Recommended Composition Books

Composition books abound. Very few actually deliver anything useful. Most of the time, what I see in composition books is one of the following:

  • The same old advice (straighten your horizons, use rule of thirds, etc.).
  • Photographers showing their images and trying to explain how they composed them, but not doing a very good job of the explaining.
  • Incomplete or disorganized thoughts that are random and wandering.


Disclaimer: I've long been working on what I believe will be my seminal book on photography. It explains composition in a straightforward, understandable, well-reasoned, and well-tested manner. So I've got a horse in this race.

For me, composition is thinking about what the viewer sees and understanding how things impact that. For quite some time I have recommended a very simple book that was originally intended for young artists: Molly Bang's Picture This: How Pictures Work (affiliate link). So many people followed my recommendation on this inexpensive little book that it got reprinted (hooray!) and I got emails from Molly trying to figure out what had happened. Frankly, every photographer should own this book and take it to heart. There's not a huge takeaway. But the fundamentals for building a stronger understanding of composition are all there. If you can't take away something from this book, you're going to have a hard time figuring out how to compose at all. 

The one consistently decent photographer/writer on the subject of composition I've found is Freeman Patterson. Within almost all of his books there are nuggets worth finding and digesting. There's a bit of the last two things I mentioned in the bullet points, above, too, so you sometimes have to read carefully and infer to get useful information. But it doesn't hurt that he's a darned good photographer, either. Sometimes just the images in the books are inspiring, too. Rather than point to one of his books, I'm going to point to a page of results (affiliate link) for his books on Amazon. Many of his books go in and out of print, get updated, or get refined in some new version, so this is probably the best way to deal with his works, where you can see them all in one place.

Likewise, I'm going to recommend another photographer/writer, Michael Freeman, particularly his The Photographer's Eye (affiliate link). Apparently you have to have the "freeman" in your name in order to be able to write effectively about composition. I've already applied to change my name to Thom Freeman Hogan. 

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