Book Review: Composing Photos

ComposingCoverWhat does composing photos have to do with filmmaking, you ask?

Alot! Learning the fundamentals of composition will help any filmmaker set up a shot that gives maximum impact to the audience, and you won’t find a better book than Composing Photos to equip you in capturing a scene the best way possible.

A veteran documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange, once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” This profound quote reflects the main theme of this new Focal Press book. Good shots are all around us everyday, and yet it takes a photographer’s eye to be able to see them. So, how do we acquire a photographer’s eye? Some people simply have a creative gift and others can learn by examining good photos and the essential elements that compose them, then practice. Whichever category you fall into, taking good shots should be a life learning goal.

The book chapters are organized around five key elements: 1) A Strong Focal Point, 2) Light, Shadow and Color, 3) Viewpoint and Perspective, 4) Rules of ComposingCoverComposition, and 5) Leading Lines. Because any type of art is highly subjective, the author includes a section at the end called, “Breaking the Rules” which shows where one of the fundamentals described in previous chapters was purposely compromised to achieve the desired effect.

In general, there exists a visual language for what the mind perceives as interesting and visually pleasing. The human eye is drawn to the lightest or most colorful part of a photo. Leading lines are also an essential part of the photo because they draw the observer’s eye through the whole picture to the focal point. It is imperative for the filmmaker to know these fundamentals and be able to use them in order to create a visual storyline that is understandable, meaningful and interesting.

The ability to capture an image is nothing new, in and of itself. Through out one’s lifetime, a person sees dozens of images and movies, including all the photographic tricks in the book, exhausting the novelty of them. Today’s filmmaker challenge is to create shots that are fresh and inspirational, taking the cinematic experience to the next level. This can only be accomplished with informed decisions and building on the five essential elements.

When I read Composing Photos, I knew that I was learning from a master of photographic composition. Peter Ensenberger, a travel and nature photographer, has crossed the world to explore different styles and diverse subjects. His book is filled with amazing photos that will capture your eye as they communicate a message. In addition to the photos themselves, the book is very well written. The author’s style is concise and engaging, you won’t want to put it down. I would recommend this book first as a simple guide on the basics of composing a stationary shot before moving on to other books on camera movement, shot choreography and action.

Author Bio

Throughout his career, Peter Ensenberger has crossed photographic boundaries to explore different styles and diverse subjects. After studying fi ne art photography in college, he went on to win awards as a staff photojournalist for several newspapers. More recently, he served 25 years as director of photography for Arizona Highways, the award-winning nature and travel magazine. His responsibilities for the magazine covered a wide range of roles-photographer, photo editor, writer, and project manager. Peter left Arizona Highways in 2009 to devote full time to his own photography business. Currently, he resides in Tempe, Arizona, where he is a freelance photographer for Black Star, an international photo agency based in New York. Corporate and editorial assignments make up the bulk of his work, with an emphasis on travel and lifestyle. In addition, he leads group and individual photo workshops to Arizona's most beautiful and remote locations.

Composing Photos is part of a Focal Press series called, “Focus On.” Other titles in this series include:
Photographing People
Lighting Photos
Apple Aperture
Photoshop Elements
Adobe Photoshop

ISBN: 978-0-240-81505-3
139 pgs.


GoPro09Makayla Wheeler, the newest SVN Intern, is a 14-year old homeschooled student filmmaker from Florida.  She started filming by taking fun videos of horseback riding while out on the trails.  Recently she has directed and completed two short adventure films - "Outlaw Territory" and "Outlaw Territory 2," and started a promotional video production company as volunteer service to her community.  Makayla hopes to be an freelance director, cinematographer or editor for feature films. Watch for more of her work here, and on SVN Student Filmmaking.