Tips + Techniques

Learning to See Creatively: Q&A with Author Bryan Peterson

August 4, 2015

By RF Staff

Sponsored by Amphoto Books

Hitting the shelves today is Bryan Peterson’s third edition to his classic guide, Learning to See Creatively. Peterson has spent decades in exotic settings around the world teaching photography workshops. He's also appeared online in countless videos, helping photographers learn how to realize their vision with their cameras. But many also learn from him through his books. He's the best-selling author of Understanding Exposure, Understanding Shutter Speed and Understanding Digital Photography.

Book Cover--Learning to See Creatively by Bryan Peterson

In Learning to See Creatively, Peterson explores the universal elements of composition and design as well as some of the basics that photographers need to know about technique and gear. The latest edition includes all new photos, a new introduction, and updates to the text that reflect the latest technology.

How did you get started writing Learning to See Creatively?  

In the late 1980s, I was a contributing editor at Popular Photography. The editors ran my before-and-after photos in a column called "The Look," and the readers responded to them and asked for more. After a couple of years of writing these columns, which focused on lens choice, point of view, and the elements of design, a friend suggested I approach an editor at Amphoto, who looked at the tear sheets from my columns and said it would definitely be a book deal. My methodology was to connect readers with the process and what led up to shooting the better photograph.

p.49--Aerial shot from Provence, France--Nikon F-5, Nikkor 35–70mm lens at 35mm, f-11 for 1-250 sec, Kodak V100S slide film---from Bryan Peterson--Learning to See Creatively--Amphoto Books 2015

Aerial shot from Provence, France / Photo © Bryan Peterson

More than 25 years separates this third edition from the first. Technology has changed a lot in that time span. Has this change affected the type of students and readers you're seeing?

On an amateur level, the photographic community has increased more than a hundred fold since I originally wrote it. One could say that it's increased that much just with those who shoot with iPhones. I certainly get lots of emails from smartphone users who are looking for ways to improve. And my book, Learning to See Creatively, much to my surprise, has gotten some of those shooters’ attention. I think it's because it helps generate ideas and helps them better understand how to change their point of view, like climbing up stairs in order to shoot a photo down from above or perhaps laying on your back and shooting up. The technology has changed, but many of the techniques and methods in my book are the same, which is what I teach. That seems to resonate with them.

p.67--La Defense in Paris--Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-85mm lens, f-8 for 1-250 sec, ISO 100--from Bryan Peterson--Learning to See Creatively--Amphoto Books 2015

La Defense in Paris / Photo © Bryan Peterson

Throughout the book, you have exercises that not only force photographers to see concepts or techniques, but also help them keep going when they feel they're in a rut. Is there one exercise you like to suggest?

Yes—I suggest they go out and shoot happy photos, but the shots have to be of inanimate objects. Not one of those photos can be of a person or an animal. For me, it's not so much about the subjects they shoot; it's simply a way to get students to make visual discoveries. For example, I've had students take some great shots of bottle caps stuck in the tar or asphalt in the city streets, which actually look a little like a smiley face. In a way, it's not about whether I like the shot or not. What’s important is that these photographers are out in street and taking the shots. Usually, at that stage, they're on cloud nine because they're making these great visual discoveries, which can often be enough to show them that there's a whole world out there that they weren't paying attention to.

What photography books were important to you when you were starting out?

In the 1970s, I couldn't wait to get the next edition of the Time Life Library of Photography series.

p.54-Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosqu in Abu Dhabi-Nikon D3x, Nikkor 70–300mm lens, f-22 for 1-50 sec, ISO 200--from Bryan Peterson--Learning to See Creatively--Amphoto Books 2015

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi / Photo © Bryan Peterson

In your books, you have a conversational way of teaching a topic. Do you feel this helps students get a firmer grasp of photography concepts and techniques?

One thing I've heard from students is that I have a way of explaining things in such a way that most people can get it the first time around. Hearing that makes me think that I must be doing something right.

What advice do you have for photography students when it comes to photography gear?

At my workshops, some people showup with lots of expensive equipment. But when I say to them, "Get out your street zoom", they say, "Um, which one is that?" Even after I tell them that it's a 24mm-105mm or a 18mm-200mm, they're unsure of which lens is which. I'm not saying this to be condescending, but they need to embrace their gear enough to identify it.

Look at it this way: If your camera bag is a foreign country, there's only way to learn to speak its language. Take each lens out, put it on your camera body, walk down the street and spend time with it. Don't shoot. Just look through the viewfinder the entire time, working at different focal lengths. Look up, look down, go wide, go telephoto, and see the limitations of those focal lengths. It doesn't take that long, either, but it gets you thinking visually.

Do you have any final words for photographers?

Just keep shooting.
Learning to See Creatively, Third Edition: Design, Color and Composition in Photography can be ordered here.