Author: Richard D. Zakia and David A. Page

Publisher: Focal Press

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

Photographers can argue over how objective the selection of focus and exposure really is to creating an image that expresses the photographer’s vision. There is a lot more agreement that the composition of a photograph is far more subjective. To read most photography criticism one would suppose that composition is the essence of photography. There is no button on the camera or needle to line up that will tell a person what the best composition is to express one’s vision. Richard D. Zakia and David Page try to provide guideposts for the photographer in Photographic Composition: A Visual Guide.

The approach that they take shows their faith in the image as a story telling device. Almost every page of the book consists of a single image, selected to illustrate a teaching point about composition. The text below states the title of the photograph and, in most cases, the name of the photographer and then a very brief statement about the teaching point. Often the last item on the page is a quotation relating to the image, although often it is not related to photography but rather to the content of the picture. The topics range from triangles in the chapter on geometrics to low angle in the chapter on camera angle. Virtually every rule of composition is covered, including several which one seldom encounters, like continuation in the chapter on Gestalt composition. Each of the chapters ends with exercises which include looking at the works of famous photographers, either in the book or on the World Wide Web, and suggestions for photographs to take to reinforce the teaching points. There are also sections on “Before Capture” and “After Capture”, the latter including something I’ve never seen in a photography book: a section on print captions.

I have no doubt that the book is effective in calling the principles of composition to the attention of the reader. Whether it does so more efficiently than the methodology of other books that discuss composition in more narrative terms is an open question. It may depend on the reader and how he or she best learns. It’s hard to compare this method if one is already familiar with all of these rules, but my guess is that the method is no more effective than the normal narrative method. Unfortunately the area from which I thought I would have an opportunity to learn the most, the chapter on captions and titles, was the scantiest, although it did focus my attention on the subject.

I was disappointed to find that this book provided no more information on a subject that Zakia raised in a previous book: the application of the rules of rhetoric to photographic composition. My own feeling was that this would have been a new and fruitful area for discussion, and I hope that Zakia will address it in his next work.

There is no doubt that composition is one of the most important techniques for photographers to express their vision. It may be that for some photographers, this book will be the most effective way to engage the topic.

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