Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Composition Field Guide Book Review


“Successful image making is all about arrangement and not about content!”

This is the rallying cry of Bryan Peterson, author of Understanding Exposure, as he implores readers to spend days to junkyards photographing garbage to train their mind’s eye to “see” better composition in the early chapters of Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Composition Field Guide. He makes a compelling argument for the junkyard, and throughout some of the book’s more poignant chapters, I found myself saying, “wow…yeah…” as I read. His ideas are so simple and logical that you’d think that they would be self-evident to most good photographers, but so many of things he suggested along the way, I had never thought to do.

Another Book on Composition…Ugh(?)

Books on composition are hit or miss, with 95% being “miss.” Thus far, I’ve found two books on composition that I’ve liked: The Photographer’s Eye (more on this title in a later post) and this book. The problem with books focusing on composition is that most authors don’t have a whole lot to say on the subject (in fairness, a very difficult one to teach to others) and simply harp on the Rule of Thirds, share some sample images, and impart “wisdom” that is not universally applicable. I’ve found that the best way to improve my composition has not been to read how-to books dedicated to the topic, but to browse books by the photography masters. Even when I grabbed this Peterson book from the library, I hedged my bets by also grabbing Ansel Adams in the National Parks and The Great LIFE Photographers, among other books (it’s practice for me to always leave the library with more books than I can carry, performing a juggling act on my way to the car–my goal for this year is to read 52 photography books, so I’ll be making a lot of visits to the library!).

Much as I’m attempting to use this blog as a way to train my eye to better see the photogenic qualities of scenes outside of Disney, Peterson uses Understanding Composition to train readers to see the photogenic qualities of subjects beyond “obvious” landscapes (it’s a very fitting first review for this blog, in that sense!). This book is a great tool for that, and for improving your compositional eye in general. Peterson gives excellent advice accompanied by photos that illustrate his advice, and examples of “lesser” photos. The field guide name is apt, as it’s less an abstract book about composition than guide that you can take with you (there are even a few exercises in it!).

Peterson’s writing gets the job done and borders on being engaging, but it lacks the humor and personality found in photography books by some of my other favorite authors. His examples are a bit formulaic, with one of his favorite ways of introducing an example being, “all of my students in a workshop were taking a photo of X, but none of them saw Y, which was really great…here’s why!” Although this is a bit tedious, I don’t think it’s arrogant on Peterson’s part. His writing resonates because he works on a level all photographers can understand and relate to.

Professional Photoshoppers Need Not Apply

Photographers who enjoy spend hours in front of the computer editing a single image may not enjoy Peterson’s work. Peterson is unabashedly “old school,” and strongly believes in getting things right in the camera. However, he’s not so old school that he swears off all uses of technology when editing images, he just prefers technology that frees up time to create more images in camera. As he puts it, “the experience of creating an image is about clicking a shutter release, not a mouse.” While I don’t agree with all of his advice (specifically that you should attempt to avoid cropping), this getting it right in camera sentiment resonates with me. The less time I can spend in Photoshop, the better. However, some people enjoy Photoshop-time, and if you’re one of these people, you are less likely to enjoy Understanding Composition. It’s still a great book for you, you just may not like some of the shots Peterson takes at you.

As Peterson himself points out in one of the closing chapters, you shouldn’t feel bad about disagreeing with him. I certainly disagree with his early-on statement that you should always frame as tightly as possible and avoid cropping. (That he mentions the Nikon D800 while saying that you don’t want to crop away image quality is especially puzzling), because I feel that you can always crop away unwanted area in post, but you cannot retrieve area that was unshot because you went as tight as possible (and in my case, the inevitable straightening of the image in post requires a bit of cropping). More often than not, though, you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement, or even picking up the camera to put Peterson’s teachings to use.

Peterson: Legendary Legacy?

When I look at books by Adams, Henri Carter Bresson, Richard Avedon, and other photography legends, and then compare them to the titles by Bryan Peterson, I wonder if Peterson will end up being one of the photographers from our generation later considered a legend. He might not have a comparable body of work to any of the aforementioned photographers, but he has taught the fundamentals of photography to a generation, he is a thought-provoking photography “thinker,” and his work is very strong.

Regardless of how he is regarded decades from now, Understanding Composition should be regarded very well right now. It is a true field guide, and it approaches composition from a different perspective than the typical “Rule of Thirds. RULE OF THIRDS!” perspective that is found in most books concerning composition. After reading Peterson’s book and going through the exercises contained in it, you will find yourself seeing potential subjects in a different way. The dude who taught many of us how to the basics of exposure hit another home run with this book, which will teach newbie photographers the basics of composition, and will teach experienced photographers ways to refine their approach. You may not be itching to take a trip to your local junkyard after reading, but you’ll certainly want to go out and take better photos.

I highly recommend picking this book up from your local library or buying a copy on Amazon, and taking it out on a shoot with you.

Your Thoughts…

What do you think about books on composition? Are they a useful learning tool or is a good eye something that is “unlearnable?” How do you think history will view Peterson? Share your thoughts on these titillating questions…or anything else…in the comments. One lucky commenter might become a renowned expert on postage stamps!

10 replies
  1. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    My local library doesn’t seem to have this one of his, but I did pick up his books on portraits and seeing creatively.

    When I started, I read Understanding Exposure like everyone else. I liked it, but there was another book that I thought was actually better for a complete newbie (for one thing – I didn’t understand ISO on a digital camera and Peterson basically never mentions it). Sadly, I have forgotten the name of the other book so I can’t recommend it to others.

  2. Mike
    Mike says:

    Ok, I will give these a shot. You talked me into this one and Understanding Exposure. Hopefully it will help this newbie out.

  3. Jon Gossett
    Jon Gossett says:

    Great review. I picked up Understanding Exposure on your suggestion and now it looks like I will be picking this up as well. Thanks for the review and I can’t wait to see what else you post on this new blog.

    • Jon Gossett
      Jon Gossett says:

      Oh yea. I really liked understanding exposure and as soon as I get it back from a friend who got their first DSLR for Christmas I plan on reading it again.

      Have you read Petersons Understanding Flash? I am planning on getting a speed light for my camera and need to learn how to utilize it.

  4. Nick
    Nick says:

    I have yet to find a single decent book on composition and I think that’s because its an exceptionally hard skill to teach. But I am curious to check out this book. I picked up Peterson’s Understanding Photography Field Guide after hearing so much good about his Understanding Exposure book. It turned out to be an excellent ‘compilation’of many of his other books (including much of Understanding Exposure) and saved me many dollars on books! It’s my go-to photog advice book and I’d recommend it if you havent seen it yet.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I really liked this one, and I don’t think it suffers from the ‘compilation’ problems that some of Peterson’s other non-Understanding Exposure books do (although I still enjoyed Understanding Shutter Speed, I felt like I had already read a lot of it).

      I’ll have to check out the field guide you mentioned–thanks for the tip!

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