The Soul of the Photographer

If there is one book about the photographic process released the last year and a half that I really want to recommend it’s “The Soul of the Camera” by the Canadian photographer David duChemin. It’s book for those who have come to a point where equipment and technique is of less importance, but rather seek ways to express themselves and feel the need to develop their personal vision. As he writes himself; clearly the camera matters—otherwise we wouldn’t be able to take photos—but in the end the photographer matters more.

It’s the photographer and his or her approach to photography that duChemin addresses in the book. How can you use yourself, your curiosity, your emotions, your creativity to unleash your photographic vision, your distinctive voice? That is what he writes about. It’s about being authentic to yourself and about photographing with a clear intention. As such, the title is actually misleading: It is not about the soul of the camera, but rather the soul of the photographer. I guess what duChemin argues is that the soul of the camera is us, the photographers, the ones holding the camera. It is us, and our vision, that puts the soul into our photographs.

There are plenty of books about how to take pictures by mastering composition, exposure, lighting, post-production, and more. But there aren’t many books about what goes on inside the mind of a photographer, what they think about, and how they approach photography. That is what duChemin addresses in “The Soul of the Camera”. This is a book for photographers who want to take pictures, not play with their gear. If you want to think differently about photography—whether you have the latest gear or not—this book is for you.

The book is beautifully written and in a manner, that perhaps only David duChemin can write. He uses the own experience and development as a springboard to write about the photographic process from the point of the photographer’s mindset. The writing is philosophical and expansive and thus will have a different meaning to different photographers at different points on their journey.

The “Soul of the Camera” feels like a different style of book from some of David duChemin’s previous works, such as “Within the Frame” and “Photographically Speaking”. Yet it really isn’t so different. Each of these books takes a core theme and explores it, trying to convey to the reader its importance and how it might be used to better our photography, and even to learn what better photography means. “The Soul of the Camera” is similar to the other two in that it focuses on a theme, that of “the Photographers Place in Picture-Making.” None of these books are very focused on gear or technique and this book is even less so than the others.

The one objection I have towards his writing is that it’s a little too vague. It’s like someone saying you should be mindful. But if you don’t know how to be mindful, it’s a statement that doesn’t help you anywhere. In trying not to set parameters for other’s development, duChemin becomes too elusive and not concrete enough to help the reader on his or her way towards a more mindful approach to photography.

He writes so himself, about vision, that it’s an elusive topic. So instead of attacking the subject head one, he becomes unusual unclear. Yes, vision is a vague subject matter, but duChemin has written clearly and insightfully about it so many times before. He excuses himself for exactly that in “The Soul of the Camera”; he says he has written so much about vision before, that he has become very self-conscious about writing any further about. Unfortunately, that makes his writing in “The Soul of the Camera” less enlightening.

Do you need another book about photography? DuChemin kind of answers himself: “[Y]ou don’t need another book[…] Yes, read all the books you can get your hands on. But you probably don’t need them as much as you need time to make this craft yours. What you need is time to make photographs.”

I principally will have to agree with duChemin. However, that view doesn’t give the whole picture (no pun intended), as I am sure he will agree upon; otherwise he wouldn’t have written yet another book. Books are good for inspiration, good for new ideas and good for learning more. If that’s what you need, I will highly recommend “The Soul of the Camera”. Despite the few objections I have raised, it’s an inspiring book for any photographer searching for his or her voice.

Then, after having read the book, you still need to go out there and practice. You still need to put in the time to actually make photographs.

In the book, duChemin explores what it means to make better and more personal photographs. Illustrated with a collection of his black and white images, the book’s essays address topics such as craft, mastery, vision, audience, discipline, and authenticity. “The Soul of the Camera” is a personal and deeply sensible book that quietly yet forcefully challenges the idea that our cameras, lenses and settings are anything more than dumb and mute tools.

Once again; DuChemin’s and the book’s point is that it’s the photographer—not the camera—that can make better photographs. As he writes in the book: “The camera on its own is a wonder, but in the hands of the poet, the storyteller, the seeker of change, or the frustrated artist, it can create something alive that touches our humanity.”

The Soul of the Camera: The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making
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56 thoughts on “The Soul of the Photographer

  1. I like how David Du Chemin writes about photography and I agree that is the photographer and not the camera the key point. And photography’s, can be a way to reveal our soul and our vision. Of course we need to have a vision or to develop it and to free out soul without any fear.
    Thanks for another interesting post

  2. Thank you for showcasing this book, Otto. Years ago, when I was pursuing photography on the technical level, I read a book called “The Art of Seeing” (out of print now) and it changed everything for me. Learning how to see (or hear) through one’s lens of the self is worth pursuing in every art form.

    1. I am writing a book myself about seeing with the intention to take photos. Actually the writing is done, and the text is being proofread now before going to layout. Do you remember who wrote “The Art of Seeing”?

  3. Thank you for introducing the book. I agree completely about being mindful. Without more descriptive words many would not know what to do or expect.

  4. Thank you! As someone who doesn’t have a lot of gear, it helps to be reminded that it’s the photographer behind the camera that turns a photograph into a work of art.

  5. The Art of Seeing was written by Aldous Huxley, but I think the book the commenter above is referring to is called Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson and I can highly recommend it myself having read it some years ago. I should read it again I might add, as it’s gathering dust on my bookshelf 🙂

    While only an amateur photographer myself, I find Photography books interesting in themselves, but mainly for the images and examples the writer includes, not necessarily their written word(s). Maybe it’s something to do with very very short-sighted and find reading hard work these days. I tend to look at photos on the internet or in a book more than reading the accompanying description. Nature or Travel books with lots of photos also gives me some insight into the photographer’s vision, so it’s not just about reading Photography books per se.

    1. I too, find great pleasure of looking at others’ photos. Always something to enjoy and learn from. Thanks for the info about the books. The Patterson book I have myself and agree with you in that it’s a recommendable book.

  6. I have not read this book by David, but I think I have all his others. He is definitely one of my favorite photography authors and I have learned a lot from him. Nice review of his new book.

  7. I think I have this book, though my house is packed up while we paint so I can’t look. But it feels so familiar…have you recommended it before?

  8. Sounds like a most interesting book.
    I believe you can be a good photographer without sharing your soul… but you become a great one when you do.

  9. Otto, I have enjoyed your review of this book. I will definitely like to read it, sounds like the type of book I would enjoy. Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. I am one who wants to take pictures, not play with my gear, so I may just have to read this book. I have never read a book on photography before. I set my camera on automatic or sports and hope for the best. One night I was down at the beach taking pictures of the moon with my tripod when a woman came up to me and asked me what settings I was using. I told her I honestly had no idea and she proceeded to go on and on about this setting and that, and to recommend a photography class. Thought she would never go away… Thank you for your helpful review of this book.

    1. We all have different approaches to photography don’t we. As I see it: Whatever works works. Even though I am technically pretty savvy I use automatic most of the time.

  11. that does sound like a good book! Nice review of it too…As you know, i have a vision, or two or three that mix together into one… there is one vision that i have yet to realize on a consistent basis… that of minimalism… where the subject of the picture is in stark relief to negative space… you should put the book in your sidebar, so i don’t forget where it is… i’m an amazon affiliate too! it’s a good way to make very little money lolol

    1. So far I haven’t really made much money. I am trying it out, and might just think it’s not for me. As for vision; I like you idea of minimalism and using negative space. When will I see something?

  12. Thank you for posting about the book, Otto. I saw it mentioned elsewhere and now that I’ve read your review, I’ve put it on my reading list. I’ve taken an unintentional break from the camera. I thought it was a lack of inspiration, but I think it turned out to be a need to be empty for a while. Now that I’ve picked up the camera again, it’ll be good to read something that will inspire and/or make me think. I’m looking forward to your book, too! Do you have a release date yet? 🙂

    1. I think holding emptiness for some time is good for anyone us. It’s great to read that you have found the photographic inspiration again. As for my book; no there is no release date, but I will certainly announce it here on the blog when it’s ready.

  13. Thank you for this recommendation, Otto. Your summary drives home the point about the “art of seeing”, that it comes from within and has little to do with the gear and everything to do about your ability to see. I had the privilege of meeting Lee Friedlander this week in SF at a gallery presentation. He acknowledged that he doesn’t plan his projects and goes out and just looks for compelling compositions, of which he is a master. I was awestruck.

  14. I’ve taken one of David’s video classes and read a couple short ebooks, he has an interesting perspective. I guess it comes down to photography having both objective and subjective aspects, where the subjective should drive and the objective should navigate.

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