the other arts, one of relatively short duration. Many times even the photographer is unaware of the thought process, but nonetheless there is an evaluation and structure at play, and it is discussed in this chapter.

The Photographer's Eye is one of those wonderful finds that brightens one's day, and gets them pumped up to go on a shoot. This, in my opinion, is one of the best books on composition I have ever had the pleasure to read. It is easy to read and not filled with empty jargon.

Even though the topic of design and composition is certainly subjective, the topics are concrete and can guide you down the path to understanding what works. It is very well thought out, it covers the hard basics: lines, shapes, and balance, as well as the more esoteric topics such as chiaroscuro, the search for order, and reactive thought.

If you are looking to improve the compositional aspect of your photography, if you want the design of your images to improve, then look no further than The Photographers Eye. I rate this a must-have.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.