Michael Freeman Composition photography book: Review

By Geoff Harris

Michael Freeman is one of Learning with Experts’ most experienced tutors and a widely recognised (and widely published) authority on the art and craft of photography.

He’s been writing books for decades: The Photographer’s Eye and The Photographer’s Mind, for instance, are some of the most articulate and inspiring expositions on the creative image-making process you can read.

Michael shows no sign of slowing down and his latest work, Michael Freeman on… Composition, sees this formidable intellect return to one of his favourite subjects.

Anyone who’s read a Freeman book will recall the emphasis he places on good composition; as he explains. “Composition, or design if you like, is the one ingredient of a photograph that you reliably have control over, and which you can use to influence how people will look at your work.’ It’s easy to skim over this statement but it’s actually very profound. Yes, you have control over your camera, lens and exposure settings (or if not, you can learn), but when it comes to the weather and light, whether anything interesting will happen on the street, whether that bird/elephant/rutting deer will appear on cue, etc, etc, we actually have very little control.

So why not get good at controlling what you can?

Why think about composition? To get the viewer interested in your image, for starters…

I also like the way Michael refers to composition as ‘design.’ It’s easy to think, ‘yeah, yeah, I know about the rule of thirds and leading lines’ but what were once useful compositional aids can fast become cliches.

Thinking of composition as how an image is ‘designed’ helps you get beyond mere box-ticking. You wouldn’t be happy if houses, cars and clothes were all designed in the same way, so why put up with this in your photography?

As mentioned, Michael has written lots in the past about good composition, but this new book does much more than rehash older ideas.

For the book, Michael has included real-world testing of the compositional ideas that he is suggesting.

“With the help of a human behavioural software company, iMotions, we’ve put photographs through the latest eyetracking technology to see exactly how viewers look at them, and whether the photographer’s ideas (mine, in this case) bore fruit,” Michael explains.

“In other words, to find out whether design ideas actually work. Most of the time they did (phew), but some failures and bad ideas were ruthlessly exposed. At least there are lessons to be learned from those.”

Michael put his images through eyetracking software to see how the viewer responded to his pictures and what stood out for them

It’s impressive that such a widely respected photography author isn’t afraid to put his money where his mouth is, and look again at some of his approaches and assumptions if necessary.

We won’t spoil the book by telling which images got the reaction Michael was hoping for, and which didn’t, but it’s very interesting reading.

Much of Michael’s theory and practice is about getting the viewer to notice and engage with your images, which is the real reason for working on your composition.

In our image-saturated age, the viewer has to work even harder to grab somebody’s attention, so a well ‘designed’ image stands a better chance.

Michael’s book will greatly boost your toolkit for achieving this, covering everything from basic concepts like angles, lines and thinking graphically, through to advanced theories around the fibonacci sequence or lesser known concepts such as rabatment.

Lighting can also used as a compositional tool

All of the chapters are immediately applicable to your day to day photography, but one chapter that can really make a quick difference is Chapter 3 – Framing.

As Michael notes, there’s a difference of opinion among photographers around how tightly or loosely to frame a subject, which is putting it mildly.

I have sat on a few judging panels for big photography competitions over the years and am still amazed how many poorly framed images I see.

People obsess about their choice of gear, sharpness, digital noise or blowing out highlights, but then spoil an otherwise attractive picture by cropping in so tight that the subject is suffocated by the edges of the frame, or gets lost in an expanse of other distracting elements as the photographer didn’t zero in.

The book gives plenty of help if you lack confidence with framing and cropping

I think we could all do with a reminder of the principles of good framing, or if the circumstances require it, good cropping in image-editing software.

There can also be lots of misunderstanding about shooting in the square (1:1) format, and again, Michael’s book does a great job of taking us back to core principles. You shouldn’t just shoot square as it’s Instagram-friendly or somehow trendy.

The square format is attractive but don’t just use it for the sake of it

I strongly recommend Michael Freeman on Composition to all photographers; I certainly learned a lot about designing my pictures more effectively so they grab people’s attention, interest and emotion.

This, after all, is what photography is really about for most of us. Yes, it can be rewarding and therapeutic as a solitary pursuit, but most photographers get a much bigger buzz when their pictures connect with another person.

Michael Freeman on...Composition is available now

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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