I recently realized that I have a problem: I buy too many books, especially photography books. Not those cheap Kindles, but those beautiful, expensive printed books that ended up decorating my wall, or my coffee table, and, in my case, maybe many coffee tables.
“Buy books, not gear” is probably the most common response you’ll get from other photographers when you Google “how to improve my photography.” It’s great, but how should you actually do it? And how to do it effectively to really get better?
Photography books are a bit like the likes of Instagram. It doesn’t really mean you’re a great photographer just because you have a lot of them. Learning is an active process, so you can’t expect to improve just because you have the books under your pillow.
In this article and this video, I will present my findings, after much research on the subject, on how to learn from photography books.
Tip #1. Set an objective
Our mind is naturally in search of a goal. He doesn’t just need a goal, he uses it to his great advantage. With a goal in mind, we can consciously but also subconsciously absorb much more information much faster.
Do you remember that time when you decided which car, which phone or which breed of dog you would like to buy and suddenly those cars, dogs or phones were everywhere? You saw them much more often than before, didn’t you?
Now, it’s very unlikely that there will suddenly be more cars of a brand or color that you’ve decided to buy, but instead you’ve become aware of it. You just weren’t really interested in them before, so your mind didn’t pay attention to them.
There are times when you just pick up a book of photographs, look at the photos, and flip through the pages aimlessly, and that’s fine. But let’s say you have a goal in mind. You take a photography book and before you open it, you stop for a minute and focus on what you would like to learn from this book.
Let’s say I have this book by Marry Ellen Mark and I really want to learn environmental portraiture. What I want to focus on is how the subject is positioned in the environment and in the frame. What’s included, what’s left out, is it laid back or outspoken, etc. Looking at the photographs I can identify these elements, styles or techniques and it also helps me better understand what is going on once I start to see patterns in his work.
Tip #2. Inspiration
There is nothing simpler than buying a photography book on Paris before going there. But what if you can’t travel or just don’t live in Paris or New York? Even if you’re only staying in your hometown, that doesn’t mean you can’t be inspired and creative.
I’ve been admiring this shot taken by my hero Elliott Erwitt for a while now:
However, it was still far from Paris where I live. Well, I bet just like me, you can find similar places to try and replicate the shots you love.
Setup isn’t the only thing you can take inspiration from – there are all sorts of things like angles, color schemes, or themes. Don’t be afraid to copy your heroes because maybe that’s how THEY learned photography by copying other photographers or painters.
Tip #3. Do what you love
Having a variety of photography books from a variety of different photographers means there’s a good chance you’ll like and don’t like a lot of photographs. This is useful because you can actually find what you like or dislike about a particular image.
This happened to me recently while I was reading a book by a great photographer and one of my heroes, Joel Meyerowitz. I found this picture which seemed like a really fun idea, but I didn’t really like it.
At first, I was like, “Who am I not to like Joel’s pictures? I was thinking about it and pondering it, comparing it to other photographs in the book, when I suddenly realized it. What I didn’t like about this shot is part of the frame. Looking at Mayerowitzs photographs, I realized that very often his frames are so well composed that I can look almost anywhere and find something interesting.
I then checked my Lightroom catalog and confirmed the obvious. This visual ‘noise’ was something I didn’t like and the reason why I wasn’t able to ‘hold’ many shots. My guardians, however, had one thing in common: I excluded visual noise or muted it during post-processing.
I’m not saying that’s going to make me a master photographer, but actively thinking about what you like or dislike in a photo will help you with your own photography. All you have to do is ask yourself, “Do I like this photo and why?” What don’t I like about this picture? » Is there a similar theme?
Tip #4. Every photographic project is different
When you look at the photography monographs, you will notice that they are often different. Even when you have two photography books by the same photographer, each expresses a different theme, idea, or style for each project. You can see what the photographer saw and how he presented it, which I think should be your goal. You want to show what you saw and why you took the photo.
Unlike Instagram or other social networks, which seem to favor single “strong” images without further context, photography projects should guide you through whatever subject the artist chooses to present. Why did the photographer choose these subjects, angles and locations? Was it shot in color or black and white? Large format or 35 mm and why? And the sequencing? So many questions that I ask myself each time I have a photographic monograph.
Retrospectives offer something a little different. They show you the evolution of the artist and the progress of his work. Both can be useful, but it all depends on what you are looking for.
Tip #5. Rules
Let me start by telling you that there are no official rules in photography. You can take photos as you see fit of anything you like. It’s not like they’ll let you sign a paper that you’re going to use the rule of thirds when buying a camera. But… there are ideas turned into a kind of advice that people like to call rules.
You can take thousands of photos and then choose the ones you like, there’s nothing wrong with that. Do you have to follow the rules? Nope! These are tools that can be used but should not be.
Let me give you an example. Suppose you are looking at two of your images, one blurry and the other sharp. One of the techniques for your photography can therefore be to focus correctly on your subject and then you might get a result that you like. However, that doesn’t mean blurry photos are bad or anything. Your artistic approach may lead you to take only blurry photos.
What these techniques aim to teach you is the ability to make decisions yourself. If we hadn’t told you about the focus, you would end up with sharp photos and blurry photos without knowing how you got the result. We all have a different definition of what a good image is. What you actually get out of these techniques is up to you.
Imagine you are holding a book of your hero photographer, a grand master of photography, say Henri Cartier-Bresson. Did he use the rule of thirds? Or maybe a dynamic symmetry? Did he focus on the subject’s eyes? What effect did this have?
As I said earlier, learning is an active process and books are really great tools to help us achieve what we want. Next time, before opening a photography book, set a goal. Once you realize your likes and dislikes, research rules and techniques and get inspired.
I leave you with this: buy books, not materials.
About the Author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, critic and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. Kaninsky runs the About Photography channel. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram and his YouTube channel.