An Interview with Our Former Photo Editor Peter Ensenberger

Hang out with Peter Ensenberger, former Arizona Highways Director of Photography, this Friday at the Barnes & Noble in Chandler, AZ, where he’ll be signing copies of his new book, Focus on Composing Photos.

For 25 years, Pete oversaw all of the ins and outs of our Photography Department. Translation: our award-winning photo guru was in charge of everything related to photography — from the magazine, books and calendars to all of our other related products, including our Website. Needless to say, we kept Pete plenty busy.

Below, Pete talked to Arizona Highways about his new book, his tips for amateur photographers and his favorite lunch haunts…

Why did you decide to write this book?

This book came about in an unorthodox way. The acquisitions editor for my publisher approached me about writing a book on photography composition after she read one of my “Photography Talk” blogs on the Arizona Highways Website. The opportunity just fell into my lap.

What was your intent? What do you want people to take away from the book?

It’s a book about the fundamentals of composition, so my main objective was to give photographers at beginner and intermediate levels a solid understanding of the principles of good composition. I want to help them take their photography to the next level. But I also put in a few things that advanced photographers can use to improve their photography as well, such as the sections on color relationships and Gestalt theory.

(A little background on gestalt theory: Gestalt is a German word meaning “shape.” It refers to theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920s. These theories describe the human brain’s innate self-organizing tendencies. One example of gestalt is the perception of a recognizable shape where it doesn’t actually exist, such as seeing the figure of an animal in the billows of a cloud or the face of Elvis in a grilled cheese sandwich. If enough of the shape is indicated, the brain completes the whole by filling in the missing information from memory. Gestalt theory has useful application in all the arts.)

How long did it take you to write this book?

The actual writing phase took about 6 months. But the time between my first contact with the publisher and the book’s release date was about 3 years.

How is your book different from other composition “How-To” books out there?

I added in-depth discussion of the reasons for the so-called “rules of composition” to give readers a solid understanding of why certain techniques lead to better photographs. It’s not enough to simply apply the rules because you should. The rules make much more sense if you know the rationale behind them. I also included a chapter in the book on when, why and how to break the rules to good effect. The book is loaded with color photographs of examples to support the text.

What makes a great photo?

That’s a very complex question. A great photograph begins with a few basic ingredients: Good light and shadows; balance, simplicity, and seemly relationships between compositional elements. But beyond the components of good composition, every great photograph stirs up emotions and forms a connection with the viewer to communicate a message or tell a story.

Should the next generation of photographers learn how to use film or is it appropriate to stick with digital in this day and age?

Film certainly has its good qualities, but availability of film and the costs of processing have made it nearly impossible to continue shooting film. And the advantages of digital photography have far surpassed film’s good qualities. Digital technology gives us so much more creative control to achieve our vision. Camera sensors continue to improve and quality equipment is very affordable. The immediacy of digital capture gives photographers so many advantages over the old film days. But just because an image is captured digitally doesn’t necessarily make it good. Photographers still must employ sound compositional techniques that lead to good photographs.

How has photography changed since your days at Arizona Highways?

There are vast differences between 1984, when I started at Highways, and today. Technological advancements completely changed the workflow for photographers and photo editors. We’ve all become a lot more dependent on our computers for file prep, file management and even in the delivery of images to the client. I’m not wistful about the old film days, but it was a simpler time.

Ever miss a shot?

Oh, yes — and more than once! And the ones I missed are the ones that haunt me. I can still see them in my mind’s eye. But I’ve learned valuable lessons from those missed opportunities.

If you could shoot anything, what would it be?

Can I say, “A photo assignment from Arizona Highways?”

So which dive restaurants do you miss most down here?

Well, I don’t miss the dives (and we tried them all!) but I actually do miss eating at a few of our regular lunch haunts – Pepe’s Taco Villa on Camelback, Wild Thaiger on Central, The Paisley Violin on Grand Avenue. Now that I’m thinking about it, suddenly I have a craving for the carnitas torta at La Piñata on 19th Avenue. Thanks a lot!

Top 3 tips for a novice photog?

  1. Always work in the best light conditions. It’s the quickest and easiest way to improve your photography, and it doesn’t cost anything. The interplay of light and subject is a top priority in good image making.
  1. You don’t have to spend a lot on photography gear to make better images. In fact, you already possess the most important piece of photography equipment — it’s between your ears.
  1. Try to be original in your approach to your subjects. It’s OK to be inspired by the photographs of others, but don’t go out and copy them. Strive to improve upon them.


Filed under Et Cetera, Inside Scoop, Photography

2 responses to “An Interview with Our Former Photo Editor Peter Ensenberger

  1. I’m excited for Pete and the publication of his new photo composition book. I think every budding photographer should run out and get one immediately. Better yet, go to his book signing at Barnes & Noble in Chandler!

  2. Peter, it has been since the 1980’s that we met when I visited you at Arizona Highways in Phoenix. I hope to see you at your next book signing in the valley when I can plan to see you on a day off from work. I’ve been taking pictures for many years and I plan on continuing to learn more as the years go by.

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