Going Inside The Photographer’s Mind with Michael Freeman

Freeman deals with difficult topics like using shapes, lighting and leading the viewer's eye into the image as typified by this Namibian Sand Dune Photo. Image Copyright David Cardinal.There are a lot of great “how-to” books on photography, including some of our favorites like Joe McNally’s Hotshoe Diaries and Moose Peterson’s Captured, but there aren’t many good ones on the elusive subject of composing photographs—which is where much of the true art lies in photography. One of our favorite authors on this subject is Michael Freeman. An accomplished photographer in his own right (his photographic studies of Cambodian temples in Ancient Angkor are still the high-water mark of temple photography) and prolific author, we’ve recommended his excellent The Photographer’s Eye since it was first released. Now he has another ground-breaking book that pushes the topic further into how photographers think about composition with hundreds of examples covering dozens of topics in The Photographer’s Mind…

One of the biggest problems with teaching or writing about photographic composition is that while there are dozens of rules that you can teach and learn “by the book” the real keys are knowing when to apply which rules and more importantly when to break the rules to create something unique. Freeman deals with those issues head on with specific ideas about how to create classical renderings of scenes ranging from urban grunge to mouth-watering vistas with practical tips for both extremes and everything in between in The Photographer’s Mind.

Because Freeman has photographed just about every possible type of subject around the world his examples cover an unusually broad range of shooting situations from sunlit to nocturnal to HDR to flash. He also does a good job of explaining the impact of digital photography on composition and print production with step by step examples of how he was able to use Photoshop on specific images to create what he saw of the scene in his mind.

To quote from Freeman’s own description of The Photographer’s Mind:

Two and a half years ago I published The Photographer’s Eye, a book which at its core is about composition. … It always seemed to me that the word "technique" was usually being applied to the wrong things in photography. Technique was taken to mean twiddling knobs and working the controls, not to mention the arcana of imaging software. All very well, but what about the result? You could train yourself to fit a flash unit to the camera faster than a weapons expert could change magazines on a Kalashnikov, or learn to despise anyone who doesn’t use Smart Objects in Photoshop, but if the image is boring at the end of it, what was the point?

This image shows a composition which works because the view, pose and lighting all move in the same direction--up towards the sun. Image copyright Michael Freeman from the Photographer's Mind.The techniques that always engaged me (and to be frank, most of the other professionals I know) have to do with image making, regardless of camera model or Photoshop version. My background is editorial assignment photography, usually features, so the pressure is always on to make the shot interesting. It’s quite often about storytelling, and if I’m trying to tell a part of that story clearly, I might (for instance) need to find a viewpoint and framing that relates one thing in the frame to another. Or, can I find a composition and scale that somehow encapsulates the mood and essence of the scene? Or, did another photographer I know already shoot this in a particular way, and how can I be different and better?

…There are real techniques that involve knowing what the frame shape is doing to you, how the eye and mind tend to respond to visual stimuli, and how to create the right balance between surprise and comfort simply by the proportion you allocate to elements In the frame. And because these techniques involve choice of subject and being certain of what you’re trying to achieve (for instance, make the scene lush and lovable, or shock the pants off the audience), composition reaches much, much further than placing points and lines in a rectangle.

From reading it I’d say he’s done the job of conveying the “soft bits” of photography as well or better than any other previous author. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Freeman is he is brutally honest in his writing and is unafraid to trash techniques or images that he things are over-used or over the top. That doesn’t mean you need to agree with him but it does mean that you are getting a hard-edged and realistic view of what works and what doesn’t. It’s too easy for all of us to fall in love with some new subject or technique we have just mastered and fail to understand why it doesn’t necessarily capture our audience’s imagination.

Some of the material, like the chapter on Time and Motion showing various kinds of pans and blurs have certainly been covered elsewhere but he provides good, solid examples of each that are a practical guide to when each might be useful. His treatment of “Leading the Eye” does an excellent job of turning a photographic cliché into useable advice on how to create more interesting images.

And no matter what your style or styles of photography or what techniques you’ve tried I guarantee that Freeman will show you some new ones that you’ll find a use for. Whether it is his advice on how different focal lengths affect different scenes or the role that point of view and depth of field play in portraying the subject he’s thought through and used dozens of different combinations to get the desired effect in real world images over the course of his career and freely shares what he has learned. You can get The Photographer’s Mind from Amazon for less than $20. If you do and you take the time to read all of it or at least the parts of it that are interesting to you it’s likely to be worth many times that in improved results in your shooting. Good reading, and if you do read it please let us know what you think and what you learn from it.

If you haven’t already snagged a copy we highly recommend the companion volume, The Photographer’s Eye:

Enhanced by Zemanta