Book Review: Pictorial Composition (Composition in Art) by Henry Rankin Poore
A painting or a photo captures a moment. The moment may convey a story, or it may just freeze a beautiful scene. But no matter how good the picture is from a technical point of view, it is the composition that binds the components together. So the study of composition is concerned with the arrangement of the picture elements within the frame.
But how important is composition in video, and what does a book about painting composition has to do with video? A video shot is really just a superset of still pictures. Video adds another dimension to still frames: time; but in essence video is just a sequence of frames. So it is important to be familiar with pictorial composition. Camera and/or subject movement or inherent subject interest can sometime mask crappy composition. But this masking is really just that: it won’t really hide bad composition, just delay its discovery. And in order to successfully tackle moving images a firm grasp over still composition is a requirement. Interestingly, paintings are often much more complex in terms of composition compared to cinema shots. This is because, generally, the eye has more time to explore a painting and appreciate the details.
Great composition can also be a hindrance. A gritty movie can be hindered by beautifully composed frames. Good formal composition also implies deliberation so it may counter the feeling of immediacy. Selecting an appropriate approach to composition is often an important artistic decision: adding pictorial interest to a shot or refraining from doing so can lead to dramatically different results. In any case, as is often the matter with art, it is good to know the rules before breaking them.
It is always best to learn from the masters and Pictorial Composition (Composition in Art) does exactly this. The classic book teaches the basics of composition through the works of the masters. This is a short book; being around a hundred pages it doesn’t linger over the material. The book does not underestimate the reader, so one may occasionally need to reread passages. The text is concise and there are lots of reproductions and sketches to illustrate the points discussed.
The first and most important subject covered is balance: picture elements weight, formal balance, balancing on various axes, balancing by opposition of lines and shapes, etc. Other topics include: transitions inside an image; circular and angular composition; lines; composing with one, two or three figures and with groups of figures; the compositional characteristics of light and dark tones.
The patient reader will emerge out of this book with a decent understanding of composition fundamentals. This will imbue a greater appreciation of the various visual forms of art and will also enable an analytical approach to image judgement. Being critical is a good thing; honing one’s analytical skills never did hurt anyone. Neither does the ability to articulate what you intuitively feel about an image. Ultimately, this can lead to better shots and better understanding why something works out or not.
What Pictorial Composition (Composition in Art) is not? It is not concerned with motion, so it is not about composing fancy moving shots (although it is up to you to apply what you’ve learnt in any way imaginable). It is not a guide or a “how to” book: it is less concerned with process and more with the perception and analysis of the result.