Contemplation. Dramatically Improving Your Photography With Reading


What Types of Images Are Inspiring You As a Photographer?

This is not a revolutionary and technological thought, nor is this the biggest secret to becoming better in photography.

The following text only talks about a different approach to your huge love of photography. I’m simply inviting you to spend amazing quality time with valuable images instead of just endlessly scrolling through images.

improving your photography with reading
Image by Pexels

Improving Your photography With Reading

Contemplative reading is a term that I took away from an academic lecture, and I'm sure our teacher took it from the religious term “Lectio Divina“, which states that good reading must include at least: reading, contemplation and even meditation at some points, to be considered a good reading of a text.

This good reading invites the lecturer to form a deeper and more analytical interpretation of what’s going on in the text or the visual asset per se.

Contemplative reading in photography goes a step further because you'll be reading no literal words, but you'll be able to apply every possible meaning contained in the image to your own life, and especially to your own identity.

Image by Shuai Guo
Image by Shuai Guo

Personally, I think that contemplative reading is enriched by reducing the speed at which we’re used to consuming content these days, especially through online platforms. By doing this, we open the door to

By doing this, we open the door to reflective and critical understanding of the pieces we are observing. I think that contemplative reading is easier to practice when the visual content can be seen outside a screen in a more tangible form.

Still, I've discovered there's a simple trick to avoid distractions while surfing the web – just go to full-screen mode when you find an image that deserves a contemplative reading. It works, trust me – have a go yourself!

Images become more suggestive when we give them the chance to pitch us their messages; but to do that, we at least have to be sharp and sensitive in order to identify those images that have something beautiful, amazing, and meaningful to say.

Not every image will tell a great story, but a great story can come from any image.

Contemplative Reading – The Process 

The contemplative reading process begins before you see a single picture. It starts with your own mindset, making it more aware and sensitive to the images you constantly see, and discerning as to whether the story is meaningful or not.

Here's a Scenario

Let’s imagine we are surfing our favorite photography-sharing websites, and then we stumble across a certain image that catches our attention.

Instead of just giving it a simple like, make it full-screen and grab a small notebook (nothing fancy, you’re allowed to be messy) and start listing the things you like the most about the image. Just brainstorm over the thing.

It could be the composition, the color palette, the elements inside it, or outside, etc. Start doing some analog work, because at the end this is going to be a personal approach to your love of photography.

Image by Federico Alegría
Image by Federico Alegría

The Benefits of This Style

It helps to Create Better Critiques

Critique helps to enhance the evolution of a photographer, without a doubt. Building a solid learning experience based on critique works in two ways: you can either receive good constructive critiques, and/or you can give solid elaborated helpful critiques.

That said, contemplative reading helps you build solid comments on others’ photographs, and also write a good statement that gives your work a conceptual basis.

Imagine what the wonderful world of photography could be if we all received solid, deep comments on our works, instead of mere likes or seemingly endless gear-related questions?

Image by Søren Astrup Jørgensen
Image by Søren Astrup Jørgensen

Just do a small exercise, without sharing it at first. Select images you love, images that moved your soul the first time you saw them, and write a small paragraph about how the images made you feel. Then try to answer small and simple, yet powerful questions about:

  • How the image makes you feel.
  • What does the image tell you?

And if you have any suggestions to make that enhance these prior statements, you can also write about:

  • How the image could be enhanced?
  • Why your suggestion could enhance what you’re feeling in the image.

It doesn't matter if the image was taken by a friend of yours or a great master like Henri Cartier-Bresson. These texts are for you, and nobody else.

It Helps Build a Personal Visual Criteria

Thanks to the massive bombardment of images we are exposed to every day, one of the biggest challenges of our time is that it's become harder to have an educated visual culture. But contemplative reading can save our way of doing things thanks to its slow-paced methodology.

Image by Freestocks
Image by Freestocks

It takes only 5 to 15 minutes to perform a good contemplative reading of an image with no distractions, and with total focus on the images.

While I'm here, I remembered this short French movie called La Jetée which is only 26 or so minutes long but illustrates a series of powerful images put together with narration. It's interesting to see how you feel “reading” the images.

Every image you observe in a slow-paced way will remain longer in your memory, so you’ll be increasing your personal collection of visual assets.

If we consume good images and digest them correctly,
we’ll speak in a more refined visual language when creating our images.

Finding Your Favorite Images

Having a bunch of favorite images is really important, and I must say that I personally don't have a single favorite image, but certainly a good group of favorites.

One of my all-time favorite images is the portrait of Marina Ginestà shot by Juan Guzmán during the Spanish Civil War. The image may not be massively iconic, but it transmits a great power thanks to the fearless youth of the young communist militant girl.

I tend to revisit my all-time favorite images to seek inspiration, and the messages I get from them become stronger and stronger each time.


Maybe the term “Contemplative Reading” sounds fancy and overpriced; but in the end, the concept is simple and that's the exact message I wanted to convey here.

Just start looking at images at a slower pace, and try to analyze them with a passionate eye. We love photography, we love making images, and we love seeing them, so the task should be easier than you first imagine.

Improving Your Photography With Reading – Top Takeaways

  • Through Contemplative reading, we're able to develop a deeper understanding of photography and most importantly, other's work. This means commenting can be more constructive and valuable.
  • Try looking at images for a longer period of time, distraction-free. Use a full-screen mode on your computer or smartphone and take a few minutes to sink into what you're really observing.

Further Resources

Further Learning

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About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

Music to this ld photographer’s ears. This is what I preach to those who are willing to listen. Well said, thank you. Let’s take back the notion of actually seeing photos in depth. Let’s bring it back into practice. No small feat in todays overloaded world of digital and social media, but windmills worth tilting at together.

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