How to Learn from Photography Books: 5 Tips to Improve Your Work

I recently realized I have a problem: I buy too many books, especially photography books. Not those cheap kindle ones but those beautiful printed and expensive books, which ended up decorating my wall, or coffee table, and, in my case, possibly many coffee tables.

“Buy books, not gear” is probably the most common answer you are going to get from other fellow photographers when you Google “how to improve my photography.” That’s great, but how should you actually do it? And how should you do it effectively so that you really get better?

Photography books are kind of like Instagram likes. It doesn’t really mean you are a great photographer just because you have a lot of them. Learning is an active process, so you can’t expect to get better just because you have the books under your pillow.

In this article and video, I will present my findings, after a lot of research into the subject, on how to learn from photography books.

Tip #1. Set a Goal

Our mind is naturally goal-seeking. It not only needs a purpose it uses it to its great advantage. With a goal in mind, we can absorb consciously but also subconsciously much more information much faster.

Do you remember that time when you decided what car, phone, or dog breed you would like to buy and suddenly those cars, dogs, or phones were everywhere? You saw them much more often than before right?

Now, it’s very unlikely that there were suddenly more cars of a brand or color you decided to buy but rather you became more aware of them. You were just not really interested in them before so your mind didn’t pay attention.

I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating by Alec Soth

There are times when you just pick up a photography book, look at the photographs, and just go through the pages without a goal, and that’s fine. But let’s say you have a goal in mind. You pick up a photography book and before you open it you stop for a minute and focus on what you would like to learn from that book.

Let’s just say I have this Marry Ellen Mark book 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 is included, what is left out, is it posed or candid, and so on. Looking at the photographs, I can identify those elements, styles, or techniques and it also helps me to better understand what is going on once I start to see patterns in her work.

The Book of Everything by Mary Ellen Mark

Tip #2. Inspiration

There is nothing easier than buying a photography book about Paris before you actually go there. But what if you can’t travel or you just don’t live in Paris or New York? Even though you only stay in your hometown, that doesn’t mean you can’t get inspired and creative.

I have been admiring this shot taken by my hero Elliott Erwitt for a while:

However, it was always far to Paris from where I live. Well, I bet that just like me, you can find similar places to try to replicate the shots you like.

The setup is not the only thing you can be inspired by — there are all sorts of things like angles, color combinations, or themes. Don’t be afraid of copying your heroes because, perhaps, that’s how THEY learned photography copying other photographers or painters.

Tip #3. Realize What You Like

Having a variety of photography books from a variety of different photographers means there is a high chance you are going to like and dislike many photographs. This is useful because you can actually find what is it that you like or dislike about a particular picture.

This happened to me recently when I was reading a book by a great photographer and one of my heroes, Joel Meyerowitz. I found this photograph that seemed like a really fun idea, but I just didn’t quite like it.

At first, I thought, “Who am I to not like Joel’s pictures.” I was thinking and thinking about it, comparing it to other photographs in the book, when I suddenly figured it out. What I didn’t like about this shot was a part of the frame. When looking at Mayerowitzs’s photographs, I have realized that very often his frames are so well composed I can look almost anywhere and find something interesting.

I then checked my Lightroom catalog and confirmed the obvious. This visual “noise” was something that I didn’t like and the reason I was unable to “keep” a lot of shots. My keepers, however, had one thing in common: I have excluded the visual noise or cropped it out during post-processing.

I am not saying that this is going to make me a master photographer, but actively thinking about what is it you like or dislike about a picture is going to help you with your own photography. All you need to do is ask yourself, “Do I like this photograph and why? What is it that I don’t like about this picture?” Is there a similar theme?

Tip #4. Every Photography Project is Different

When you look at photography monographs, you own you will notice they are often different. Even when you have two photography books from the same photographer, each one expresses a different theme, idea, or style for each project. You can see what the photographer saw and how he or she presented it, which I believe should be your goal. You want to show what you saw and why you took the picture.

Unlike Instagram or other social networks, which seem to favor “strong” single images with no other context, photography projects should take you through the topic the artist chooses to present. Why did the photographer choose those subjects, angles, and locations? Was it shot in color or black and white? Large format or 35mm and why? What about sequencing? Those are all questions that I am asking every time I hold a photography monograph.

Retrospectives offer something little different. They show you the evolution of the artist and the progression of his or her work. Both can be useful, but it all depends on what you are looking for.

Tip #5. Rules

Let me start by telling you there are not any official rules in photography. You can take photos in any way you like of anything you like. It is not like they will let you sign a paper that you are going to use the rule of thirds when you are buying a camera. But… there are some ideas transformed into some sort of advice people like to call rules.

You can take thousands of photos and then pick the ones that you like, there is nothing wrong with it. Do you have to follow the rules? No! They are tools that can be used but don’t have to be.

Let me give you an example. Say you take a look at two images of yours, and one is blurry and one is sharp. One of the techniques for your photography can therefore be focusing properly on your subject and then you might end up with a result you like. However, this does not mean blurry photos are bad or anything. Your artistic approach can lead you to only take blurry photos.

What those techniques aim to teach you is the ability to make the decisions yourself. If you had not been told about focusing, you would end up with some sharp photos and with some blurry photos without you knowing how you have achieved the result. We all have a different definition of what is a good picture. What you actually take from those techniques is up to you.

Imagine you are holding a book of your hero photographer, some great photography master, say Henri Cartier-Bresson. Did he use the rule of thirds? Or maybe dynamic symmetry? Did he focus on the eyes of the subject? What effect did it 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 you open a photography book, set a goal. Once you do realize what you like or dislike, look for rules and techniques and get inspired.

I will leave you with this: buy books, not gear.

About the author: Martin Kaninsky is a photographer, reviewer, and YouTuber based in Prague, Czech Republic. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Kaninsky runs the channel About Photography. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.