Whether you are a new photographer learning the basics of composition for the first time, or a more experienced photographer looking to improve your photographic composition there is a book on this list for you. The one thing the books on this list all have in common is that they are focused on how to use the rules of composition to better communicate your own personal vision. I focused on books that go beyond the “what” and focus on the “how” and the “why” which is something many basic books about composition are missing.
While the books below span a wide range of skill and experience levels, if you are new to photography, or just beginning to explore how to use composition to create stronger images, the best place to start is with the enormous library of (free!) articles here at Photography Life! There is at least a book’s worth of information here in these articles, which makes it an amazing way to get started!
Table of Contents
“Picture This: How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang
This book is technically not a photography book. The author is not a photographer, and there are no photographs within the pages. But don’t let that deter you. This quirky little volume is the most useful book about composition I have ever read.
Written by children’s book illustrator Molly Bang, Picture This: How Pictures Work is the “why” behind the compositional elements and rules of photography and art. Molly uses basic geometric shapes to illustrate why and how composition works the way it does. She starts out by illustrating the story of Little Red Riding Hood using geometric shapes. A red triangle for Red Riding Hood. Then she adds the mother, and in doing so she shows us how by changing the shape, color and size of the second shape you completely change both the way the two shapes relate to each other and the way the viewer relates to the image. She continues to walk you through the story, adding elements and demonstrating how simple changes to direction of lines and angles, the relative size and position of objects within the frame all affect the way we read the image.
In the second section of the book she illustrates 12 principles of how pictures work. These are not rules of composition, they are the explanations and the psychology behind the rules. Like the first section of the book, these 12 principles are explained using simple geometric shapes, and it is surprisingly effective. In the third section of the book, Molly takes us from principle to execution, demonstrating how these elements of a picture are used within a more complex illustration than the basic paper cutouts used in the rest of the book.
This book is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity. Knowing the rules of composition gives you the ability to produce an image that is visually pleasing. But understanding why and how pictures work gives you the ability to use those principles to better communicate your thoughts, feelings, and ideas to the viewer. This book is simple enough to be useful for the beginner, but a more experienced photographer will be able to apply the principles in the book to their own work.
“Capture The Magic” by Jack Dykinga
If the previous book recommendation was lacking in photography, this book more than makes up for it. In Capture the Magic, Jack Dykinga shares his stunning images and uses them to explain, in very practical terms, how he used the rules and principles of composition. Dykinga does a masterful job of showing us not just how he composes his images, but why he composed them the way he did.
This book is educational, but on a very practical level. The other books in this list focus more on the technical, but this book is the practical example of how to use the rules and principles discussed elsewhere. Jack Dykinga takes it a step farther, as he shows us how composition helped him to go beyond just making great images and allowed to communicate his vision for each image.
Throughout the book he often shows multiple photographs of the same scene, showing us how he refined his composition to more clearly convey his intent. It can be easy to fall prey to the mistake of looking at composition as either “right” or “wrong” focusing on producing an image that is technically correct rather than an image that clearly communicates the photographers intent. Dykinga illustrates that refining composition is about refining your vision, not fixing your image. When he shares multiple images we see that they may all have technically correct compositions, but by making small adjustments he is changing what he communicates through the frame.
The images in this book are stunning, and the text is both aspirational and practical. The subtitle is “Train your eye, improve your photographic composition,” and it perfectly expresses Dykinga’s intent with this book. Once you know the basics of composition, you improve by training your eye. By walking you though his images and showing you how and why he made the compositional decisions that he did, he is teaching you to train your eye so that you can apply these compositional techniques to your own images.
This book is one of my favorites, and photographers of any skill level are sure to learn from Dykinga’s wisdom. While he shares his landscape images in this book, the is nothing in this book that is specific to landscape photographers and I recommend it to everyone, although it should be considered a must read for those who do photograph landscapes.
“Secrets of Creating Amazing Photos” by Mark Silber
Mark Silber’s book Secrets to Creating Amazing Photos is best described as a toolbox of compositional elements. The book is subtitled “83 composition tools from the masters” and that is literally what this book is – 83 tools of composition, drawn from photography and art, each simply and clearly explained and illustrated. In the preface Mark Silber describes it as a cookbook, recipes you can refer to and draw from when creating images.
This book is both simple and deep, each compositional elements broken down very simply (just a few paragraphs about each, with an illustration) but the sheer number of them (83!) means that this book goes well beyond the Rule of Thirds. The layout makes this an easy reference, and as such it is a useful volume for any photographers bookshelf. It’s divided into 2 sections (there is also a third section – putting it together, but the compositional tools are divided into two sections): the fundamentals, and lines that create mood.
The first section starts with the basics, landscape vs. portrait format, leading lines, diagonals. But as the book goes on it starts to dig deeper, with the second section focusing on how various compositional elements can be used to convey mood within an image. The tools in this book build in complexity as they go, but it’s strength lies in the fact that it remains very clear and simple. It doesn’t over explain.
If you like your information presented in a clear, straightforward way and broken down into bite sized pieces then this book is a great choice. This book works well for beginners and newer photographers. If you’re looking to build your visual literacy, and start to learn the tools of composition then this book is for you. But the second section, on compositional tools that create mood, take this book beyond just beginners. It is also an excellent reference guide.
For photographers looking to improve their compositional skills, this book would make an excellent workbook. Mark Silber suggests using the book that way, challenge yourself to create an image illustrating each of the 83 tools in the book. That challenge would be a huge step forward for photographers looking for a way to take their compositions to the next level.
“The Photographer’s Eye” by Michael Freeman
In many ways, the Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman makes the perfect follow-up to Secrets to Creating Amazing Photos. If Secrets to Creating Amazing Photos is the toolbox, the birds eye view, then this book is the down in the weeds, more academic explanations of how to use those tools. In the introduction, Michael Freeman describes the act of composing an image as “organizing chaos” and this book is his explanation of how to do just that.
Don’t let my descriptions of this book as “academic” or “in the weeds” lead you to believe that it is overly complicated, it’s not. This book is immensely practical, but it is by far the most technical of the books in this list about composition. Whereas Secrets to Creating Amazing Photos uses a single image to describe each tool in the compositional tool box, The Photographer’s Eye uses multiple images to show you where and when you might want to use each tool. The text and images are literally packed with tidbits of information as Freeman distills down a complex process into something practical and useful for all photographers.
Like Secrets of Creating Amazing Photos, The Photographer’s Eye begins with framing – horizontal and vertical, landscape vs portrait. Freeman then delves into a deeper explanation of aspect ratio, how to arrange vertical subjects within a horizontal frame and which types of images are especially suited to square images. This is followed up by diagrams of four different ways with which elements can be arranged in a square frame and the effects of each. This level of depth continues through the book, in chapters consisting of Design Basics, Graphic and Photographic Elements, and Compositing with Light and Color, among others.
This book could easily be considered an advanced course on composition. If you enjoy the technical aspects of photography, then this book is a must have. Often times composition and exposure are explained as exposure being the technical elements of photography and composition the artistic – two halves of a whole building this uniquely technical art form we call photography. But Freeman’s book gives pause to that theory, explaining composition in a way that is both technical and artistic simultaneously. He distills photographs to their compositional elements, with diagrams and line drawings illustrating how the composition works in each image.
While the beginner, or newer photographer will want to read this book as a follow up to Secrets of Amazing Photos, the more experienced photographer will find it best paired with Capture the Magic. This book gives you the technical depth to understand how composition works, and Jack Dykinga’s Capture the Magic explains how to take these elements and use them to communicate visually through your images.
I hope this gave you some good ideas for books that can help improve your compositions! Photography books are one of the best ways to get better at photography, no matter what level you’re at. Although these are my personal favorites, there are many others out there, so feel free to let us know below if you have any recommendations.