Simplifying Close-up Composition


© Tracy Calder

One of the great joys of teaching is learning something new from your students. I have been a tutor at West Dean College of Arts and Conservation for a few years now (mainly teaching close-up photography and slow/contemplative photography) and I can honestly say that the mix of characters and wealth of knowledge I encounter there is incredible. 

A few weeks ago one of my students, Trevor (, introduced me to the e-books of Bruce Percy ( I have been a fan of Percy’s work for a while now – his minimalist landscapes are great examples of the art of keeping things simple – but it was the first time I had seen his e-book Simplifying Composition (2nd Edition). Scrolling through the pages I was impressed by his concise explanations of how to guide the viewer’s eye around an image, and even more impressed by the illustrations! 

A few years ago I wrote an article on eye-tracking for Black + White Photography magazine, based on Professor Guy Thomas Buswell’s research into how we look at works of art. (If you would like to see the whole feature let me know and I will publish a PDF here.) Buswell’s research is more than 80 years old now, but it still makes for an interesting read. The video below from Will Patera uses the original eye-tracking data from Buswell’s experiments to visualise how his subjects experienced the picture. (Will has a great explanation of Buswell’s methods too.)

Looking at Percy’s e-book, and revisiting Buswell’s work, made me think about how composition sometimes goes out of the window when we are shooting close-up. We can get so hung-up about focus, controlling depth of field, and keeping everything steady that it’s easy to forget that we still need to lead the viewer’s eye into and around the frame comfortably. While Percy uses the wider landscape to illustrate his points, his comments on flow and compositional devices can easily be applied to close-up work. 

If you have come across any good photography e-books (or physical ones for that matter!) let me know and I will try to cover them here. 

  • Bruce Percy’s e-book Simplifying Composition costs £11.99 and can be downloaded from his website here.

  • Guy Thomas Buswell’s book How People Look at Pictures* can be purchased from Amazon (or a number of other online retailers).

  • I will be running the next close-up photography course at West Dean in spring 2019 (feel free to email me for details:

(* Amazon affiliate link.)