How to Develop as a Photographer

My first vacation read this summer was a book about photography. Having a new camera, I am of course eager to learn how to use it properly. I´m not sure how I found "On Being a Photographer - A Practical Guide" by David Hurn/MAGNUM and Bill Jay, but I´m sure it was recommended on some photography blog or other.

This book has no information on how to use a camera. At all. This is a relief in a vacation read; technical books are very tiring to read, but necessary, of course. What they do talk about, though (and I mean talk, most of the book is Jay interviewing Hurn), is how to focus your photography, how to become mindful of what kind of images you are looking for. It´s about organizing yourself, thinking and acting like a photographer. Or even as a human being, actually. In the introduction they say: "...photography is about life. We both agree with the psychologist Abraham Maslow that the purpose of life is to become actually what we are potentially. We believe photography offers an ideal vehicle towards this destination."

Towards the end of the book, they expand on this: "...it is our contention that the self is more emphatically expressed by ignoring it and concentrating on the thing itself. Personal knowledge is gained by objectification, looking outward not inward. Life itself is the mirror in which the personal image is reflected." I take this to mean that instead of making ourselves the object of our study, we should study what is around us and matters to us, how we percieve that. This makes sense, I think. We are all about relationships, after all, with other people, landscapes, animals, and things.

After spending a weekend surrounded by artists and their critics, I have been thinking a lot about what art is, and perhaps it is all about that journey towards self-knowledge. Sure, a photograph isn´t necessarily art, but neither is a painting or a drawing. Much of what is categorized as art is mostly decoration, some is illustration, some is communication. Is a comic book art? It can be, but it might not. A fashion illustration might also be art, but then again, it might not. So much is about context, presentation, and how it is recieved. This is what Hurn/Jay thinks: "Art is not the medium or style but the agreed merit of a body of work created over a life-time of achievements by a dedicated individual. This body of work is likely to center around the unique characteristics of the chosen medium." I´ll have to think about that some more...

Hurn offers some hands-on advice: "The first thing to do is carry a notebook and during quiet times or as the thought occurs to you, compile a list of anything that really interests you. In other words, write a list of subjects which fascinate you without regard to photography." The thing to do, according to Hurn, to work hard with your subject, to choose something that you really engage with and want to know more about. Only then can you produce images that are of any interest, that can communicate something new. Don´t be boring, he says.

Also, they give the same advice as aspiring writers get: look at other photographers´ work. Look at movies with the eyes of a photographer. Learn from the best. Steal ideas.

A photographer´s style, Hurn says, comes from forgetting about style, and trying to capture that which he knows about his subject, and what he remembers about a particular moment. Much is about luck, being there when it happens, but one´s luck certainly increases with every hour spent with the subject. Style then, is a matter of what we - as individuals, not as photographers - observe; it´s about what is important to us. Skill is knowing how to identify it and capture it in an image.

The following quote pretty much sums it up, I think, and illustrates the point so well: "...let us take a reality check. [...] Take a mother on a beach watching her child build sand castles. She suddenly sees an expression which tugs at her heart-strings. Without thought, she dips into the picnic basket, aims the camera, and presses the button. The moment has been captured - and will be treasured for the rest of her life. Eighty-five percent of all the ingredients of photography are encompassed by this simple act. the mother has an intimate knowledge of her subject; she is the expert on that child. She is enthusiastic in her love of the subject. There is no thought of self or creativity, although both are intimately present. The snap was made without concern for technique. These are the ingredients which should be present in the acts of all photographers, no matter how sophisticated, yet they are the very ones which are too often ignored."

There is some talk of gear, though. A good pair of shoes, very important. And for a camera, Hurn himself uses the cheapest amateur Canon model, since it is the quietest, and most of the features on it he doesn´t even use. And that´s it. If you suffer from GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) and this book doesn´t help you re-focus, you are probably beyond help.

I very much enjoyed this book, and I will read it again when I have come a bit further on this journey. Much passed me by this time, I´m sure, and might make more sense with a bit more experience. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys photography and would like to know more. I also found this great interview with David Hurn, if you are interested. And naturally, Eric Kim has read this book, with his usual systematic approach! If you want to know more about Bill Jay, I found his obituary in the Guardian - sadly.


  1. "A good pair of shoes, very important." Ah, an author after my own heart! lol

    but you've taken away my main excuse for my photos being no better than they are. i've always thought that if only i had fancy schmancy equipment my photos would be better. so much for that ;)

    1. Actually, fancy equipment does make a difference, but only if it is useful to the way *you* take pictures. If what you see with your eyes is not what you see through your lens, the limitations of the camera can be the problem. But then again, sometimes what we see is coloured by what we feel as well, or what we experience through other senses. No way a photograph can capture the way a field of flowers smell, can it? Or how beautiful you think your own child is...