A guest post by Louis Hamwey, tour leader with citifari, New York Photo Tours
As photo tour guides in New York City we get a lot of different questions. They range everything from the newbie asking, “how did you make the background blurry?” to the experienced hobbyist looking to perfect exposing in high contrast settings. But the one question that comes up more often than most is this: “What photography book do you recommend to help me become a better photographer?”
The question itself is vague, but generally we interpret what the photo-enthusiast is looking for: an easy how-to book that explains all the little nuances of the medium in detail.
The first step comes with breaking the tough news that no such book exists. If you are looking for something that is going to solve every problem you may encounter in your picture taking you will always come up short. There are far too many variables, especially in the type of urban shooting many of us do, to be able to accurately predict every possible outcome. In the end practice and experience is the only remedy for solving the problems we are presented with everyday picture taking.
With that said, there are plenty of forums and blogs out there on the web available for free (none as good as DPS though) which go into much better detail than most books ever could. If you have any kind of specific issue you are trying to solve sometimes Google is the best spot to start.
Let’s say you are shooting some family pictures on Christmas morning. Your children are smiling brightly as they rip open presents. You take a few pictures and realize their perfect little faces are blown out and made flat by the flash. A simple Google search for “how to not blowout faces with flash” returns over nine million results with the first page alone giving you easy-to-follow tips about diffusers, how to make homemade ones, bouncing your flash and even instructions on how to lower your flashes power. Just like that all your questions answered and never again do you have to worry about running those precious moments.
As a professor I try to stress to my students that the ability to learn information is not nearly as important as knowing how to find it. Those that have the ability to memorize facts and figures are lucky, but for most of us things tend to go in one ear and right out the other if it something that will not help us in daily life. So while a couple ‘explain it all’ books are nice to have, it is just as effective (and less costly) to know how to obtain the information quickly online.
So does that mean the question of the book begins and ends where so many questions do, on the internet? Hardly.
One of the things that is often lost on photographers beginning their careers is that taking a good picture goes way beyond the technical functions of the camera. It does not even lie in the exposure or composition. Those aspects all play an important role and mastering them will ultimately help you find your own style and that style is what defines your photography.
The books we recommend to people are meant to help them figure discover their own style or voice. LIFE Magazine’s compilation of coffee table hardbacks, the very best of National Geographic, works of Robert Frank, Weegee, David Doubilet, Ansel Adams, David Gursky, Cindy Sherman and Edward Steichen. These are what I recommend people look at. By listening to other photographers voices, seeing how they use light and composition to create some of the greatest works of art the medium has ever produced, you yourself will begin to understand the subtleties that separate a truly great photo from a just a good one.
Yes these men and women have mastered the technical aspects of photography we all strive to perfect, but that alone was not what made their pictures special. It was the mastering of those techniques and applying them in their own unique way that made these figures the pinnacles of the medium.
So next time you find yourself browsing the bookstore for something to help your photo taking, get out of the how-to section. You will never be able to find your voice where the main theme of those books is all about doing something the way the author thinks is best. Wander over to the coffee table books or art section and pick up one of those finally printed pages that are works of art in themselves. Only by listening to others speak can you begin to find your own voice and once you have your photography will express itself on a whole other level.
Louis Hamwey is a tour leader with citifari. citifari offers photo tours in New York City. Structured as a 2-1/2 hour practical workshop, citifari tour helps you get comfortable with your camera settings and take great shots in New York City. Connect with them at their website, on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or Tumblr.