The Photographer's Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos By Michael Freeman

By Michael Freeman
Focal Press, $29.95 (192p)
ISBN-10: 0240815173 / ISBN-13: 978-0240815176

In a follow-up to his well-regarded book, The Photographer's Eye, Michael Freeman has written another fascinating, if sometimes diffuse, text that aims to help photographers to be more thoughtful in their picture-making.

Of the various popular authors in the photo-technique category, Freeman occupies an unusual niche - he is among the more scholarly. What other best-seller in the industry freely quotes from Immanuel Kant and Ernst Gombrich? His work is tonally more like a readable textbook in an undergraduate photography course than a tip-oriented handbook. He peppers his writing with references to art history, philosophy, and even musical theory in order to address the fundamental issues in photography.

The scope of this book for example, aims to answer the elusive question of 'What makes a good photograph?' and further addresses how we humans 'see'. He asserts that though understanding the underlying principles that make an image compelling to look at, photographers will make more intentional photos that are of more consistent quality.  

To organize this grand and ambitious topic, he divides his subject into three broad categories - intent, style, and process - and then further breaks these areas down into smaller component parts. His chapters, dense with illustrations, photographs, and sidebars, contain a wealth of information and theories around how people determine when something is visually gripping. For example, he has a section on 'balance’ and with multiple photographs, graphic representations, and even a Van Gogh painting, he describes how effective use of contrast, color, shape, spatial arrangement, and relative sharpness can create a sense of balance within a frame. On any given page, Freeman manages to make potentially theoretical and dry information digestible and thereby provides information, analysis, and even inspiration. 

His approach worked somewhat better in The Photographers Eye when his subject was centered principally on composition and design. In that prior work, he could provide analysis and guiding principles to a much more discrete area of inquiry. By going to such a large topic in this book, he attempts to juggle theoretical questions (what informs people’s aesthetic judgment?) with the practical (how can we make captivating pictures?) with the art-historical (how has taste in photographic composition evolved over the last several decades?) The effect is often revelatory, but sometimes scattershot. The book is better absorbed in segments rather than as a whole.

If the reader is comfortable skipping about within the text as well as synthesizing disparate bits of wisdom, the wealth of valuable and well-illustrated information makes this a very worthwhile read. The Photographer's Mind may lack a completely cohesive unity of purpose, but at a page-by-page level, the insightful content holds interest. Freeman's latest offering reaffirms his place as a skilled photographer and deep thinker with much to impart about the variety of mental processes at play when viewing an image.

The Photographer's Mind is available on as a paperback and kindle e-book version.

Adam Koplan is head of the Performance Department at the Dreamyard Project which brings arts programs to NYC schools. He is also Artistic Director of The Flying Carpet Theatre Co.
Follow him on Twitter @FlyingCarpetNYC

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 20
By eNo (Nov 23, 2011)

I agree that Freeman tends to be Scholarly, but I find his approach both informative and challenging. If anything, in this age where we reflect so little as we press the shutter over and over again, he invites us to consider in new ways what we are trying to accomplish in a photograph. Actually, I find this book more readable than his "Photographer's Eye", which I found more scattered. But tastes vary.

And let's not forget that he can be practical as well. I found his very pragmatic "Mastering Black and White Digital Photography" a launching pad for my ongoing B&W work.

Comment edited 32 seconds after posting
1 upvote
Irakly Shanidze
By Irakly Shanidze (Nov 23, 2011)

It's just great. After Philipp Gross's "Tao of Photography" this is the first book on photography that I really enjoyed reading.

1 upvote
By MPA1 (Nov 23, 2011)

Certainly not available in Kindle form on my account at! Maybe for US customers only?

By foto2021 (Nov 22, 2011)

Cy Cheze wrote: "A possible sequel: The Photographer's Kit. An illustrated history of cameras might sell well, appealing even to sour souls who don't warm to discussions of theory."

Unfortunately, that is exactly the sort of comment that one might expect on DPReview, where discussions about equipment dominate. The vast majority of discussions in the forums are about equipment. The vast majority of the forums are about equipment.

Thank goodness Michael Freeman has the ability to help us see beyond the curse of an obsession with equipment and instead think about how to use it to inspire, inform and entertain others through our images. But how many people will buy his books, think and learn, rather than buy some expensive new piece of equipment amid the faint hope that it will improve their results?

By eNo (Nov 28, 2011)

Here, here. Equipment is important as enablers for our vision. But we have to have vision. So much discussion here are pixels, noise, range and sharpness and so little vision. Lately I try to spend little time here for that very reason: I don't want to lose valuable time dealing with the technicalities at the detriment of the more crucial question of what makes a good photograph.

Pascal Riben
By Pascal Riben (Nov 22, 2011)

Just have a look 10 seconds on some samples pictures with text explanation on amazon : it's the perfect way to make uninteresting photos all your life and to think about composition in a completely stupid and false way. If you're a beginner, stay away from this kinkd of stuff, buy books from true photographs and artists (or visit Magnum or Agence Vu site for example) and learn from them.

By DjarumBlack (Nov 22, 2011)

As an owner and reader of both books, I actually like this one better than The Photographer's Eye. The use of examples is excelent and find the text very readable. On some of his references to specific artists or photographers I found myself looking them up for reference and found his references enlighting. I agree with some of the other posters that this book is easier to be read in chunks than as a whole.

1 upvote
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Nov 22, 2011)

A possible sequel: The Photographer's Kit. An illustrated history of cameras might sell well, appealing even to sour souls who don't warm to discussions of theory. Indeed, to take a truly Kantian stance, the machines are the true ojbects and drive all our categories of perception about a photograph, which is a 2D abstraction that fools both eye and mind.

Think of it: a 150-year survey of photographic contraptions, accompanied by sample prints that display the high-points or contributions of each camera variety or technological advance.

By Joel (Nov 22, 2011)

I like these reviews and anything else that might expose me to photographic resources of any kind that might be interesting.

The tag for this article has a typo for the name of the author.

Michael J Davis
By Michael J Davis (Nov 22, 2011)

Yes, I think that's a good review. The 'scattershot' effect I found mostly in the third section - process - where he deals with approaches that I would consider somewhat esoteric (eg simulated cross-processing), while leaving out others.

I guess, however, that's an opening for his next book...!!

Interestingly, I can't find the new cover photo in the previous edition of the book!

By bullfinchphoto (Nov 22, 2011)

One of the best books for photography design and composition. The photographer's eye as well. Definitely must-read.

By ianz28 (Nov 22, 2011)

I wonder how much more money this website is generating for Amazon now that they post book reviews a couple of times per week?

Of course that would be outside of the money already generated through advertising and click-throughs.

By GSD_ZA (Nov 22, 2011)

A website of this quality doesn't survive on altruism alone. As long as the reviews themselves are not financially influenced or biased, then I welcome them. This site is called dpreview after all, so one should expect reviews on all things photography related. If you don't like it, there are plenty of lesser sites for you to choose from.

By 453C (Nov 22, 2011)

I wonder when people will tire of trying to tie every activity (or lack of activity) on this website to some evil Amazon profit scheme.

Amazon is a for-profit business that owns DPR. Unless someone can provide proof of ethical wrongdoing, this kvetching is silly and insulting.

1 upvote
By ianz28 (Nov 23, 2011)

I never said that I have a problem with it and my post was not a complaint.

As you said 453C..... It's their website they can do as they please.

Honestly a legitimate question. I am curious how many people purchase the books that are reviewed here - and to tie into that how much money is being generated.

By NGGurton (Nov 27, 2011)

Well, first off, you would need to get Amazon to release sales figures publicly, and then get Nielsen Ratings to release similar data based on customer and expert reviews of it books, and, and, and... all of which Amazon and anyone else connected to them will block. But I suspect, based on my own experiences and personal observations that the amount of sales Amazon generates from book reviews here and from websites of similar size are infinitesimal at best. Similarly, which photography books I purchase is based on reviews by a lengthy list of editors and reveiwers, (mostly full-time paid staff working for larger publications like the NY Times or Wall Street Journal, Photo District News, etc), and my personal interests. In regrds to Michael Freeman's book here, and the "Photographer's Eye", I have them both and refer to them regularly, as I do with Edward Weston's "Daybooks".

1 upvote
Matthew Miller
By Matthew Miller (Nov 22, 2011)

When I got this book (for Christmas last year — my father and I both got each other copies!), I read it a few pages a night over the course of several months. Freeman's work is very readable, but I agree with the author of this review that it lends itself to being taken in smaller bites. You could sit down and read through the whole book, but you'll probably get more out of it with a slower approach.

I think this applies to The Photographer's Eye as well, and to Mastering Color Digital Photography, which is another great book by Freeman. (Unfortunately put out by the very sloppy Lark Press. I'd love to see that tidied up and re-released by Focal Press.)

Matthew Miller
By Matthew Miller (Nov 22, 2011)

The link at the end of the article to "The Speedliter's Handbook" is presumably in error.

By richardplondon (Nov 22, 2011)

"The Speedliter's Handbook is available on as a paperback and kindle e-book version."

Useful to know, probably, at least for speedliters - whatever they are.

But - what about "the Photographer's Mind"? Where can we get that? (grin)

1 upvote
Lars Rehm
By Lars Rehm (Nov 22, 2011)

Thanks, corrected now.

Total comments: 20