Learning to See Creatively (A Book by Bryan Peterson)


I was introduced to Bryan Peterson and his work – his photos and his writing – through a more current book, Understanding Close-Up Photography.  Peterson has a very unique writing style that at first I didn’t like.  But my appreciation for his methods grew as I completed his book.  In the end, I really liked the book and Peterson’s style.  But Understanding Close-Up Photography is a very specialized book focusing on a specific aspect of photography.  What I really wanted to see is how Peterson’s unique style would fit in a book written for beginners and novices.  That is how I came across this book, Learning to See Creatively (Revised) which was released back in 2003.  In these times of fast moving technology, it may seem odd to go back to a book released nearly six years ago.  But the topics covered in this book are timeless – design, composition and color.  These techniques will never change.


As I mentioned, Peterson has a very unique writing style which may take some getting used to.  The main body of text focuses on specific technical details in a matter-of-fact tone.  After reading two of his books now, I almost feel that the text in the main body almost serves as an introduction:  Here are the facts, here’s what you need to know and so on.  But he won’t spend much (if any) time in the main body providing examples or scenarios of how to use this new found knowledge.  In fact, most of the wisdom that can be acquired from his books are contained within the subtext accompanying each photo or illustration within the book.  This style has its advantages and disadvantages.  One advantage is a nice separation of theory and practice – the content focusing on theory, the subtext focusing on practice.  Another is that you’re faced with just the facts and that information in the main body and it can be quickly and easily scanned.  Among the disadvantages is the fact that you will miss a great deal if you are not reading the subtext.  I would equate this to attending any type of formal class – you can learn quite a bit from the textbook, but you won’t really get it unless you’re also attending the class and gathering the pearls of wisdom from your knowledgeable and experienced professor.  On the other hand, Peterson is a teacher and it shows in his work.  In the long run, I’ve grown confident in his style and I find myself wishing more instructional books about creative endeavors (like photography) would adopt his style.

One of the things that is so great about this book, as compared to other introduction to composition books, is that Peterson spends a great deal of time discussing equipment.  Nearly the first quarter of the book is dedicated to equipment, mostly lenses:  Wide angle lenses, fisheyes, street zooms and so on.  To some extent, this is where his writing style might creates some confusion for true beginners.  There’s a lot of information to be learned about your equipment from these discussions, but the subtext tends to be distracting at times.  If you are a true beginner, I would suggest you read only the main content first and then go back and read the subtext.

Where Peterson’s style shines – and where you really benefit from his experiences – is in the main body of the book, the sections titled Elements of Design and Composition.  Elements is especially difficult to understand for those without a creative background.  What is the difference between shape and form?  How are texture and pattern different?  Why is color so important?  These are the questions that Peterson will answer, and he’ll even provide examples and discuss the importance of each element in each photo.

I have read many a book about design and composition in photography.  It’s rare to see lighting as such a huge part of such a book.  Traditionally, design and composition focuses on the subject – where you place it, where you place the camera, color, framing, the rules, and so on.  It’s a lot to cover, and for that reason, I think that lighting tends to get left by the wayside.  I do not intend to discredit any other author – lighting is something that can be the focus of an entire book, or an entire series of books.  So it stands with good reason that lighting does not enter the books on composition.  Peterson, on the other hand, acknowledges that light is an important aspect of photographic design and composition.  The quality of light, the direction of light and of course the availability of light will likely have a dramatic affect on your composition.  Peterson spends  a great deal discussing how light will affect  your image.  In all fairness, I feel that Learning to See Creatively is probably beyond the scope of the standard design and composition book.  But I also feel that Peterson felt so strongly about light and equipment and its impact on design that he had a different focus all along.

An interesting aspect of this book is that the revised touches briefly on the advantages (and disadvantages) of digital photography and digital workflow.  His thoughts on digital are not nearly as in-depth as they could be, and I think that there are a lot of points that are missed.  But you have to consider that this book was written in 2003 and technology – both on the hardware level and on the software level – has come a long way since then.  I almost feel that this chapter is a misplaced chapter, along with the chapter on Career Considerations – which seems out of place as the book seems to cater to beginners and novices not yet ready to consider a photography career.  Still, these chapters are not the reason to pick up the book.

Final Thoughts

In my eyes, Bryan Peterson has demonstrated his clear ability to educate in the world of photography.  His writing style – which again I must remind you that I disliked at first – has proven to be a great aspect of his books, the spearation of theory and practice having a great impact on your learning.  For beginners, this book may prove to be an essential – something you’ll learn from and a book you’ll reference regularly.  Those with photographic experience, especially if you’ve had formal education, may find this book to be a bit redundant – perhaps having little to learn from it.  I will admit, however, that there were a few things I gained from the book.  For example, I find myself embarassing myself a lot more in public, laying on my stomach or back just to get a shot.  Perhaps it was a fear of what people might think of me, but I think it’s really because I had no idea how great a shot could be if I actually took such a risk.  Something in this book – something in Peterson’s words – helped me overcome that.

At a Glance

The Desirable


  • Peterson’s Unique Writing Style – separation of theory and practice
  • Some incredible examples of each design element – both when following the rules and when breaking them.
  • Exercises – practical assignments that help you to better understand an idea.
  • Magic of Light – the chapter dedicated to discussing and illustrating how light will impact your photographic design.

The Undesirable


  • The Two Misplaced Chapters:  Digital Photography and Career Considerations
  • Index is not very intuitive or complete, making it difficult to use this as a reference book.


(recommended for beginners)


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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