Like most photographers, I have a stack of books about photography. Some of them have been very useful at helping me to improve and some have hardly helped at all. I’ve found the two best ways to really improve are firstly to take lots of pictures and secondly to spend lots of time looking at great photography. But a few books really do help.
None of the most helpful ones have been about cameras or the technical aspects of photography, because they are not the things that really matter. Instead they’ve been about ways of seeing or composition.
Photographic Seeing is one of several books I have by Andreas Feininger. Feininger was the son of the painter Lyonel Feininger, whose work I’ve seen in the Kunsthaus Zurich, and after training as an architect developed a successful career as a photographer, working for Life Magazine. He was particularly interested in structure and produced interesting bodies of work on forms and structures within nature and New York City.
The central idea of the book is that the human eye does not see in the same way as the camera and that only by understanding how scenes will be represented by the camera and in the print will we be able to judge a good photo opportunity from a poor one. Feininger covers topics such as the qualities of photogenic subjects and how photographic vision sees and represents light and shadow, contrast, colour, apparent and real motion. His writing style is simple, direct and well organised.
As it was published in 1974, the book predates digital by a long time, yet the content is evergreen because the human eye and perception, unlike camera technology, does not change. And unlike digital cameras, the book doesn’t depreciate – my copy cost me a bit more than the £4.50 cover price, and represents a bargain way to improve at photography compared to the cost of new gear.