To Make Better Photographs, Study More Photographs, Part One

In Photographically Speaking, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David44 Comments


I started this craft innocently enough—purchasing on a whim a Voigtlander rangefinder with a fixed 35mm lens when I was 14—but by the time I was 16 years old, I was hooked and desperate for something with a few more options. I wanted “a real camera.”

I have no idea where I thought my mother would get the money for the brand-new SLR I wanted and kept dropping hints about for Christmas, but in the end, I got something better: a very used Pentax Spotmatic that came with no options at all. I couldn’t kill it if I tried; the one time I managed to knock the shutter off its rails, I fixed it with a Swiss Army Knife. The camera was from a colleague of my mother’s and had belonged to her recently deceased father. It came in a musty old leather bag that I adored, a Linhoff tripod that would pinch my fingers every time I closed it, and best of all: a huge stack of PhotoLife and Leica magazines over which I pored for years afterward.

Those magazines were a rich source of inspiration. I would look at those images and think of the possibilities. “What would it take to make photographs like that?”, I wondered.

This came back to me recently when I was asked if I could help a more novice photographer learn to study photographs. In response to my suggestion that she study the masters, she asked me how. How do you study the photographs of others to learn from them?

I would look at the provided settings in my PhotoLife and Leica magazines but quickly got frustrated with the partial story they told. Settings tell you about ISO, aperture, and shutter. They tell you about focal length. But they don’t tell you why the decisions were made and whether that combination of ISO/shutter speed/aperture was how the camera metered the scene or if the photographer had intentionally underexposed by four stops to punch colours and expose only for the highlights. They don’t tell you anything about every other choice involving (among other things) composition, perspective, or the choice of one moment over another.

When you look at a photograph made by another person, there will always be things about which you can only guess. It’s often an exercise in using your imagination, but that doesn’t make it impossible or unimportant. You do not need to be certain of your guesses in order to learn from the exercise. It’s not a puzzle to be solved, but a skill to be learned: specifically, the skill of considering possibilities. If you can do it when looking at the pictures of another photographer, you can do it with the camera to your eye when making your own photographs.

So how do you study the photographs of another in order to improve your own craft and creative thinking? How do you learn to recognize the possibilities? I’d like to take this issue of The Contact Sheet (and the next one) to explore this question.

The first step is to respond to the image itself. To listen to it. Feel it. Take it in without jumping to judgment.

If it was a poem you were studying (and there are many similarities), you’d probably re-read it a couple of times so the subtleties had a chance to emerge. This also seems a good approach with photographs.

You’ve got to experience the image before you can evaluate it. Our first quick reading is often too “blunt” to be trusted. I see this from younger photographers who often quickly assert a desire for something to be removed because “it’s distracting” when it is in fact that very thing that makes the image so powerful (if not also more complex). You can’t know an element distracts if you don’t take the time to really understand what the photograph is about and what the photographer might have been trying to say.

Spend some time with the image. Be suspicious of your first reactions.

Novice photographers (and we’re all more novice than someone else, and never beyond learning) who react to a photograph with “I would have done it differently” miss the chance to learn from this more useful question: “I wonder why that much more seasoned photographer made that particular choice?” It doesn’t mean you have to do it that way, but if your way was already working so well, you wouldn’t have something to learn.
Before you move on to interacting with the photograph on a cerebral how-was-it-made kind of level, I think it’s important to engage with it more personally. Here are the questions that might make that engagement a little deeper and more helpful when you get to the more critical questions (to be discussed in the next issue of The Contact Sheet)

What does this photograph make me feel or think?  What emotions does it stir for me?

You don’t have to like it, but what does it make you feel? Where does your eye go? What does it remind you of? What memories does it conjure? What story does it tell, if any?

After looking at it for a while, what do you think the photographer was trying to direct your attention to? Is it a single detail, a play of light, a moment, some relationship between elements? Assume for a moment that the photographer left everything in the frame for a reason—that nothing was a mistake. Based on that, what do you think the photographer was trying to accomplish? Does it do that for you?

You might not know the answers. But you can speculate. You can guess. And if the answer to the first question about what kind of emotions are stirred by the image is “none,” then before you move on too quickly to study an image that does stir you in some way, maybe ask, “Why not?” What’s missing for you, and what might you be missing?

“What am I missing?” is the kind of question the truly open-minded ask.

I’ve often looked at a celebrated image that I know is meant to be a work of excellence and thought, “Huh. Really?” I feel this about Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (gasp!). In part, I think we just have to acknowledge that past masters like Adams did important things with photography during their day, and the tradition inhabited by our craft has since moved on, built on the work done by people like Adams, but now surpassing that work in many ways. Art moves forward; that’s how it goes. But it’s in asking “What am I missing?” that nudges me to take a second or third look, to see the lick of light on the tombstones, and think, “Oh, I see what you did there, Ansel.” I may not love it the way others do, but I can still listen and appreciate.

And in the case of Moonrise, it might just be that experiencing the image second hand (as we always do when not looking at the image to scale or in the best circumstances) might be to blame. Maybe it just needs to be seen large.

There are probably other reasons, too. Maybe I’m just not ready for it. Maybe, especially as a more novice photographer, I just need to understand my craft (and the history of my craft) a little more. Maybe there’s a chance here to refine my tastes and expand my ideas about what makes a photograph “good” or “compelling” to me.

Before you move on to a more critical reading of an image, give it time to settle in with you. You’ve got to ask, “What did the photographer accomplish with this image?” before asking, “How did they do it?”

There’s so much to consider. So many things we can miss. And only once we can look at a photograph and identify how it makes us feel or think can we turn our minds to the questions of technique, composition, or other creative choices that cause us to think or feel those things. How was the photograph in front of us made so that it conjures those emotions and thoughts? That was the question (really more like a series of questions) I set out to discuss in this article, but the more I wrote, the further away those later questions became, displaced by the need to first listen—truly, patiently—and to consider the effect of the beautiful whole before attending to its specific parts and the decisions of the photographer who assembled them into the image before you.

Slow down. Listen hard. Second-guess your first instincts and judgments. Let the first reading of the photograph be an experience of listening and feeling. Soon enough, you’ll ask questions of the image and, in a way, of the photographer. But I find it helps to ask questions of myself first.

For the Love of the Photograph,
David

Comments? Questions? Just want to say hello? I’d love to hear from you!

Comments

  1. Pingback: To Make Better Photographs, Study More Photographs, Part Two – Indiatips.in

  2. Thank you studying exceptional photographs has help me to expand my skills, confidence, and most importantly, learn more about medium.

  3. This copy of “The Contact Sheet” has helped me more than you can imagine. I was starting to feel like I was just snapping pictures . (a flower is a flower is a flower) After reading this I now have a new view at WHY I’m taking the picture. I really needed this to get me going in the right direction. Starting to connect to the image and making others feel my connection is what I was missing. Thank you so much for your inspiration and the education you are giving to all of us.

  4. One of your essays that has made the biggest impact on me. In fact, by the time I’d read the first para I knew I had to walk away from the computer, finish chores I’d started, feed the cat, then make another cup of coffee before settling back down and absorbing your message, lol.

    I have often seen award winning images that have left me slack jawed thinking along the lines of omg, if that were my image I’d have deleted it immediately and pretended it had never happened, and yet there it is proudly displayed with it’s prize! Then I would be asking myself what am I missing here? What are others seeing that I cannot. I shall try out a few of your suggestions and see if my inner muse can be stirred to comment. Thanks, David, and looking forward to your next posting.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Barb. I’m always so encouraged to hear this kind of feedback. 🙂 As for the images that win competitions – it’s helpful to remember there is as much variety in those who judge images as there is in those who make them, and we’re all looking for (and looking at) different things. 🙂

  5. Such an interesting take David.. While culling the final images i usually use to just go with the feel of it .. have i captured the feel or not .. M glad i stumbled upon your article

  6. But it begs the question though, does studying more photograph makes the photographer lose their identity? I’ve been reading a book called “how to talk about books you haven’t read,” and one of the arguments there was, some writers forego reading because it would make them lose their voice with their own writing. I felt like it could be a similar thought with looking at renowned photos too? Do you disagree?

    1. Author

      I don’t think studying photographs necessarily leads to emulation, as much as it can lead to new ideas and attempts to assimilate those ideas into our own work, though imitation is probably something you have to intentionally avoid. I worry more about the influence of Instagram and the metrics of likes and follows on our individuality, than purposeful study of the craft. As for writers, this is interesting. I have nothing but the opposite experience. Writers are generally kind of addicted to words and do a lot of reading, but since I can only speak from experience, I do a lot of writing and when I’m in the middle of a project on something specific, like a book about photography, I won’t read other books about photography. I think this topic is an important one, Sophie. For similar reasons when I lead my mentoring workshops, I ask students to (1) refrain from posting to or consuming social media and (2) showing each other their work while it’s in progress. We need to be conscious of our influences and how we use them, though not avoid learning from them.

  7. A very thoughtful essay. To appreciate photography you need to think about the images!

  8. I enjoyed your article “To Make Better Photographs, Study More Photographs”. I would like to add that you should also view or study the other arts such as painting, sculpting etc. Carlos Santana (famous rock guitarist) listens to jazz or classical music for inspiration or for relaxation. The artists he listens to are not guitarists but horn players, keyboardists, percussionists and drummers. in some ways these other arts inspire creativity. You never know what will trigger inspiration. That is what it is all about. But I do agree that one should study more photographs of past and current greats for inspiration and knowledge.

    1. Author

      Absolutley, John. I’m a big advocate of learning from every source that lights a spark. The disciplines of painting and photography are not so far apart and there’s much to learn from how painters use light and colour, for example. Turner is one of the painters I most love to study and enjoy. Beautiful.

  9. David— Thanks so much for your insights in this post. I am trying to learn to approach photography with such a mindset and eye. Even Ansel Adams agreed when he was quoted as saying, “There is nothing so useless as a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept.”

    1. Author

      Thank you for being here, Susan. That Ansel Adams quote is one of my favourites.

  10. Interesting thoughts David. I have also often wondered at the fuss over Moonrise, even when I look at it with the full knowledge of why many think it is so great.

    I do wonder sometimes whether a photo (not talking about Moonrise anymore) grows in stature because of the photographers fame rather than the quality of the image. We all take “lesser” images on a regular basis but especially in todays world of short attention span uncritical social media where Likes are showered like confetti, I suspect a “Master” could take a photo of their toilet and have it declared a masterpiece on IG.

    I also think there is a bit of the circle the wagons mentality among some photographers and institutions. Natgeo is a case in point – they pat their own on the back incessantly, even if the work may not deserve it, while ignoring some of the really great photos that are inevitably out there, with the sheer volume of images being taken.

    Maybe sometimes an image doesnt resonate because it really isnt all that special….. or am I just being too iconoclastic?

    1. Author

      Hay Paul. Yeah, the art world in all its different expressions is a complicated one. There will always be a tendency to gather in various “schools” and I think you could certainly say there’s a National Geographic School in terms of photographers having common goals and working methods, and that their popularity has come at the expense of other ways of doing things. I think it’s less about patting their own backs as it is about pursuing very specific goals. They do what they do, for their own reasons and that’s where their focus is. They will never embrace abstract photography or more experimental imagery because it’s not what they do, even if it’s great work. Yes, sometimes an image fails to resonate because it’s not that special (for some) but I’d argue it’s the ability of an image to resonate that makes it special.

  11. Hi David

    Thanks for your post. Some years back I attended a couple of your workshops in Vancouver, and of the many useful elements I found your suggested questions ti ask when viewing a photograph the most useful. This post reiterate some of that experience.

    If we take the time to study the phoogrrphs of the masters we can lean a great deal this way. Perhaps in time if we then choose to make these questions and approaches a habit and apply them our own photographs then there is the opportunity to really grow.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Stephen! About time for another gathering in Vancouver. It feels long overdue. Sadly, when it does happen I’ll probably have forgotten how to interact with real people. 😉

  12. Hello David,
    I very much enjoy your articles and books and photographs (just as I enjoy those of other photographers) because everyone is a bit different, it’s the differences that make this art we all engage in enjoyable. I’m retired now, not from making pictures, but from having to do it to earn a living, and I enjoy it more now than ever I did, although I’ve always loved this art form. I’m going to reread this blog post of yours and try some of your suggestions and see how it goes (it’s always fun to try new approaches) although now-a-days my picture making is a lot more “shooting from the hip” than “planning”. I try not to think too much about technique anymore. Freezing a moment in time and making it visually appealing enough that someone else will find it interesting and enjoyable is really my primary goal. Please keep sending me your articles, I look forward to them every day.

    1. Author

      Lance, I think after a lifetime of making photographs there does come a point at which we stop thinking quite so intentionally about technique, when that technique becomes closer to intuitive or baked-in. Sounds like you’re in that sweet spot, that place where the moments of grace when it all comes together happen more often and with less head-scratching and effort. Enjoy that. And thank you for letting me be a small part of that. It’s an honour.

  13. After reading about looking at photos of the masters for inspiration, I suggest this great master, Pete Souza. Look up his video, “The Way I See It”. (I tried to send a link; but that doesn’t work on this blog.) His shots should make us all kneel in awe and reel with motivation.

  14. Hi David ….. this is a very thoughtful and useful article!! Thank you! I look forward to part 2.

    Regards
    Andrew
    Tasmania

  15. Hello, I just came here to say I enjoyed this article and found it valuable. thank-you, valerie

  16. Thanks for this – good reminders and things to consider. I appreciate you putting it into words so I have something to mull over!

    1. Author

      My pleasure, Katrina. Thank you for giving me someone to write for.

  17. Good afternoon, David,

    Shortly before retiring from my work as a music recording engineer in the London area, we moved near to my birthplace in Cornwall, UK. I was looking forward to devoting more time to photography, a hobby I’d been engaged in for fifty-odd years, and set out to find a photographic club as a source of inspiration. Several camera clubs later, I settled for the nearest which has only half a dozen or so members, all except one of whom think they know very little about taking photographs and even less about the technical side of things. Boss Man, as i shall call him, spends his money and camera time in local studios, with (usually) non-professional models, a selection of studio lighting, most of which is of the beauty dish variety, producing , well, the images he produces. I find it difficult to remain quiet as he misleads the rest of the membership with half learned ideas he doesn’t understand.
    The point of this ramble is that it has taken me these fifty years to reach the conclusion that the inspiration for which I’m searching is to be found mainly in doing it – making photographs. I can and do refer to publications often on the web, to help me understand aspects of the craft which are new to me. Henceforth, I shall be lookiong at the work of the “Greats”, not for inspiration directly, but for understanding.
    One of my frequent ports of call for education, reference and relaxation is The Contact Sheet, together with some of your books and videos. You have helped me to see that most of what I’m searching for is to be found in using my camera and processing software (though less of this recently) and analysis of the results i get. I’ve wasted decades chasing the ultimate “clever” or “profound” image to little or no avail, and with the humility to which you’ve led me, I’m enjoying this wonderful occupation more than ever before.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    1. Author

      Tony, there’s a Boss Man in every crowd. They like to flex and posture, (and buy gear,) but it’s people like you that balance them out and provide needed wisdom and perspective. Thank you for your very kind words. I’m honoured to be a part of the joy you find in this wonderful craft. Best to you.

  18. Great post David. (But it did bring to mind a favorite Georgia O’Keeffe quote:

    “You hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.”)

    Maybe at the end of the day it’s just a pretty flower….

    1. Author

      That’s a great quote, Carlo, though I suspect it’s aimed more at art critics than those who would try to understand and experience something of what Georgia was doing. Ultimately we can only really ever hang our own associations on the work of others, so long as we also listen to that work. At the end of the day (not to quibble) it’s not just a pretty flower. It’s a representation of a pretty flower and there is probably much to hear if we listen with humility, about what O’Keefe might be saying in her choices to render that flower, and in that way. That quote is a great reminder of the need to listen with humility. Thanks for sharing that.

  19. David, this Contact Sheet (May 9, 2021) is so timely for me. I very recently completed a six-week “Fundamentals of Photography”, and stated in the “Evaluate the Course” that I thought more than one master photographer’s idea on great composition should be presented. I went on to state that I found Ian Plant’s photos on “make me feel the motion” to be chaotic. In reading the above Contact Sheet, I now realize that I made a snap judgment. I did not ask questions (in my mind) about what Ian Plant was trying to convey. Why he chose to present the image in the manner presented, and the other questions one needs to ask if one is to truly study a photo. After reading this Contact Sheet, I intend to purchase the online Ian Plant composition course as suggested by the photography instructor. As an aside, I love your writing style. It is down to earth, humanizing, and always thought provoking. I hope I am on your Contact Sheet email list.

    1. Author

      Thank you for that, Nancy. We all make snap judgements all the time. Being able to go back to them and re-think them is a sign of an open heart and mind. 🙂 If you got this latest article in your inbox then you need not worry, you’re on the list and I’ll keep you there until you say otherwise. 🙂 Thank you for reading.

  20. David
    I really appreciate your writing this. I’ve many times had the same question about how to view a photograph.
    I especially liked the parts about asking myself questions about photographs that don’t appeal to me. I loved the acknowledgement and humbleness that comes with the question “what am I missing”?
    I want to respond to comment that “art moves forward…”. Maybe I’m being too literal, or maybe I’m too much into semantics. Anyway, is it more accurate to say that tastes change? It seems to me that Ansel’s images stand as art, period. (And there are some Ansel images, like you, that I’m missing something… they don’t appeal to me). I guess I’m saying, hoping, that Art doesn’t leave any artist behind. My tastes change, and I may be enthralled with the latest artist and place Ansel (pick an artist) as a memory, but Ansel’s work remains Art.
    Thanks again for your comments. Most welcome.

    1. Author

      Hey Mark. Yes, tastes do change. I don’t mean to imply that what was once art is, with time, no longer art. What I mean is that the state of an art-form moves forward. That we’re always learning and building upon what came before and what one generation would be moved by might not move future generations. Innovations in one time period become common-place in the next. It doesn’t diminish the genius of past artists, but it does mean future students of that artist might not see in his or her work the same kind of brilliance, because they don’t see the innovations or giant leaps forward for what they are. They get built upon, and moved-on from. Cubism, now that we’ve lived with it a while, is no longer the jolting thing that it once was, and newer artists might well look back and say, “Well, it’s no big deal” but they can only do that because of the benefit of hindsight and the forgetfulness that comes with it. I hope that makes a kind of sense. So yes, tastes change as an art-form moves forward. No artist gets left behind, but many of them become less relevant to the generations for which that art wasn’t made. For example, paleolithic cave paintings were innovative at the time. Those that saw them probably though they were amazing. Then the tradition of painting evolved, new techniques arose, thousands of years later new colours, new abilities to represent perspective, depth, light, all this makes it much harder to see the genius that was the first rhinoceros painted on the cave in Chauvet. Then it was amazing. Now it’s a case of “my 4-year old can do better.”

  21. Hi David,
    My favorite sentence you wrote was “slow down”.

    While I do a lot of street photography which in itself is not slow the idea of taking a breath, feeling about the scene and thinking is so incredibly valuable and I can see the results in both the work but in my mindset. During the pandemic i started a program of trying to buy one photography book a month to spend more time relaxing and enjoying the work of past and current greats. Unbelievably humbling but it can validate the crazy and goofy ideas that bounce around in your head…..What if i tried……

    Best regards.

    1. Author

      I love that, Charlie. I average about a book or two a month, just photographs, not how-to books, and they remain my greatest source of wonder and learning outside of my time actually spent making photographs (time which has diminished considerably during the pandemic). My latest (soon to arrive) will be The Sam Abell Library: The Photography of Places. I can’t wait!

      1. Mine is a retrospective on Gordon Parks.

        You should use your library as a source of another blog. Love to hear your thoughts on the past year or so library acquisitions.

        1. Author

          I love Gordon Parks. I have a huge 5 volume set of his work. Wonderful.

  22. You are so on point with this article. In our photography club, we have a once a month event – Study the Masters. A different master each month. Members can volunteer to make a presentation about a particular master photographer or painter. The discussions about composition, light, reaction, feeling, etc. are a huge source of learning. Then each participant is encouraged to shoot, and display in the next session, up to three photos in the style of, or as an homage to, the master just studied. A great exercise and so much fun!

    1. Author

      Thank you for that, K. I love that photography clubs are starting to do more of these kinds of studies. There is so much richness in the history of this craft. So much to learn!

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