The Visual Story, 2nd Edition, by Bruce Block

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's an advanced introduction of the basics.

The Long Version: It's important for photographers to be interested in something other than photography. No matter what the subject is, photos are more likely to be successful when there's an outside interest to drive them. Similarly, it's important that photographers get away from other photographers, especially the herd-mind of forums, flickr, and photo-bloggers. But that's not exactly original advice: novice photographers are often told, with sage wisdom, to study the works of master painters. Where the advice falls short is the impression that learning from other media is just for beginners, and in its very narrow view of what constitutes acceptable artistic ideas.

What Bruce Block's book "The Visual Story" brings to the conversation is a master's experience in motion pictures. Since the fundamentals of space, perspective, and composition are the same for single photos and for footage, it's easy to directly apply most of the material in The Visual Story directly to still photography. The books' content that deals with time - movement, repetition, pacing, themes - is also useful for photographers whose ambitions include cohesive portfolios and projects. There's very little that doesn't apply to stills at all, as the book is designed to provide an education, not replace a technical manual.

I was sold on The Visual Story as soon as I found it in the local MegaBooks store. Flipping through it - and the store's photography section in general - to pass some time, I hit on Part B of the Appendix: "Lenses' Effects on Space". In three pages, with six illustrations, Bruce Block not only explained depth of field in a way that I finally understood, but threw in an explanation of 'telephoto compression' as well. I walked away stunned, and promptly ordered the book from the same store's website for considerably less money, with free shipping. Gotta love the internet, with apologies to my fellow under-appreciated retail workers.

I've read Block's book a couple of times now, and I'm going through it once again as I write this review. I'm constantly being reminded of how much I get out of this book. The section on camera movements, specifically how the dolly, crane, and track differ from zoom, tilt, and pan in their depiction of space, blows away thousands of internet posts about "zoom with your feet". It's no coincidence that prime lenses now make up 75% of my collection, and that's just from getting to Page 30 in The Visual Story. Having a subtly different perspective from still photography, and having a different set of problems to solve, brings a depth and detail to discussions that generic photo-instruction books never even get into.

The essence of The Visual Story is that Bruce Block identifies six basic visual components, and discusses how they're applied in creating imagery. Essential to the discussion is the role of contrast and affinity - difference and similarity - in controlling visual intensity. In the sample above, on the right-hand page, are examples of affinity (top) and contrast (bottom) in brightness range; the left-hand page shows contrast and affinity in saturation. After all, this book isn't about taking pictures, or even making movies: it's about controlling the visual structure so that the images say what you want them to.

If I was to create an essential reading list for photographers, The Visual Story would come after "Understanding Exposure" but before "Light, Science, and Magic" and "Perception and Imaging" as the important books to read. Those four books - the last three, anyway - aren't particularly written for dummies, but they cover everything from a practical introduction through to some advanced and esoteric concepts. After that, the rest of the bookshelf is either entertainment or manuals - both of which can be useful, but none are enlightening. Sure, keep looking at paintings and photos, but also watch movies, study advertisements, and learn from graphic designers. And don't forget to be interested in something outside of photography.


  1. Cool find. I'm gonna check this book out.

  2. block's book is ridiculous, especially considering he's never actually designed a film. All theory, with little basis in emotional support of the characters, You cannot "design" a film from the outside in, as he proposes.

  3. I'm a production designer and found Block's "The Visual Story" extremely useful. I disagree that he suggests to "design a film from the outside". Block suggests that you analyze the story conflict (based on character and theme) and then begin to make visual choices to support the story. You should re-read Chapter 9 of the book!


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