January 29, 2006

Photographic Composition, by Tom Grill & Mark Scanlon

As has no doubt been abundantly clear over the last week, I've got a new camera, and I've aspirations to learn how to use it properly. One of my friends at work is seriously into photography--which is to say, he's utterly nuts--and he's going to be helping me along. In the meantime, of course, any new hobby is a good excuse to go shopping for books. Unfortunately, finding good books on photographic techniques proved difficult.

The Photography section at the first store I went to (a Borders) consisted mostly of large expensive "art" books and coffee table books containing beautiful pictures from various cities and countries. While a careful study of many of these would undoubtedly benefit a serious student of photography, I'm hardly at that level. This particular store also had a "Digital Photography" section, grouped with the computer books. It consisted almost entirely of books which show you how to use Photoshop to overcome your non-existent photography skills. I saw nothing with an emphasis on how to take a good picture.

I went from there to a large independent bookstore. It has a large section on the arts, including architecture and photography, and I had high hopes. The situation was indeed somewhat better: the books were at least organized by type. There was a large section of books collecting photos by one or another photographer; a second of monographs by photographers; and a third consisting mostly of fashion photography with two whole shelves of books on photographic techniques. I didn't see anything I liked, though.

A couple of days later I went to a third bookstore, another Borders. They had a relatively small photography section, but--wonder of wonders--they had many books on photographic technique. There were a few that were specifically aimed at digital photography; most of those were, again, more about Photoshop than about taking good pictures. But I did find one book that appeared to be exactly what I was looking for: Photographic Composition, subtitled "Guidelines for Total Image Control through Effective Design". Published by Amphoto, it covers all aspects of photographic composition, with lots and lots of example photographs.

I've since read the book cover-to-cover, and anticipate reading through it once or twice more, a little bit at a time--it's a difficult book, but the subject is sufficiently complex that it will take time and repetition to fully digest it. I'm glad I bought it, and expect to learn quite a bit from it.

The book is not perfect, however. The authors take their subject (and, I suspect, their photographs) a little too seriously. Every Photograph Must Make A Statement, and every aspect of the photo's composition must contribute to that Statement. They give some examples towards the end of the book; taken after one of the authors returned from serving with the Peace Corps in Brazil during the 1960's, they are all about his alienation with America as he found it on his return.

Gag me.

On top of that, the authors appear to prefer pictures with a lot of soft focus and without a lot of clear, crisp detail; which I suppose is natural if photography is about making statements rather than taking compelling pictures of interesting subjects. In their defense, of course, they were trying to choose images that illustrated their points without a lot of distracting elements. Possibly, the simplicity of the images stems from their pedagogical style rather than their preferences. Nevertheless, the whole book is weighed down by their serious, portentous attitude. There might be some fun in photography, but you'd never know it from this book.

All that said, Grill and Scanlon manage to explain a variety of basic concepts in reasonable detail, well enough that there are a number of obvious mistakes I hope I won't be making again.

If anyone has a better book to recommend, of course, I'd love to hear about it.

Posted by Will Duquette at January 29, 2006 06:44 PM