Visual library in photography as your main artistic tool

Updated: Mar 17

A silhouette of a woman on a dark foggy hill fine art photograph by Fedor Vasilev

Your visual library is a collection of artworks that you have seen and that you have experienced. Your visual library is the films you watched, the photos you’ve seen and even the books you’ve read. It’s the way you look at the world. It’s rather about understanding photography than taking pictures. For that, you don’t really need to learn photography theory. It’s the foundation of the whole art I would say. Your experiences are vital for your photography. Filling your visual library is something I would start doing even before taking the camera in your hands. Even music affects photography although it’s a completely different medium. Having a great visual library in your head will help you generate ideas for strong images subconsciously. You will see how beautifully your object can be shown without thinking about the photography rules.

When you submit your works to a photography competition (if you do so) they usually look at how well the idea of the photograph is shown, they look at your subject. And the visual library is about the subject as well, so to become a better photographer you need to search for beautiful visuals and try to closely examine them.


To improve photography skills by enhancing your visual library you can try:

1 - Surround yourself with the art you like.

some of the paintings I have saved within the last years

Try to pick the artworks you love and put them on the background of your desktop. Print photos and put them on walls or collect and store them in a folder. I completed a European paintings course and it definitely helped me to understand art better. I saved the paintings from that course and I keep reviewing these paintings for inspiration and references.

2 - Watch artistic films.

Two men in front of a lighthouse black and white
A screenshot from film "the Lighthouse"

If you haven’t - watch the films by Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Krzysztof Kieślowski… A source for good films that works for me is MUBI. I absolutely love the masterpieces such as: All of the Kubrick's films, The Lighthouse, There will be blood, Pulp Fiction, Big Lebovsky, Lost highway... I also love the films: Brazil, M, Taste of cherry, The Wind will carry us... There are hundreds of great films and I can not list all of them here so try to also do some research.

3 - Visit exhibitions and Museums

And try to learn more about the photographs and paintings and how they were created. Write down your thoughts about every exhibition, you will remember it better that way and the experience you received will not be lost. Exhibitions and museums help to get more educated overall. Even knowing history may help you to come up with more interesting ideas. It definitely helps to improve your photography skills.

4 - Try to travel more

Ocean in Portugal, waves on a seashore

Your visual library builds up from the experiences you had. So try to experience more and write down the experiences to remember them. When you go on a trip you have a lot of new experiences and you can also take a lot of photographs, so you can regard it as your small photography project. Learning new cultures will help you to implement new concepts in your photographs. Creativity is about combining things in a new interesting way. So if you learn new concepts while travelling you get more things to combine.

By the way, living in different places, I would say, is probably even better. But obviously harder because, unfortunately, we have different countries with different borders and migration regulations. I have lived in 4 countries so far and I feel like I experienced very well how life differs in all of them. For instance, this project was inspired by the industrial manchester's style where I've spent 3 years.

5 - Subscribe to photography magazines

You can subscribe to photography magazines, it's a nice way to keep seeing good content in the field you want to get better at. For instance, there are plenty of them available about fashion photography. I constantly read different ones. Recently, I started reading Blind magazine and I like their posts about photographers and their stories.

6 - Read photo books.

Photo books: Firecrackers Female Photographers Now and The Helsinki School Vol 3

Each photo book is a collection of works united by a certain idea and most of the photo books will help you to experience photography on a completely different level. You can open a photography book multiple times within years and still learn new things from it. In most of the photobooks, you can find descriptions of the photography projects and if you read that you will understand the concept better. All of the art can not be fully understood without context. It’s very good to read what photographers tell about their works in the photo books.

7 - Collect your best images and save these collections.

3 Photo Books by Fedor Vasilev and Anna Ivahnenko
Photobooks with our Photos

It will help you to see your progress and have a fresh look at your work. Every year together with my wife we create a photo book with our best images of the year. It's interesting to see that in 2018 I didn't know how to select images and it's cool to see how our pictures got better by 2022.

8 - Learn to draw

Draw everything! If you want to level up your observational skills you can learn drawing. If you improve your observational skills you will see more things around you and will notice potential shots. Since it’s the foundation of all visual arts you can learn how shadows fall on objects by drawing them. Drawing things makes you aware of the appearance of everything from every side. You can learn from which angles to show the objects that you want to photograph. A couple of times every week I do figure drawing since I can also only benefit from learning all the shapes of people's bodies and faces.

9 - Copy masterpieces

Colour study of Hopper's artwork New York office 1962

B&W study of Hopper's artwork New York office 1962

To learn how they were made I repainted some of the paintings in colour and black and white, like this one above. Copying masterpieces is a great way to fill your visual library and to improve your photography skills. You can try to recreate the photographs made by masters, or you can try to redraw or repaint them. By redrawing the photographs you will memorise the way the photograph has been done. For colour photos and paintings you can also convert them to black and white and then redraw the values of the picture. In black and white you will see the composition better. If you have access to all the props then try to make a similar photo and it will help you understand its strong sides and how it was made.

10 - Guru shots or any similar competitions

A long time ago I was an active user onGuruShots”. It's quite fun for a while when you try to compete. It helps you to learn how to determine where a good photograph is and where a bad one is. Since there’s a voting system and to get votes for your images you have to vote for others. The problem is that the voters are the people who don’t know much about photography and it might be frustrating to see that a mediocre photograph wins a competition. So maybe in a few months, you will see that 90-99% of the images in the competitions are not the ones you would vote for and that will be the time when you can leave that community and continue learning somewhere else.

11 - Instagram might help!?

Some groups on instagram where they post different photographs can help as well. Although I personally don’t like instagram because they are evil and make you watch a lot of ads. I know many people who deleted their accounts because of how worse instagram got.


Why having a rich visual library is important

Dark Moody house near Manchester

Over the years I realised that my images get better because I do all of what I listed above. I hope it will help you too. Seems like the only way to achieve something as an artist-photographer is to explore the culture in all of the ways possible. Because it’s important for an artist to generate new concepts, you need to learn the maximum of the existing concepts. As well as improving at photography while learning the arts you might improve your own life. That’s quite obvious but you will really look at the world differently.

Filling up your visual library will help to level up your observational skills and that will help you notice things, not everyone can see. It will also help to understand your own images better. Try to take your best photos and then look back at them after going to a few museums and visiting some exhibitions, you might end up seeing the mistakes you made that you couldn’t see before.


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