John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Book Reviews and Recommended Readings for Photographic Psychology

John's Top Ten List

There are many excellent books about photography. The following ten are the ones I would recommend for a solid and well-rounded education in photographic psychology. The emphasis in this list is not on the technical aspects of photography. My assumption is that you know the basics of how to use a camera. Instead, these books taken together will provide a comprehensive foundation for understanding the psychological aspects of how we create, share, and react to images in this age of digital photography. They will give you a versatile set of skills and knowledge to take your photography in exciting new directions.... Following this top ten list are other recommended readings for expanding your insights into photography.

photo psychology

The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Photos - Michael Freeman

Freeman has written several very good books about photography. For me, this is one of his best. Some of his other books contain technical information about exposure and light dynamics that I found somewhat interesting, but it didn't change my photography much. The Photographer's Eye, however, covers the kinds of topics that I love to think about and apply. Understanding composition and design will improve your photography a whole lot more than trying to grasp technical fine points that make only slight differences in the photo.

Freeman's organizes the book into six broad, overlapping chapters. It's in the subsections within chapters where he hits the mark in outlining distinct aspects of composition and design. He covers a wide range of material, including the usual topics, such as different types of lines, color, the Gestalt principles, shapes, movement, perspective, and rhythm. Other sections pinpoint some uniquely conceptualized topics with interesting titles, such as "hunting," "reaction," "anticipation," "delay," and "return."

The photographs in the book, mostly Freeman's, are excellent. Most of it is old school in that you won't see very unusual shooting and post-processing techniques. The colors and compositions are nevertheless beautiful, and they illustrate his points perfectly.

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photo psychology

The Photographer's Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photography - Michael Freeman

As Freeman's sequel to The Photographer's Eye, no doubt published and subtitled to specifically catch the eye of digital photographers, this book does overlap some with its predecessor in that much of it is devoted to the design of photographs. It's similar to its prequel also in the somewhat broad and overlapping concept of its three chapters ("Intent, Style, Process"). Unlike the prior book, Freeman does address some of the more intriguing psychological and cultural aspects of good photography.

What we see in this book are 24 excellent essays about the different visual and conceptual ideas behind the making of photos. Some of the more unique ones include such intriguing titles as Different Beauty (what exactly is a beautiful photo?), Dead Monsters (overwhelming photos), Cliche and Irony, Lifting the Mundane,The Reveal, Rich, Drained, and Luminous. Adding these topics that he didn't cover in his prior book, Freeman demonstrates his versatile insights into the many artistic facets of photography.

As with Freeman's earlier book, the photos and page layouts are beautiful. His two books combined make for a very dynamic duo. Read and study both of them, in addition to Zakia's book, and you will have covered most of the territory you need to really understand the design and compositional elements of images.

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photo psychology

Phototherapy Techniques: Exploring the Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums - Judy Weiser

Most photographers know a great deal about the technical aspects of how to design images, but not nearly enough about the personal psychological and emotional reactions people have to them. Many people, including photographers, simply don't know how to talk about the meanings, memories, thoughts, and feelings they perceive in photos, including their own.

Here's where Weiser's book offers a powerful supplement to the conventional education of photographers. Her work is intended for psychotherapists who want to understand how creating and viewing images can be used for personal insight and growth - but this is information that any photographer needs to know, including both the professional wedding photographer who wants to offer shots that strike an emotional chord with the couple, as well as the fine art photographer who pursues images as a form of self-expression.

By exploring your self-portraits, photos of you taken by other people, any photos you take or collect, and the various kinds of albums you create, you can better understand yourself, your relationships, and your life, including photography's role in it. Understanding the conscious and unconscious reactions you have to images will make you a better photographer. Weiser's book can give you those insights about yourself and your work, as well as the questions you need to ask when discussing photos with people.

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photo psychology

Color Workbook - Becky Koenig

Some people say that they prefer black-and-white photography because color photography is "too easy." It isn't hard to catch someone's eye with fancy colors. Read this book and you'll discover there's a whole lot more to color than that. Koenig focuses on color for artists and designers, but don't let that stop you from getting this book. It contains a wealth of information that is very useful to photographers, ranging from a clearly written summary of the physics and perception of color, through the complexities of color systems and physical versus computer generated color, and onward into the realms of designing with different colors, color schemes and interactions, expressive color, and color in art. The illustrations include informative diagrams, paintings from the world of art, and, occasionally, photographs.

While shooting, photographers attend to the color the scene offers them. While post-processing, the only limit to what you can do with color is your imagination. In both scenarios, and especially the latter, your understanding the dynamics and interactions of color will determine the effectiveness of the final image. This book will give you that understanding.

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photo psychology

The Photo Book - Phaidon Press (Ian Jeffrey)

You could spend the rest of your life looking at the billions (literally) of images in cyberspace, discovering some truly excellent ones along the way. Unfortunately, you'll also come across many millions that lack luster. You also might accidentally navigate into online deadends where you're seeing only certain types of photos, without realizing how many other types are out there.

If you're hoping that someone could do some vetting for you, both in narrowing down the range of images to view while also giving you the best of shots, get this book. Going in alphabetical order of the names of renown photographers, Jeffrey provides one shot by each person, with a total of 500 images in 500 pages. He also provides a short description of each photographer's work. Of course it's impossible to capture everything about a famous photographer in just one of her/his photos, but the book isn't about an in-depth analysis of any one artist or school. It's about appreciating the very wide range of styles, subjects, and inspirations throughout the history of photography. If you want to understand where your work fits into this history, or to be motivated to explore other ways of doing photography, spend a few minutes each day browsing through this book.

Given how much photography has exploded since 1997, when the book was first published, it probably needs updating. Nevertheless, for a swift, exciting ride through the vast world of photography, this is the book to get. It comes in a large hardcover version as well as a small portable paperback. The larger version offers bigger and therefore more immersive photos, while the smaller version comes in handy when you're on the move, like on vacations or riding the bus.

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photo psychology

The Art Book - Phaidon Press

Why should photographers bother with a book about art? Similar to The Photo Book, it teaches us about the wonderfully diverse world of visual styles, subjects, and artistic intentions. Ever since photography was invented, many artists and photographers have inspired each other. And let's not forget that in this digital age of ours, the incredible versatility in shooting and especially post-processing images makes photography more and more like painting.

Similar to its photography counterpart, The Art Book offers an A to Z guide about artists from medieval times to the present day, including paintings, photographs, sculptures, video, installations and performance art. Each page is devoted to one definitive work from each artist, with accompanying explanations and information. Like The Photo Book, it is a widely acclaimed encyclopedic vehicle for exploring different periods, schools, visions, and techniques in the world of art.

Keep The Art Book and The Photo Book on your desk or night table, browse through them on a regular basis, and you'll never run out of motivation or ideas for your photography.

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photo psychology

The Tao of Photography - Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro

photo psychologySome people talk about the spiritual and mystical dimensions of photography. That doesn't necessarily mean they rely on some transcendental being or force when taking photos. Instead, true to eastern philosophies like Taoism and Zen, it means learning how to see things for what they truly are, rather than what you expect them to be. It means recognizing the intrinsic beauty of the visual world rather than trying to manufacture a shot that looks good. This is a state of mind that can improve any photographer's work.

The Tao of Photography explores this territory with beautful black-and-white photos (including ones from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Stieglitz, and Dorothea Lange), along with words of wisdom from eastern philosophy and western mystical thinkers. The book also contains some exercises in developing the type of awareness that many people nowadays, including photographers, call "mindfulness." However, as is true of many contemporary books that discuss mindful photography, the Tao of Photography offers the wonderful philosphical and poetic ideas behind this state of mind, but not a whole lot of how-to suggestions. If you really want to develop mindfulness to an extent where it can truly change your photography, you'll need to go elsewhere, beyond photography books. That's why I include herre the classic, widely acclaimed book Wherever You Go There You Are, by the eminent Jon Kabat-Zinn. These are lessons that will not only change your photography, but your life.

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photo psychology

The Creative Digital Darkroom - Katrin Eismann and Sean Duggan

You could go on and on forever browsing books, web pages, and videos about how to use Photoshop, and continue to learn more. That's how powerfully versatile Photoshop can be. Unfortunately, it's a steep learning curve from understanding the basics to mastering sophisticated image-editing effects.

Of all the material I've looked over, I'd recommend this book as an excellent place to learn the fundamentals, while also discovering some very do-able techniques that will give you interesting effects for your photos. The progression of chapters basically follows the photographer's workflow. Eismann and Duggan begin the book by discussing the nuts and bolts of setting up Photoshop on your computer, as well as how to manage and organize your images with Bridge, which is the program that accompanies Photoshop. In subsequent chapters they move onto basic techniques for toning, contrast, dodging, burning, exposure control, and color correction. In the last chapters, they delve into more creative techniques for working with color, texture, image blending, and edge effects.

Some photographers are critical of image "manipulation." They don't think it's real photography. I don't agree with them. If you have perfect lighting during a shoot and use all the right camera settings, you'll get a beautiful shot, assuming your composition and subject matter is also good. A lot of the time, however, the light is not that great or your camera settings were not perfect. Here's where Photoshop can turn that average image into something quite good, and maybe even spectacular. In addition, digital photography, which offers so many tools like Photoshop, gives you more opportunities to express your vision. What comes out of the camera is just the first step in this process. The Creative Digital Darkroom does an excellent job of guiding you onto that path.

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photo psychology

photo psychologyPhotolanguage: How Photos Reveal the Fascinating Stories of Our Lives and Relationships - by Robert Akeret

Based on his experiences as a psychoanalyst who used family photographs as way to help his patients better understand themselves, Akeret developed a system for interpreting the hidden, unconscious “language” expressed in images. In his earlier book Photoanalysis and in this more recent sequel, Photolanguage, Akeret applies his techniques to the interpretation of photos of both everyday people and famous figures over the past century, including Adolf Hitler, William F. Buckley, Frank Sinatra, O.J. Simpson, and Jodie Foster. Based on a careful analysis of subtle body language, dress, and context, his conclusions about the unconscious emotions and motivations of the subjects is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Trained as a psychoanalytic psychologist myself, I find his books absolutely fascinating. To be honest, I wonder how much of his interpretations of what he sees in photographs are based more on a kind of post-hoc Monday Night Quarterbacking as opposed to a truly objective analysis of the subjects. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys understanding the nuances of personality styles as conveyed in photos.

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Other Helpful Books

body language in photos
The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Barbara Pease

This book is mostly written about body language in the worlds of business and politics, including such things as how liars gesture, what leg positions reveal, smiling, and interpersonal attraction as reveal through body language. Take it with a grain of salt, as not all of this information has a scientific basis. It's based mostly on the experience of the authors. Nevertheless, this book will give you lots to think about when taking and looking at photos of people.
body language in photos

Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressionsn, by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen

Unlike other books about body language, this one really is based on rather extensive psychological research. The authors discuss many photos that illustrate variations of the basic facial expressions of emotion: happiness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust/contempt, and sadness. They also describe the ways in which people might try to hide this emotions in their face, as well as exercises for understanding your own facial expressions and those of other people. This is an excellent book for learning how to identify the obvious and sublte emotions expressed in portraits. The information might also come in very handy when coaching subjects to express emotions when taking photos of them.

body language in photography

What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agents Guide to Speed-Reading People, by Joe Nararro and Marvin Karlins

Written by a former FBI counterintelligence officer and an expert on nonverbal behavior, this book attempts to educate the reader on how to quickly assess other people's honest and deceptive emotions as expressed through body language. As with the Pease book, it offers lots of fascinating information that photographers will find very useful, although it should be taken with a grain of salt. The information indeed comes from experience "in the trenches," so to speak, but has not been scientificially validated. From a scientific point of view, we must question whether the body language of people in the world of crime, politics, and business accurately reflects the body language in other social situaitons.


mascelli camera angles

The Five C's of Cinematography by Joseph Mascelli

Although intended for cinematographers, three of those Five C's proposed by Mascelli in his class book about film-making include camera angles, close-ups, and composition - all of which play a critical role in photography, especially if you're going for the elegant look of traditional Hollywood movies. I not only found Mascelli's explantion of camera angles and close-ups better than what I read in most photography books, I also enjoyed learning about the other two C's - continuity and cutting. Those topics helped me understand the unique aspects of photography as compared to its film-making cousin in which the pictures are in motion. Those topics also helped me see the relevance of continuity and cutting in creating sequences of images in photography, as in slide shows or image streams in online photo-sharing communities. I think we learn a lot about our skills as photographers when we compare our craft to kin disciplines in the arts. This is the book to read if you want to understand the similarities and differences between photography and cinematography.

self portrait photography

Self -Portrait Photography: The Ultimate in Personal Expression by Natalie Dybisz

Dubbed "superstar of Flickr" by American Photo magazine, Natalie Dybisz is an award-winning photographer better known by her online name of Miss Aniela. Known best for her self-portrait photography, she joins forces in this book with fellow self-portrait superstars to showcase the many possibilities of their art form. They pose in costume, in the nude, while performing stunts, against unusual backgrounds, and in almost any manner one could imagine. For anyone who wants to explore the many varieties of self-portrait experiences and where a dedicated journey into this photography subculture might lead you, this is the book to get.

self portraits book

500 Self-Portraits by Julian Bell

Based on the classic 1937 Phaidon volume published in 1937 with the same title, this book presents 500 self-portraits in chronological order from ancient Egypt to the late twentieth century. Although this book is not specifically about photography, it clearly demonstrates how artists of all types have been fascinated, and challenged, by creating images of themselves. The works include those by many of the world's greatest painters and sculptors, including Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso and Andy Warhol. Each image is both a work of art as well as a study in the psychology of self-perception and self-expression that all self-portrait photographers will find inspiring in their own work.

self portrait book

Mixed Media Self-Portraits by Cate Coulacos Prato

Featuring artwork from a wide range of styles - including collage, drawing, photography, fiber arts, and mixed media - this book examines creative self-portraits through essays as well as a variety of exercises that instruct and inspire all types of artists, including photographers. Prato discusses not just the techniques one might use, but also how the artwork becomes an expression of one's personality and life.

contemplative photography

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes - Andy Karr

As a student of several Buddhist teachers, Andy Karr applies his training to the disicpline of "Miksang photography." He explores the importance of seeing without the thinking mind - the kind of seeing that helps you notice the beauty of seemingly ordinary, usually overlooked things. HIs own photography perfectly illustrates the exquisite simplicity of what we might otherwise consider banal. His focus on noticing the balance of geometric forms reminds me of how Cartier-Bresson talked about the "decisive moment," which often surfaces as a manifestation of mindfulness. Through various exercises and assignments, he attempts to help photographers develop the ability to see tones, color, shapes, and textures without worrying about the meaning or value of the shot.

contemplative photography

Photographying the World Around You: A Visual Design Workshop - Freeman Patterson

Freeman Patterson has written several books that I'd classify as mindfulness photography. They are all excellent. What I find wonderful about them is how he gives us a subtle, but profound feeling for his love of colors, shapes, and textures. His photographs, which often lean into the realm of the abstract, strike me as a joyous celebration of the visual beauty in the world that our intutiive awareness can show us, if we just get out of the way and let it. He does all of this without refering specifically to "contemplative," "mindful," or "meditative" photography. He doesn't have to. You can just sense it in how he talks about his work and in the exquisite photos he shows us.

zen seeing photography

The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating your Artistic Life - John Daido Loori

Being a fully trained Zen Buddhist Roshi who also established himself as an accomplished photographer, John Daido Loori demonstrates masterful insight into artistic creativity in general and photography in particular. Inspired by Minor White, he identifies specific elements that fuel creativity, including the still point, spontaneity, simplicity, a sense of mystery, the transcendence of paradox, and nonjudgmental feedback from others. If you're interested in the spiritual dimensions of photography as seen through the eyes of Zen, this is the book to get.

on photography sontag

On Photography by Susan Sontag

This book is considered a classic philosophical and psychological exploration into photography. In her controversial text, Sontag explores photography in terms of idealistic American notions stemming from Walt Whitman, as a act of aggression in "capturing" the world, and as a form of voyeurism in which people record rather than intervene. Besides understanding the technical aspects of their trade, and the artistic skills in designing composition, photographers would do well to have some knowledge about the social and philosophical aspects of their work. Sontag's book is a very good place to start.



Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche