Be a better photographer - tip 10

You don’t make a photograph with just a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.
— Ansel Adams

Train your visual memory

I believe in creativity, but I also believe that we learn a social language ‘through’ which we speak. As it is with words, so it is with photography. Adams puts it economically when he says that ‘you bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen’. Photographers learn photography by learning to speak its language. That language is made up of the work that has gone before us, the grammar, so to write, established by those who find their way into a culture’s visual memory, passed on through books, museums and latterly the web.

Just as a writer might conjure an original feeling or sentiment using the established words, phrases and literary devices of the past, so a photographer aims to carve out a niche in picture-making. Literary minds are nourished by the traditions of literature on which they draw and are immersed. The same goes for photographers. I am not so much of an expressionist as Adams, and maybe the full quote above is unfashionably romantic. However, I think we would not be off the mark to read Adams’ as an educational message to look carefully and widely at good work by others, in order to improve our practice.

So my tip for the day is to consider the wonderful photography of the past as great works that we can read to improve our photographic eye. If you have seen good photos, in other words, you will stand a better chance of drawing on them to make good work. Give time and space in your engagement with photography over to careful looking and contemplation. Galleries and museums are great because we are in the physical company of the work and peruse with minimal distraction. Books are tactile and inhabit our living environments, such that we spend more time digesting a photographer’s oeuvre. Numerous times have I chanced on a photographers monograph from my bookshelf and re-awakened my engagement with the work. Such images stick around, literally and in the mind.

Sure, we might start off being under the spell of great photos, feeling like we’ve made another ‘Adams’, say. Yet given enough time and a generous diet, we might come to put that ‘language’ together, in fresh and contemporary ways. It’s an essential part of learning to be a better photographer.