How’s that for a clickbait title? The thing is … I mean it. If you want to become a good photographer, that is.
The difference between engineering and photography is hard to overcome. You can learn rules in engineering. It takes time, an understanding of maths and physics, and some serious effort, to become a good engineer.
Photography doesn’t have rules. It’s an artform, and no one has produced a set of rules that can make anyone an artist, on-demand, in the same way a school can turn a student into an engineer.
However, it takes a lot of experience to make a great engineer. Not everything needed to lead a complex project is present in the specification sheet, and the more projects you have under your belt, the better you become (the HiFi world proves this with abundant clarity). Implicit knowledge makes all the difference between a beginner, with a bright mind and fresh rule-based knowledge – and an expert. In that sense, the same sort of experience creates a great photographer from a beginner that has learned all the technical rules in the field (essentially, how to use a camera, what a stop is and the basics of lenses).
Because our society loves to pretend a complex topic can be summarized in a single metric (climate change = CO2, image quality = megapixels …) Malcolm Gladwell was very successful in equating expertise with 10 000 hours of practise. You can read a good rebuttal of this idea here.
What really works to acquire the volumes of tacit (implicit) knowledge that make a great photographer or a great engineer is a number of trial & feedback cycles. The more explicit knowledge you begin with, the fewer cycles you require to achieve high quality. So a well trained engineer with 10 projects under their belt is getting up there. But softer, less specified, skills require more and more. All the notes are on the score but it takes years before junior and his violin no longer make you want to pour hot candlewax into your ears.
Believe it or not, some of the most fascinating implicit learning happens in Artificial Intelligence, these days. A neural network starts life as an empty matrix that knows sweet Fanny Adams about the world and, through billions of attempts and (backpropagation) feedbacks, gets to learn to emulate human speech to a tee. The P in GPT stands for pretrained. This is what that means. And the real kicker is that, through emergent properties, GPT then becomes able to understand our hard, specified, rules (such as maths and coding) without being taught …
Cue books vs gear.
Photographic gear, in our market, attempts to maintain the illusion that photography is a hard science that needs to be learned formally. Overly complex camera bodies with ergonomics designed by monkeys on LSD and shipped with 600-page manuals make the beginner believe that mastering all this nonesense is what the game is about. In the immortal words of Rubeus Hagrid: codswallop.
Books, on the other hand, provide feedback. And that’s priceless.
Getting feedback about your own photographs is really difficult. I tried to organize a workshop specifically with this goal in mind, enlisting a gallery owner, a pro photographer from Magnum and a world famous curator. That kind of pannel can understand what you’re trying to do and how to achieve it. But it comes at a high price and the workshop didn’t draw the necessary crowds.
Friends and familly? Well, how much do they know about learning photography, pedagogy, and analysing photographs? More often than not, they’ll provide an opinion, not usable feedback (read Seth Godin’s timely take on this same topic)
School? Yup, that’s what art schools are for, if you have 3-5 years and 20-400 grand lying around.
So, when solid feedback for your own is hard to come by, you can always look at the photographs of others. Trillions of photographs exist online, 20 000 of them on DS alone.
But how do you know which are a good source of inspiration? Which ones are good photographs, and which ones aren’t? Sadly, social media can’t help here, quite the opposite. Their algorithms are not designed to highlight quality but to support advertising. That’s why Hasselblad Master Hans Strand’s Facebook page has roughly 1000 times fewer followers than the biggest photography pages.
It’s not that some LIKED photographs aren’t exceptional. Some really are. The problem with social media is that most of the photographers posting images either have no clue or are using formulaic recipes for likes, and most of the people rating those images either have no clue or just click a button, giving the act very little thought. That immediacy, after all, was the whole purpose of the LIKE (making it the single most destructive feature in Internet history).
Imagine training your car’s autopilot with photos of trucks and telling it they’re traffic lights, pictures of bicycles classified as trucks, pictures of pedestrians classified as cones, cars classified as cars, road lines classified as trees, and so on. Fun ride ahead, right?
Well, an aspiring photographer looking to social media and forums to learn photography is getting just that kind of training. Some truly remarkable images, mixed with some average images, and some utterly poor images, all liked or not by people who either know what they are talking about or don’t. It’s a random landscape from which the beginner has little hope of learning whatsoever.
Books, however …
Even though Gutenberg made it easier to publish books, that kind of project is still difficult and expensive enough that very few books are ever devoted to bad photographs or bad photographers. You may or may not like the work presented, that’s a matter of personal taste, but you can be pretty sure it’s good quality.
Books bring a reliability to a fledgling photographer’s training that can’t be found anywhere else at a comparable price and convenience.
You don’t even have to read the text. Often, it can be interesting, but isn’t there to train you. Just soak in the images, with the implicit feedback that this is good. That is worth far more than any amount of fps and megapixels. In fact, you’ll often (admitedly, not always) find out how little of either was at the disposal of the highlighted photographer.
If you’re serious about learning photography by yourself, photo books are non-negociable. Not technical books, but books presenting images.
In 15 years of publishing this blog, I can’t remember how many times ‘ve written that Ansel Adam’s trilogy is seminal work, fun to read, brilliant to look at and so formative. But even books that aren’t meant to teach do.
And the beauty is that books aren’t normative. You’re not getting involved with someone forcing their own tastes on you. You don’t even have to understand what appeals to you in the book’s images. That’s implicit learning for you. Just gaze at the photos you like, over and over again, knowing that they are consistent and good, and they will leave an imprint on your intuition that will serve you well in the field. With photography books in hand, ain’t no power in the verse can stop you (in the immortal words of River Tam).
This brings me to “Inside the High Sierra”, the book by Claude Fiddler used to illustrate this post. It was kindly sent to me by Claude about a month ago. It’s beautiful work, and I’m very grateful.
Claude has already written two posts on DS, so you may be familiar with those images already. So let me point out why this was used for this post : light and print quality.
Landscapes are just one of many styles of photography that appeal to me. Although those in the pages of this book are masterfully executed, that alone wouln’t not warrant a place in my pantheon. But the quality of light in most of those landscapes is something else.
And equally enthralling is the print quality. Not a single photo on this page is anywhere near as good as it is in print, inside the book! Think about that for a second. Most amateurs don’t print because their images look a lot nicer on screen than on a duller paper. Not so here. Compared to the prints in the book, the photographs inserted on this page seem flat and lifeless here. That’s how good the book’s printing really is.
Printing has recently revived my photography. And all but eliminated my GAS. Most of the things we obsess about when viewing images online or in PP software simply vanish in print. Printing is tremendous fun, and gratifying. But printing well is hard.
Whenever I need a reminder of what a great print looks like, I can open “Inside the High Sierra” and get those tones and colours back into my brain. Thank you Claude!
If photobooks are of interest to you, you can find a lot of examples on this youtube channel (hat tip to Sean for the link) It’s not the same as flipping through the pages of a physical book, but it’s a great start.
Never miss a post
Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.
#1305. My view on generative AI in photography
#1291. Slightly Off Topic: AI and photography blogs
#1256. The Importance of Colour in the Work of Saul Leiter, William Eggleston and Joel Meyerowitz. Not.
#1126. Reframing Photography with Artificial Intelligence
#600. The Monday Post (29 May 2017) – “You’re hurting me, Dave”
#589. The Un-labor Monday post (1 May 2017) – The Terminator and Maslow duke it out