Learning to See Creatively by Bryan Peterson

A few months ago I recommended Bryan Peterson's Understanding Exposure, one of the classic books of photography instruction.

Revisiting that book inspired me to check out some more of Peterson's work.

In Learning to See Creatively (Third Edition), he tackles photography from a different angle.

While Understanding Exposure is about how your camera works, Learning to See Creatively is about how you, the photographer, work.   It's a thorough, practical guide to expanding the number of different ways you can see the world when you set out to take a photo.  

I found the book interesting, effective, and helpful.  I also enjoy Peterson's illustrative photos.

The same subject shot two different ways.  On the left is what I call "tourist perspective," shot from the typical viewpoint of a standing human being. On the right, Peterson gets down to ground level and uses a reflection in a small puddle for a more creative photo. [click to enlarge]

In the book's first hands-on exercise, designed to help you understand the effect of different lenses, Peterson suggests you experiment with a series of lenses (or a series of focal lengths on a zoom lens), 24mm, 50mm, 70mm, 100mm, etc.  At each of those lengths, he suggests you photograph the same subject from three different positions, standing, kneeling, and crawling.  And in each of those positions, you photograph the subject again and again, while gradually moving toward it, from far away until you are literally touching it.  He believes, and I agree, that this experience will hard-wire an understanding of lens-choice into you that could not be obtained in any other way.

"If you maintain this regimen of 'eye exercises' once a week for three months, you'll have a vision shared by fewer than 10 percent of all photographers, and it will be a vision that gets noticed.  At that next on-location photography workshop, you won't be in that group of students wandering around uncertain about what lens to use.  Once you've integrated the vision of your lenses into your mind's eye, you can stand at the edge of a meadow or lake and scan the entire scene, picking out a host of compositions even before you place the camera and lens to your eye."

This is just one of many practical exercises he prescribes in the book, and I have no doubt that anyone who practiced them all would become an exponentially better photographer.

Some other exercises include:

  • Composing with Color (this one does not even involve a camera)

  • Mastering the Basic Principles of Design

  • The Quality of Light (shooting the same subject at different times of day)

But even aside from these formally designated "Exercises" the book is really one long series of implied exercises.  Every time Peterson shows you a pair of before-and-after photos (the boring composition and the better creative composition) it's an invitation to go out and try a similar shot yourself.

His section headings give a good feel for the kind of topics he covers. Here's a sample:

  • Exploring Light
  • Exploring Contrast
  • Frame within a Frame
  • Breaking the Rules
  • Horizontal versus Vertical
  • Pattern
  • Texture
  • Shape
  • Line
  • Fill the Frame

Filling the frame with patterns.  "The first rule of composing even the simplest of patterns...fill the frame, edge to edge, top to bottom, side to side, with the pattern."

This book got me so inspired that I decided to go out and make a video for you, walking around my neighborhood in search of patterns. (If you like this kind of video, let me know in the comments and I'll do more of it).

Click here to view the book on Amazon

Aside from the excellent content, I also enjoy the fact that Peterson's books are compactly written.  That doesn't mean they don't contain a lot of information—they do—but that Peterson writes concisely, and he lets the photos do most of the talking.  He doesn't waste your time with long-winded explanations, he just gets right to the meat of the matter, states it briefly, and moves on.

Even without the explanatory text, these photos make Peterson's point clearly.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Peterson's writing is that he doesn't position himself as a pontificating photography guru who knows oh-so-much more than you.

He writes like he would talk to you, like a regular guy who just happens to have taken hundreds of thousands of photos, and who has led photography workshops for decades, and who has learned a few things along the way.  And he's happy to share those things with you.

His lack of pretension, his plain language, and his genuine enthusiasm for the subject win me over every time.

Highly recommended.

Click here to view the book on Amazon

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