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445 of 458 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Single Volume on Design and Composition in Photography, June 14, 2007
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This review is from: The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos (Paperback)
This is the best single volume on visual design and composition in years. Painters need a book this good. Freeman's earlier book from the 1980s, "Image," had long held the status, IMHO, of being the best single volume. His new book surpasses the older one by a significant margin.

Freeman is one of very few photographers, or artists of any ilk, who can articulate their art-related thoughts in concrete, accurate, analytical ways, and not in the jargon of so much of what is written about art that lacks any actual content. Not only is he an outstandingly gifted photographer, with dozens of books to his credit, but one who has mastered the grammar of images and is one of the few who can describe how and why visual phenomena work.

This is the most complete volume on this subject out there in terms of numbers of topics introduced and discussed at a reasonable length. It is also the most effective melding of the insights of current Gestalt perception theory with traditional design elements/principles in print. The first 60% of the book deals with the more concrete aspects of designing an image.

The last two chapters marry the other part of composing that is harder to articulate well: the message in a image, or the photographer's intent. Only in this book has an author attempted to define major categories of intent in making an image. And then categorizes the physical and mental aspects of how a photographer goes after, constructs, or recognizes an image - the process.

Throughout the discussions he introduces those aspects of digital imaging that a photographer can use to influence a picture's design. Perhaps the most powerful development is that digital in-camera and post processing technologies allow the photographer to apply to color images all those image control aspects formerly available only in the wet chemistry darkroom to monochrome images, as well as many more.

Make no mistake.... This is a book for readers. One cannot get all of this book's benefit from the illustrations alone, in the manner of so many "how-to" art and photography books these days that have pictures, but little text. But this is the book to which thoughtful photographers will return over and over for many years.

The only way it can be significantly better would be to have twice as many pages. It would make a wonderful textbook for any studio art, photography, art history, or art appreciation course in high school or college/university.

5 May 2009, update. The number of reviews, number of responses to reviews, and other sources of information indicate that this book is a certifiable best-seller among photography books. The response to this book indicates that there is a large market for information about the structure of images and for effective writing on that difficult, intangible interplay between design and content, or of structure and expression/message.

My hope is that Freeman and other capable author/photographers will publish books delving further into the composition problem. To date, the in-print situation is grim. This one, Mante's, and Hoffmann's books are about the only ones yet in English that deal with composing photographs at higher than the most elementary levels. Together these three books comprise quite a strong presentation at the intermediate level of image structure and of various approaches to imparting meaning and expression in one's images.

There is more, though, that can be said. To date there is no thorough look at the role of similarity and proportion in causing a viewer's eye to move through an image. That is to say, which characteristics among, shape, size, tone, color, direction, etc., assume priority in one's eye in which combinations, and how does proportionality, or violations thereof, work?

To date, this reviewer cannot find any published research that updates Alfred Yarbis's ground breaking insights into eye movement in images from the 1950s and 1960s. His work is quoted to this day as the definitive study in this field. His results seem to imply that many artists' assertions about the role of "leading lines" may be nothing but bunk.

Do light tones and bright colors really appear to project toward a viewer and darks recede? A Russian scientist has a considerable argument that, in fact, darks are what appears to "project" and lights recede. His work is not available in English.

Is the success or failure of an image still articulable only at the level of intangibles? At this point in the history of the arts and contributions from visual psychology and brain studies, one should be able to make specific assertions about structure and its role in the success or failure of carrying the artist's expression or meaning.

Unfortunately, there are very few artists or photographers who also write who can focus clearly enough on these nitty-gritty issues to make statements that have actual meaning. An inordinate percentage of writing about the arts still reduces to hand waving and ranting: always has, always will, it seems.

It is one of Freeman's gifts that he can write analytically and be a very successful, versatile artist. This book's success indicates that the demand is there for hard-hitting information on images. Three authors does not amount to much of a supply.
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 12, 2008 10:38:06 AM PST
T. Campbell says:
Another very fine book will hit the market in March 2008, Harald Mante's "The Photograph," published by Rocky Nook. Thirty-some years ago, van Nostrand Reinhold published in English Mr. Mante's two books "Photo Design" and "Color Design." Since then none of his material has appeared in English.

I tracked down several of his publications in German and decided for my own edification to translate "Das Foto," from German into English as "The Photograph." I also notified the publisher that I thought the material interesting and important enough to please find a way to get it into English. After more than a year, they asked to use my translation, presumeably, because I had already done the work. This book consolidates the material from the two 1970s books into one presentation with a great deal of new material, new topics, and hundreds of new photographic illustrations and diagrams.

When the book becomes available in March, I will at the first opportunity write a review. Until then, my feeling of this book's importance is to share co-equal value with Freeman's book. The authors' approaches are somewhat different in presenting the design/composition problem, but the breadth-depth ratios for several topics and the topics the one book covers and not the other make owning both my highest recommendation. Readers owning both books will have a very strong presentation of intermediate to advanced level material in design/composition for photography and the painting/drawing arts.

Posted on Mar 22, 2008 8:51:06 AM PDT
T. Campbell says:
Mante's book, "The Photograph," is available, and I have already posted a review.

It is difficult to impossible for me to recommend one over the other of these two books. Freeman's approach to the composition/design problem begins with the dynamics of the image frame, moves to gestalt perception theory, and then to the traditional design elements and color contrasts. Mante starts right in with the basic design elements and how they operate in the image frame and presents much more material on these subjects than Freeman. The sum of these two approaches makes for a formidable, but still not exhaustive body of information on this issue. Freeman then looks into aspects of the photographer's purpose in taking an image, whereas Mante looks into ways to manipulate the image's effect by balancing aspects of objective/subjective techniques.

To compare and contrast the look and feel of these books falls primarily on the writing styles and illustrations/diagrams. Both books require the reader to read. Looking at the illustrations can convey only a fraction of the insight of Freeman, a master photographer and writer, and Mante, also a master photographer and writer, but, primarily, a master preparer of new talent as a teacher. Freeman's photographic illustrations cover a much broader set of subjects and purposes than Mante's, which show a consistent approach to visual design of a high order. Freeman's diagrams use the capabilities of Photoshop to convey his points, while Mante's diagrams are more schematic. Both of their approaches and textual and visual styles are equally effective in supporting their arguments.

Posted on Sep 20, 2008 10:29:02 AM PDT
Alexander says:
I thank to Mr Campbell, I read your reviews and found them helpful. These two books are a refreshing rain in the desert of post-soviet union with lack of good art education.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 14, 2008 5:21:28 PM PDT
T. Campbell says:
To Alexander,

Are you aware of the book by the Russian photographer and teacher, Alexander Lapin, "Fotografia kak," which a most kind gentleman mailed me after I contacted him. This gentleman had reviewed another book on and compared Lapin's book. Lapin's book is most excellent, and covers some subjects not discussed in any English language book to my knowledge. It is more advanced than any English text on design and composition in photography or painting/drawing. In particular, Lapin examines the effects of similarity and proportion as factors causing eye movement in a manner and to a depth I have not seen elsewhere.

Were Lapin's book available in English, I'd certainly recomment it along with Freeman's and Harald Mante's books as the best information available on design/composition from a structural point of view.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 24, 2008 6:10:28 PM PDT
Alexander says:
Thank you for your attention mr Campbell. I know this book and have it. It's not as well-illustrated as "the photographer's eye" of course, but I will pay more attention to it after your suggestion. Let's hope it will be translated one day into english.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 21, 2008 8:52:11 AM PST
T. Campbell says:
As for other recent books in English, I most highly recommend Harald Mante's "The Photograph," and Torsten Andreas Hoffmann's "The Art of BLack and White Photography." Both are available through The set of these three books, Freeman's; Mante's; and Hoffmann's, comprise the best concentration of excellent writing on design/composition thus far to be published in English, especially so closely to each other. Each book has somewhat different emphases and a different depth/breadth ratio in the presentation.

If you have any idea or influence to get Lapin's book translated, I'd suggest the effort to be worthwhile.

While your arts training over there may be less rigorous than once upon a time, and ours may currently be strong, our training distinctly lacks written material (books) on objective aspects of making and evaluating images. Photographers trained during the Soviet era were extremely well trained and saw very well. Lapin is evidently from that generation. His wife was an excellent photorapher, too.

Another book of merit is the first edition of Bill Smith's "Designing a Photograph." The first edition, not the second edition currently in print, is the best writing on the relationship between Gestalt visualization and image design in English. It may be available through or is certainly available on, a world-wide market for used books.

Good luck.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 14, 2009 9:07:14 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 16, 2009 12:41:14 AM PST
Alexander says:
I'm reading the Lapin's book now, and it gave me many answers I didn't find in "the photograph" and "the photographer's eye" which I was looking for. Though they deal at better depth with many elements of composition, and Michael Freeman touches the problem of formal and poetical meaning of protography, Lapin does it at the needed depth to cover (and for me, to complete) the topic. The same about formal problems of balance and other advanced (though not complex to understand as some may think) topics. The book shines.
The Lapin's book gave me the feeling of completion of this broad topic, at least to a certain extent I felt I need. I think such a book should be translated into english that the world could use this brilliant resource..
If you are certain about translation of Lapin's book and know for sure it may have a future, maybe I could contribute and help you.
I have contacted Lapin and he asks what we can propose. I'm also interested what can be done.

Posted on Jan 27, 2009 3:51:50 AM PST
Ning Zhao says:
Hallo Herr Campbell,

your book review and conversation with Alexander have been very informative. Thank you very much!

Posted on Jul 12, 2009 6:06:27 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 12, 2009 6:11:11 PM PDT
Alexander says:
One person has made a great impact on publishing this and another book, and this is mr Campbell. And those are the best 2 of 4 books I have about composition. Your efforts cannot be estimated enough. Another is "The visual story" by Bruce Block, which should be considered by anyone who is interested in composition, and one more by mr Lapin, yet not translated. I'm sorry I couldn't contribute to mr Lapin at that time, and for my harsh review of "The photograph". I only hope Lapin's book will be translated one day, and appear here on Amazon.

Posted on Jan 14, 2010 11:46:10 AM PST
Mopholo says:
T. Campbells review is done much better than anything I could say on the subject, so I will simply concur and add a note.

While others use terms to sound knowledgeable, Freeman uses knowledge to define terms. I have been looking for an expansion on Freemans work and will be looking at the other material T. Campbell has reccomended.
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