Understanding Composition

Author: Steve Mulligan

Publisher: Photographers’ Institute Press

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

It may or may not be hard to understand the technical elements of photography, like exposure, focus, depth of field, tonality and color correction, but putting all of these together to create an image that is pleasing, that is, composing the photograph, is the real test of a photographer. In this book, Steve Mulligan offers some of his ideas on the subject.

After offering a few comments on equipment, the author deals with what he calls the basics: viewpoint, balance, the rule of thirds, leading the eye and so forth. He next covers color and focus and exposure and light. He follows this with a chapter entitled “In Practice” with discussion of landscapes, wildlife, portraits and abstract, although his main concern seems to be with landscapes. He finishes with chapters on computers and the final image. The book is illustrated with Mulligan’s own photographs, some of the most useful of which are comparisons of two images of the same subject. Many of Mulligan’s pictures are of the prairie rather then the more spectacular landscapes favored by some other photographers. The photographs are printed on a coated stock that seems well suited to capture the subtlety of the author’s work.

Unfortunately, despite the title’s assertion that it is the “Complete Photographer’s Guide” Mulligan seems to limit himself to the area with which he is most experienced: landscape photography with a large format film camera. Even though he claims to offer instruction on the application of computers to photography his treatment is not only cursory, but seems to reflect a belief that the principal use of Photoshop is in the creation of composites rather then the software’s ability to control tonality and color (among other things) to create the image that the photographer envisaged.

Right from the start, the author put me off by seeming to suggest that a camera should be selected for the ratio of the sides of the output format, as if the shape of the picture for the best composition could never be changed by cropping the image after capture. Moreover he suggests that the reason for selecting a particular focal length of lens seems to be for in-camera cropping, as if perspective control (the altering of the relationship between near and far objects in the image by using different focal length lenses) was not a method of controlling the composition. (I was particularly startled to find that an image in 4 by 5 format that he offered within the book had been cropped into a square format for the cover, completely changing the feeling of the image!)

Several pages were devoted to material that seemed to have little to do with composition (or if they did, the author failed to make the connection), like the contents of his camera bag or the organization of his chemical darkroom. The author often made suggestions for shooting techniques as if they had no relevance to composition, like the advice to always bracket, either by changing shutter speed or aperture. Yet one of these methods of bracketing will have an effect on depth of field, an important consideration in composition.

Based on his images, Mulligan has useful advice about composition to offer. Unfortunately beginning and intermediate photographers will have a hard time extracting that information from the text.


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  1. […] another great find by Mr. Scott Bourne a famous photographer & educator. The book is called Understanding Composition written by Steve Mulligan. There is always something interesting in any books about photography. I personally go to Chapters […]

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