A snapshot shows the world what your camera sees, but when you create a composition, you show the world what you see. And that, as it turns out, is entirely the point.
Ian Plant’s book Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition belongs on the digital bookshelf of every serious photographer. It is a hugely informative, well-analyzed and finely crafted work on a truly important aspect of creative photography (or other visual art): composition.
Visual Flow is a thinking person’s approach to composition (which is the only way to truly create images, rather than “capturing” them), and the thoughtful explanations honestly provide a deeper level to the reader’s understanding of composition. Since that is really the point of buying a book on composition, I will say this up front: you can learn about creating art by reading this book.
This book is an in-depth work, with a lot of thought put into defining the whys behind the “rules”. Visual Flow also includes plenty of healthy explanations of the whys behind breaking the “rules”. It is so popular, in some circles, to pay lip service to being a “rule-breaker”. To read some forums, it seems nearly mandatory to discuss the importance of rule-breaking. So much so that people have a tendency to boast about the rules that they are breaking almost before they even learn what the rules are.
But in Visual Flow, there is a healthy understanding that compositional “rules” are techniques to be drawn on to achieve the creative vision of the artist, not corner-cutting autopilot mechanisms that work in the absence of such a vision. You absolutely do need to know the rule of thirds, for example, in order to understand composition, just as you need to know what exposure compensation means to understand and control exposure. But you don’t automatically turn that dial to the camera-determined correct exposure, and you don’t automatically follow the rule of thirds without understanding the whys and wherefores.
I hear people quote the “rules” all the time, and they seem to know quite a few of them: the Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, the Law of Simplification, and a whole host of other aphorisms, axioms, commandments, decrees, edicts, formulas, guidelines, maxims, ordinances, prescriptions, regimens, tenets, and truisms. You get the idea.
But do you ever wonder if any of these people have ever stopped to ask the following: Where do these rules come from? Who invented them? Do they actually make any sense? Why do they exist?
Plant himself has clearly questioned and researched each and every aspect of composition, right down to the fundamental concepts. And this is as it should be: this is the level of thinking that creates the books that should get written, rather than the ones that are merely a means to a marketing or vanity end. This isn’t a vanity publication. It’s a fount of critical ideas. The title itself, Visual Flow, comes from Plant’s way of summing up his unique approach to composition.
Imagine you are standing in the middle of a small river, gazing downstream…. The flow of the river is irresistible…. This effect—this irresistible pull—is precisely what you want to accomplish visually with your photographs.
Composition can be straightforward and nebulous at the same time. For the literal- and technically-minded like myself in particular, who struggle to grasp spatial relationships that come naturally to people who “have an eye”, books like this are a rare and wonderful part of our education.
Analytical (read: creative, curious) minds absolutely need in-depth, hierarchical discussions of principles and applications as part of our education, at least if we’re to accomplish anything in a matter of years rather than decades. This is such a “textbook”-and I mean that term in the best possible way. Visual Flow discusses information from the abstract level of fundamental concepts to specific examples of the applications of those concepts. All of the ideas presented are dissected and explained with an almost mathematical elegance.
It is filled with inspiring images on every page; some are Plant’s own, and others are courtesy of the wildly accomplished George Stocking. These images are accompanied by analyses that satisfy the need to understand, rather than illustrate in the “glancing blow” quickie style that leaves you with a vague idea but no real understanding.
Plant’s dive into art history (“…the painting…by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer rather deftly uses visual mass to create and eye-catching composition,” for example), as well as explanations of the sources and rationale behind principles such as the color wheel (“Colors opposite each other are known as being ‘complementary,’ which essentially means that two colors are opposites, and when mixed in the proper proportion, they produce a neutral color (grey, white, or black),”) are both intellectually satisfying and helpful in building the kind of understanding that stays with you as you go into the field. I have been studying composition for years, yet I found myself seeing visual relationships far more naturally, and recalling principles to be aware of, in my recent travels because I was reading this book. (Luckily for me I received my copy before hitting some of the most scenic spots in the US).
In Visual Flow, there are insights, examples, written and photographic illustrations, touches of humor, and high-level knowledge delivered in a matter-of-fact tone.
Of course, many principles here are discussed in other books on composition. However, the depth of questioning and explanation of those principles set this book apart. In addition, there are ideas discussed here that I’ve never read anywhere else, and they are successfully justified and analyzed. The rule of thirds, for example, is put into perspective as a successful rule in a larger context of opposing elements, and the Golden Mean is also discussed and “debunked”.
The most surprising and memorable of these unusual discussions in the book (for me) is about using the center of the frame. Other treatises on composition would leave us with the impression that the center of the frame is a black hole where art goes to die. At best, analyses of centered compositions always provide an apologia and justification in terms of “rule-breaking” in certain concrete instances, rather than directly discussing how to use the whole frame effectively.
Visual Flow tackles this head-on, explaining with a memorable and effective chess metaphor why the center of a frame should be embraced:
Chess grandmasters know that control of the center of the board is vital to achieving victory, although the pieces in the center might not be the ones that ultimately trap the king….Think like a chess grandmaster: the oft-ignored center now becomes a point of vital interest in your compositions…you can not only successfully place elements of strong importance in the center, but what’s more, make compelling compositions rich with dynamic balance and visual flow. Remember, the great photographer succeeds at breaking the rules where others do not—just as the great chess grandmasters overwhelm their opponents with the unexpected.
Another example is the “myth” of “distraction”; hard on the heels of a discussion of simplification, he makes the idea-balancing point that “distracting” elements are needed to get the eye moving back and forth within the frame:
… there is great compositional power in getting the viewer’s eye moving back and forth within the image frame. For some reason, however, a lot of photographers are taught to avoid any visual “distraction” that might attract the eye away from the main subject. This enduring composition myth has some troubling implications.
I think it is fair to say that this “distraction” rule, at its core, actually makes sense…. The problem, I think, is with the extreme to which this rule gets applied. Too often, photographers think that anything that takes attention away from the main subject is a bad thing. Often this couldn’t be [further] from the truth.
I love that Plant gets me thinking consciously about issues like this; questioning the dogma and the inherent contradictions in some of these photography “rules”.
Now, I’ll turn to the possible downfalls of the book. These are gripes that possibly only intruded on my notice because I read everything with an editor’s mindset. The fact is that these items were distractions rather than major flaws or gaps in material.
Much of the book is full of principles that promise later discussion. This is because the book introduces principles at a basic level and revisits them once we get more context under our belts, so there is good reason for it. But I became a little frustrated because I kept feeling like I’d forgotten a long list of basics and yet hadn’t gotten into the real meat of the book.
Glancing back over my notes and highlighted samples, I can see where these mentions of “we’ll revisit this later” are fulfilled, and how they pull together concepts on a deepening level as the book progresses. The purpose of this becomes much clearer upon a second reading. And the book is worth reading over more than once. The depth of information contained, and—perhaps even more importantly—the way all of the information is integrated, rather than being presented as discrete, oversimplified “rules”; makes this a book worth referring back to again and again.
That is to say, this book is written to take a set of “rules” and turn them into principles. It is written so that a student can reach a conceptual level of thinking about how to create visual art. The information is not simply presented; it is tied together. So that upon repeated reviews, this annoying trait becomes a strength of the book. Techniques and reasons are presented on many levels, then summarized in a page that recaps the techniques according to the principle being illustrated.
One caveat is that this book’s examples and frame of reference is built strictly around nature photography, with a few wildlife images. 100% of the language refers to natural light in outdoor situations. The principles involved certainly apply to every type of photography—not to mention painting, drawing, videography, and other visual arts. But if you want to learn studio photography specifics, such as how to apply classic portrait lighting in a composition, you will not find it here. However, the specialized approach is also a strength, as the author is delving very deeply into a subject area that is his specific area of expertise, and does not give in to the temptation to generalize in order to make sure to reach a broad audience.
Composition books are often frustratingly unsatisfying, or else quite comprehensive but they have a hard time persuading or explaining the whys behind the rules despite their wordiness. 4000 words about the color wheel don’t tell you why you should care, or what the justification is behind green being opposite magenta. Plant’s book successfully bridges this gap, with in-depth discussion, entertaining reading, and elegantly simple explanations.
In addition to the value that any reader can extract from Visual Flow, there is to be an annual companion volume,; a short volume that discusses a selection of Ian’s work from the past year along with other selected works of art, analyzing the composition and referencing relevant areas of the main book. I read the first (Companion Volume 1), and it was great fun, interesting in the way image critiques always are.
Plant goes through some of his own work, other photographers’ work, and classical artwork (a Rembrandt painting, for example). The companion volume is a terrific way to continue applying the principles of composition in critical analyses of artwork, and an excellent recap of the ideas in the main book as well.
Visual Flow and its companion volumes are a thoroughly sound investment in your photography (hobby or career). If you really want to improve your photography portfolio, don’t go out and drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on new gear. For less than $30 and some time studying and practicing, Visual Flow can truly improve your art and your understanding of how to make creative vision happen.