Writing 101 for Photographers

Want to improve your photography? Write about it!

Of course, as photographers we are mainly motivated in a visual sense. We respond strongly to light and shade, colour and shapes, patterns and textures. We get excited when the visual building blocks come together to create a picture that stimulates and inspires us.

The mechanics of human sight are well understood; the amazing ways that the optic system passes signals to the back of the brain, resulting in what we know as visual perception, has long been one of the most studied areas in medicine and psychology.

Given photographers’ penchant for seeking out visual stimulation, it makes sense that our overwhelming motivation is in constructing images. So it may come as a surprise to learn that writing—using words and language—can be one of the most profoundly powerful ways to improve your photography.

Examples of great writing
In my early days of serious study of photography, I first learned of the benefits of writing from the exceptional books written (and with photography) by Freeman Patterson. A gifted artist, writer and teacher, Patterson’s most valuable contributions revolve around how we think about image-making and his ability to clearly convey foundational concepts in written form. Patterson’s lessons have the potential to transform your photography practice and I recommend them (especially Photography and the Art of Seeing) to all my students.

I have also been inspired and motivated by the works, both written and photographic, of Galen Rowell (Google him to be amazed!). A renowned adventure photographer who mainly photographed wilderness expeditions and alpine sport, Rowell for many years wrote a column for the US-based magazine Outdoor Photographer. His book, The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography is a really excellent tome featuring a compilation of many of his best essays.

Thus, early in the development of my photography, the importance of writing was impressed upon me and I began a dedicated practice of journaling about my work. (I use Evernote.) This led to a blog on my own website which, in turn, led to publishing contracts and my series of books that gained international distribution. I have no doubt that writing about my work helped me to take big steps forward, especially at key milestones in my early development as a photographer.

But you don’t have to author books, or even write a blog, to benefit from writing about your photography. Keeping a logbook, diary or journal is a fundamental, foundational practice for artists of all types. And I believe that the beneficial effects can be most significant for photographers.

Why? Because it engages different parts of your brain in the process. Writing, and the thinking behind it, helps you to explore and examine aspects of your image-making that would otherwise remain out of reach. Most importantly, the thinking process behind mindful writing is one of the most effective ways to activate your conscious awareness.

Just winging it, versus working with intention
In my decades of leading photo workshops and tours, I’ve seen first-hand the myriad approaches that people take with their photography. Some are methodical, deliberate and thoughtful; others work in spontaneous, reactive, quick-fire mode. Both approaches certainly have their strengths and, in fact, it’s best to practice switching between modes when you’re working with the camera.

Regardless of your natural preferences and shooting style, your camera work is mostly driven by your visual thought processes, found in the occipital lobe at the back of the brain.

Conversely, when you write, it activates other areas, which enriches your comprehension, as well as your imagination. Writing and language are created and understood in a combined effort involving several areas of the brain, mainly found in the left frontal lobe.

It’s this cross-brain activity that’s so beneficial.

When you imagine something in your mind’s eye, to the visual system it is essentially the same as if you are seeing it with your eyes, albeit not generating as strong an impression in your brain cells. You can enhance this experience by putting words to the pictures. When you visualise something and then write about it, those thoughts become more embedded in your neural network.

The process can also be reversed, where your written thoughts generate visual imagery in your mind. This back and forth process strengthens your understanding of concepts and gives form to your intentions.

If you want to learn something—I mean really, really understand it—you should include as many parts of your brain as possible in the process.

How to do it
It’s all too easy for me to just say, “Start writing today and write at every opportunity.” But if you haven’t before gotten in the habit of journaling, I know it’s not that simple. Where to start?

“Blank page syndrome” is real and a common phenomenon. Sometimes when you decide to sit down and write, open up your notebook or computer text file, you will encounter a “block”, where words don’t seem to come.

Trust me: all it takes is to get started, and the words will flow. Sometimes I’ve even written nonsense just to get started, like “I’m not sure what to write…” or “I feel tired”, or “what is that noise?”. You get the idea: when the words don’t come, start writing by simply focusing on the mechanics of the process. Get some words on the page, even a few bits of gibberish, and you may be surprised at how this loosens up your process.

More often, though, your writing will be inspired by a strong idea, concept or question that comes to your mind. When you feel this flash of inspiration, it is really important to quickly get into writing mode and start recording your stream of thoughts.

Why ask why?
The best way to explore and expand any writing practice is to start with questions. The most important question of all is “why …?”.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that “why?” has truly special power. In fact, asking “why …?” generates a special—and incredibly beneficial—kind of physical activity in your brain cells, and also between different regions of the brain. The ability to question is unique to humans, one of the key evolutionary advances that makes us who we are.

Here are some examples of useful questions, based on my own situation (…tailor these to your own):

  • Why do I prefer abstract imagery?
  • Why do I find this subject matter interesting?
  • Why does the light interact with a particular material in that way?
  • Why did this picture not come out like I thought it would?
  • Why do people buy my art? …Why don’t they?

I’m sure you can see how these types of questions allow you to begin drilling into the essence of what motivates you (and other people), how things work, and the reasons you care about the things you do. In photography, as all other art forms, clearly understanding your own values is fundamental to creating truly expressive work.

Building on the questioning described above, you can also write about how, where, when, etc. and even who. Thinking like a journalist helps dig down deep into matters that are important to you.

The better you understand a given situation, and your response to it, the more successful your photographs will be.

Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artist’s Way presents a comprehensive programme for dedicated artists. This habit really does not have to be complicated or difficult—the essential aspects of the process all come down to keeping a journal about your creative practice, and writing as often and as much as you can. Even a little bit is better than nothing!

I hope that you will find the process of asking questions and recording your thoughts and ideas is enough to get started. Here are some other activities to try with your writing:

Exercise 1

  1. Get your notebook ready, and set an alarm for ten minutes.
  2. Close your eyes and sit quietly for ten full minutes. But don’t let your mind wander randomly during this time—tune in and concentrate with all your other senses.
  3. After ten minutes, open your eyes and simply observe for 30-45 seconds.
  4. Then, immediately write about what you see, what you notice, experiences that occurred while your eyes were closed, etc. and, of course, any questions that come to mind.

Exercise 2

  1. Look at any scene and fully take it all in, noticing as much as you can.
  2. In your mind (or out loud, if you like) use language to describe what you see, how you feel and, of course, any questions that come to mind.
  3. Then, close your eyes and imagine it different. Light vs dark, objects in different places, whatever. Just imagine that the scene is as different as possible than you just saw it.
  4. Next, open your eyes and continue to imagine it different, as closely as possible to how you pictured it with your eyes closed. This will be much harder, but it is possible to daydream and imagine something while your eyes are open. These mental processes are extremely powerful and can produce profound results.
  5. Write a description of what it looks like now, and what it would look like in those different conditions. (Write in the present tense, as if it is truly real.)
  6. This exercise will prime you to start reading and evaluating photographs, which I’ll discuss more in a moment.

Exercise 3

  1. Assemble a few of your favourite photos that you did not take.
  2. Write a description of each of the photos, being as detailed and descriptive as you can. Write only about what you actually see in the picture, without conjecture or assuming hidden meaning. The goal is to fully describe the actual content of the picture, not necessarily what you think it means.
  3. Next, compile a selection of 2-3 of your own favourite / best photos.
  4. Write in the same way as above. You may find it difficult to not stray into describing your experience which you remember form the time taking the photo—your motivations, interests, emotions etc. Again, try to stick to describing what is physically visible within the picture itself, without delving into any hidden meanings.
  5. After you’ve done this, expand your writing more into meaning, concept, emotion etc.—all those things which are not actually present within the picture, but which you know (or assume) to be relevant.

The above exercises are priming you to develop your skill in evaluating and analysing images. This is a crucial, but separate, aspect of learning photography, yet the process is grounded in the use of words that describe a picture. Learning to read photographs well takes time.

As a visual artist, your primary objective is to develop visual acuity and to build your command of visual language. (Visual language doesn’t necessarily mean using words to describe things; rather, it’s about the building blocks of a picture and how you assemble them.)

When it comes to the visual language involved in both making and reading a photograph, it does also help to use actual words—both in your mind and spoken out loud—to analyse and describe the image. Descriptive adjectives are especially useful here, but verbs can also elucidate the action in the photograph as well as in the eye of the viewer.

Learning to effectively read and evaluate images is one of the most valuable skills you can develop as a photographer, and it’s a lifelong journey without a destination. (I’ll talk much more about this in future articles.)

Artist Statements
In all the visual arts, it’s become common practice for artists to write statements about their work, mainly with the aim of helping viewers understand and engage more fully with the art.

Many artists write overarching statements about their practice in general, often including experiences, processes and influences that have informed the creation of their body of work.

While I recommend all photographers do this too, I believe it’s only a start. Moreover, the artist statement should not be set in stone; it is a living document which should be updated and evolve as your art does.

You should also write statements for series, collections and smaller sub-groups of your work; it’s even beneficial to write short, simple descriptions about individual photographs. Along with a good title, an image description is an essential piece of image metadata for every image being shared outside your own internal archives.

Lastly, within photography organisations who offer distinctions and certifications programmes, you will often be required to produce a statement of intent about a submission. The goal of these types of statements is to crystallise your thinking about the concepts and methods you will bring to bear within the work, and it’s usually expected that the statement of intent precedes the actual creation of the work.

Final thoughts and next steps
Improving your visual skill is greatly accelerated and expanded by writing—and talking—about your photography and the work of others. Your comprehension, memory and mastery of your photographic method depend on clear, multi-layered thinking. Writing provides this.

I recommend that you write about your photography both before and after its creation. Bringing your creative process full circle is the best way to see clear progress and to make more work that you’re proud of.

I hope you now see how important writing is, and have some clear next steps how you will incorporate writing into your photographic practice:

  • Decide how you want to write—paper vs. digital (or both)
  • Set up your notebooks, dedicated exclusively to your creative practice
  • Create a plan for when and where you intend to write, including while you’re shooting
  • Be ready! Inspiration can strike at any time.

Writing is an essential way of clarifying and validating your thinking. It helps us see when we’re off track, where the gaps in our understanding are, and also when we’re really onto something great.

To make better pictures, use words!

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