#1296. Why photobooks are more precious than photo gear

By pascaljappy | How-To

Jul 01

How’s that for a clickbait title? The thing is … I mean it. If you want to become a good photographer, that is.

B&W photograph of an owl at Harry Potter Studios in Watford, UK
What’s he on about?

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).

Cover of Inside the High Sierra (c) Claude Fiddler

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 …

Precipice Lake, 1985 (c) Claude Fiddler

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.

Mount Russell, Constitution Peak, Mount Whitney and Mount Hale, 1993 (c) Claude Fiddler

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.

Lake Reflection, 2004 (c) Claude Fiddler

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).

Frozen lake near Iron Mountain (c) Claude Fiddler

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 …

North Palisade from Rambaud Creek, 1992 (c) Claude Fiddler

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.

Observation Basin Sunset, 1988

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).

Peaks of the Evolution Group From Glacier Divide, 1992 (c) Claude Fiddler.

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.

(c) Claude Fiddler

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.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    No surprise here – I love the shot on the cover of Fiddler’s book. Et j’adore la photo du hibou – we had one in the garden for years, at our previous house, eating any rats that strayed into our garden during the night. Who took that shot? – was it also Fiddler? – stunning photo, whoever took it!
    Oh dear – 10,000 hours of practice, and little or no result. Well, some have it – some don’t – and practising badly for 10,000 hours is no better than not practising at all.
    Even for those of us who lack “genius”, something other than “hours of practice” is a necessity.
    So I’m going to throw that one open for contributions from all our readers – come one, come all – what is it that people who lack genius can do, to achieve better photos?
    My suggestion is “learning to see” – you can teach your eyes to do a better job of this, I learned that from the indigenous people of Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory, where I lived for a while before I moved here.
    And once you get your eyeballs working like theirs, it’s amazing how it impacts on your photography.
    As for your comment, Pascal – no you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! Vive la cire de bougie!
    Books on composition can start the process of “thinking” more deeply – but they’d never have been what enabled Mozart to compose a symphony at the age of 8. Technical books teach you how to fiddle with the controls on a camera – but genius can’t be “bought”.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete, the owl is fake, it’s from Harry Potter world in the UK. It looks very real though, and I couldn’t resist 😉

      Training your eyes is indeed a good idea, but lots of people can see and not photograph. To photograph, the best thing you can do is shoot and get *good* feedback, which is exceedingly rare. Second best it to watch lot og great images. And the only place you can do that is in books. I would altogether forget about books that teach (unless you enjoy the book on its own merits) and head straight to images, images and more images. Not online, where the worst lives alongside the best, not in galleries, that can be spectacularly goor or bad, but in books which, more often than not, are well curated.

      I don’t believe in genius. Maybe one person out of 10 billion has something really special. Statistically, that’s unimportant. And all studies show that deliberate practise trumps initial talent 100% of the time. The only essential factors are putting in the work and getting good feedback which, again, can only be found with near certainty in books.


  • Leonard says:

    I feel a little embarrassed about this, but I must ask: I see that the book size is 10 x12″ — already a little small for a “coffee table book.” So, how large are the photos? Are they matted or full bleed?

    The cost of the book is ridiculously low and I’m inclined to buy it for all the reasons you gave and to see what can be accomplished in a printed serious photo book.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Leonard, there is a little margin around the photos, around one inch. Hope this helps 🙂

      • Leonard says:

        Less margin I thought. Thanks.

        • Leonard, image size is 8×10 inches holding the 10 inch dimension. All are in landscape orientation. The paper is 200 gms archival paper with spot gloss varnish. Which means making book prints larger would have made the book considerably heavier.

          35 years of work. Two years of daily effort on the book alone. A labor of love.

          Also! 20,000 words on the making of the photos. Better than a YouTube video.

  • Mer says:

    First up, wonderful images from Claude’s book. Expertise from capture to print. It’s a good thing I’m doing a bit of implicit learning , because rational me knows that this sort of photo is out of my range – and I’m good with that. Know thyself etc. etc. Mount Russell, the shapes and colours, excellent. Precipice Lake, the reflections laid over the submerged rocks, the greens, wow.

    I assume that even when you know an image is outside of your ‘photography zone’, there’s still info seeping in about light and shadow, colour, etc. that can pay off elsewhere.

    Pete – as for producing better images – get the files off the camera and onto the computer ASAP(A case of what I say not what I do). Shortlist the ones that are pleasing and try to figure what made them work. Bonus points if there’s a location to revisit until it all clicks into place. There’s no guarantee of images that appeal to a wider audience, but hopefully a greater personal hit-rate as curation shifts from the computer towards the viewfinder.

    I guess the endpoint is being able to take images that do appeal to a wider audience as well as yourself and for that, the photobook method seems worth a crack. Repeated browsing to soak up an intuitive sense of what makes a good image – I like this idea and will be off to the library this afternoon. I’m interested to see how several week’s consistent browsing affects my photography and besides, it’s an enjoyable use of time. If I can gain some insight on how to create more colour images I enjoy, that’ll be a grand thing. I wonder if there’s joy to be had with looking for subjects where saturation and colour shifts don’t collapse the whole image into a steaming pile of gack.

    The comment about being careful with opinions from friends and family is true. My partner doesn’t like b&w images, she just has a bad intuitive reaction to them. Not in line with my tastes, but each to their own, even if it verges on grounds for separation. I mean, really . . .


  • Thank you for the kind words Pascal. Your perspective is spot on. In my not so distant past I found out more about photography from Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos, Joel Meyerowitz Cape Light, Edward Weston’s Daybooks, Ansel Adam’s Yosemite and the Range of Light. Composition, lighting, point of view, color rendition, and most importantly the seeing of the artist were revealed on the pages.

    The physical act of sitting with a book invites a longer and more relaxed view than the computer screen. There is something satisfying drawing to the end of a series of photographs in a book.

    I also appreciate getting to know a body of work from an artist. It makes for a sense of how they were involved with the subject.

    And the history, how the art form got here, is something important to know if one wants to put their work into the context of the art form.

    The list goes on.

    Thanks again,


  • PaulB says:


    I have a few comments about how to improve our photography.

    First, I agree with the recommendation to look at curated (i.e. good) photos made by someone that really knows what they are doing. Though, I would expand the nature of the books to “Art”. There is a lot to learn from the Masters of art that preceded photography.

    My second thought is; “Slow Down.” Anything we can do to slow down our photo making process, such as using a tripod, will give us extra time to view our subject and see what is there to be seen.

    The third thing is, use a large format camera and look at the scene on the ground glass; we notice more in the upside down and backwards image. In the digital age, this may be difficult for most photographers, so I would modify this to use your camera’s rear screen or an accessory monitor, to give you a bigger view. Large format is the ultimate method of slowing down, simply because of the bulk. What you learn looking at the bigger image becomes part of our subconscious and translates to working with anything smaller

    All of this fits into the concept of practice. The slower we practice the more we see, the better our process becomes, the faster we become.

    One of my instructors told us a story about a time he was an assistant for Brett Weston. They were conducting an outdoor workshop, and stopped at a location. Everyone started setting up, except Brett, he looked at the scene, picked a location, set up his 8×10, and made an exposure before most of the participant had their cameras on their tripods.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Paul, I largely agree. Sadly manufacturers preach the exact opposite and the media follow the advertising money.

      The whole EVF size/resolution hoohah has always baffled me. 90% of my shots are made using the rear screen because that gives me a whole view of the scene, which is far easier for composing. Inside the EVF, the view is actually too large and you have to scan, which is OK for a landscape shot, when you have plenty of time, but less so when you react to events.

      You instructor’s story is very interesting. I read a book on drawing (yes, I agree with you that any book on art is useful) that made three interesting points:
      1. Asked how she could draw so well, the author just answered that she put on paper what she saw. And that most people just don’t know how to look. Brett Weston looked then shot. How do you do that when you have to pfaff about with menus and buttons … ? 😉 😉

      2. The same author suggested turning photographs upside down to stop the brain from interpreting images and let another part of the brain just look at tones, colours, angles … I tried, and I worked brilliantly. And that’s what a groundglass does for you.

      3. Drawing is slow. Slowing down engages a different part of the brain. In fact, another author recommends looking at a scene 20 minutes or more before even reaching out for the camera or pencils. Apparently, after a while, you begin to see things very differently than the initial (animalistic) interpret-react mode. I think that’s partly what I enjoy in photobooks. You can take as long as you want to look at a specific photograph and let it sink in, and form an intuitive understanding of what the photographer saw.


      • PaulB says:

        Exactly! The ability to compose from a distance or a different angle is why I am adamant about wanting my cameras to have a tilt-swivel screen. They make working a landscape so much better, particularly if a low shooting position in desired.

        I will have to try your point #2. Having used large format, it makes sense that it works the same way.

        I have a fourth point, that I thought of after I posted my comments above, that fits into your point #3.

        This thought was; “Be Patient.” Just like in fishing, if the fish are not biting, you need to be patient and wait until they are.


  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    After needing some head space, I’ve returned. Returned to this most meaningful article. Well done. I like it. Your following words are sage advice, and I’ll quote: “If you’re serious about learning photography by yourself, photo books are non-negociable. Not technical books, but books presenting images.” My last photo book on the work of Harry Gruyaert ‘Between Worlds’ is, for me, superb. Yourself and others maybe interested in the work of Gruyert as well. All the best. Sean

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Sean, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you find the post interesting. Harry Gruyaert is a master and a perfect illustration of the intuitive shooting that comes from studying photographs rather than technical aspects. There is a fantastic documentary in which you can see him work with extreme intensity, almost to the point of being (slightly) rude to others. He roams, shoots fast, looking for subjects like a falcon looking for prey. Very very impressive to watch. All the best, Pascal

      • Sean says:

        Thanks Pascal for the documentary reference on how Harry Gruyaert works. I’ll do a search.

        In addition, this cove I’m sure will interest you – Marty Knapp. Here’s his www site:


        … and here’s a ThemPipe vid where Marty goes over the why and how of his photography along with several of his B&W images:

        Regards Sean

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