Buy Books, Not Gear

Buy books not gear

You can check out a list of street photography books I recommend here: Inspirational Street Photography Books You Gotta Own


I was at Charlie Kirk’s apartment in Tokyo, when he turned me onto a book he recently bought and was moved by, which was a book by Alec Soth—a Magnum photographer. It a lovely book, with a yellow cover and several of his photo projects inside, including excerpts from his blog which discussed the role of gear.

He said he constantly got questions about his gear for his projects, and then made the remark that he didn’t mind the question that much—considering that most photographers are nerds/geeks anyways. Therefore he listed a long list of his equipment (mostly large-format stuff) and how he processed his film—specifically for each project he did. He then ended the post mentioning that he wrote the post specifically with an Apple iBook. Funny and snarky way to end the post.

In this blog post my thesis is that we should quit wasting money on gear (lenses, bodies, etc) and more money on photo-books. I feel that the best way to improve your vision as a street photographer is to look at great photography (which is nearly impossible online) and readily found in photo-books. If you are curious about why, please continue reading! (as this post is damn long).

Part 1: Our Obsession with Gear

Leica M9 Titanium – $30,000+

Material-oriented society

In our modern-day society, we love our products. We have an emotional connection with the material things that we own, and relate to them. If we purchase a Toyota Prius, we will consider ourselves eco-friendly. If we purchase a Mac, we consider ourselves creative. If we purchase a Leica, we consider ourselves serious photographers.

Having an obsession with photography gear is unhealthy. Incredibly unhealthy. Even worse—debilitating and negative for our emotional and mental health.

My personal obsession with gear

When I started shooting photography, I had a simple Canon point-and-shoot. It was a lovely camera that I could carry with me wherever I went, and took great photos. It was always by my side, and helped me create some life-long memories.

However there was a certain point in which I realized I wanted more control and power out of my camera. I saw photos online of bokeh and shallow depth of field—something that couldn’t be achieved with my tiny point-and-shoot. I then convinced myself in order to become a better photographer I needed a DSLR.

I then purchased my first Canon 350D (Canon Rebel XT). It was a lovely camera, and I was blown away by the image quality of the images compared to my point-and-shoot. Of course the kit lens couldn’t give me the “bokehlicious” shots that I wanted, so I soon did my research and got my first 50mm f/1.8 lens.

For the first few weeks I shot constantly at 1.8, being enamored by the shallow depth of field. I would show my friends my “artistic” flower shots and abstract shots—which was followed by “oohs” and “aahs” as it resulted in a certain look which was not obtainable by the “normal” point and shoot cameras.

I then realized that it was fun having multiple lenses, and I need more. I did tons of research on the internet, and ended up convincing myself that I needed a Canon L lens if I were to be taken “seriously” as a photographer. After buying a Canon 70-200 f/4 L lens, I then convinced myself I needed a macro lens, and bought a Sigma 105mm macro lens. I think I used the Sigma lens twice.

During the time I was still a student at UCLA, and working in the IT department. Like an other computer geek, I would spend loads of downtime at work searching the gear forums online and telling myself I needed more expensive cameras and gears to become a better photographer. Slowly but surely, I purchased a Canon 35mm f/2, a Canon 24mm f/2.8, and finally the camera of my dreams—a full-frame Canon 5D. I wanted to buy more L lenses (like the 24-70L, 17-40L, and the 35 f/1.4 L but didn’t have enough money).

I was decently content with the gear that I had, but thought I needed more. I was still into landscape at the time, so I agonized about the fact that I couldn’t afford a carbon-fiber tripod. The Canon L-lenses would still haunt me, as I somehow felt that having sharper lenses would help me get better photos. I spent an inordinate time in the buy/sell forums online and waiting for the new rumors for new cameras and lenses to come out.

Spending time on gear or taking photos?

Leica .95 Noctilux. “Only” ~$11,000

During the 2-3 years I worked at the IT department, I spent way too much time obsessing and thinking about gear. I didn’t realize at the time that I didn’t take that many photos, and spent my time checking out specs on new cameras and lenses. In a sense, the quest to constantly get better gear debilitated me from actually going out and taking photos.

One camera, one lens

I would say the defining moment of my photography was my trip to Korea and Europe in the summer of 2008. For my trip, I decided to keep the weight of my equipment low so I just brought my Canon 5D, my 35mm f/2 and my 24mm f/2.8.

The entire summer I shot 99% of my images with my Canon 5D and my 35mm f/2. That summer allowed me to get used to one focal length and see the world through a viewfinder. It was refreshing, as I knew my gear inside out and wouldn’t want anything else to shoot with. The high-ISO ability was incredible, and the equipment was relatively light. It suited me for the type of street photography I was doing at the time, which was finding an interesting scene and sitting and waiting for “the decisive moment”—similar to that of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

After two months in Korea, I went on a backpacking trip across Europe with my girlfriend Cindy to places such as Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Cinque Terre, Venice, Prague, and London. I once again brought just my Canon 5D and two lenses, using my 35mm f/2 for 99% of my images. I only took a few images with my 24mm, which were more snapshots inside cathedrals and the such. During that summer, I probably got some of my most memorable images that I included in my “All the World’s a Stage” series.

My love/hate relationship with gear

To be a photographer, you need a camera. To shoot street photography I would argue it is best to use a wide prime lens (preferably a 35mm, or 28mm).

There is nothing wrong about having a lot of gear. However it becomes a problem when having so much gear paralyzes you from actually going out and taking photos. There are many people out there who have tons of gear but aren’t very good at taking photos, and others who wish to aspire to become a better photographer and dream of buying new gear all-day long.

When it comes to street photography equipment, I would say the holy grail is the Leica M9 (if you prefer digital). It is small, compact, full-frame, and discrete. After a while I disliked how bulky, intimidating, and clunky my 5D felt for street photography—and I made the decision to upgrade. Shooting with the M9 has made it easier for me to shoot on the streets in terms of its form factor and controls, but it hasn’t helped me become a better photographer. In-fact, I can’t tell the difference between my Canon 5D and Leica M9 photos in terms of image-quality when shown on the web.

Having gear can make it easier to capture the type of image you want, but won’t make you a better photographer.

So what makes one a better photographer? Let me make the following statement: Buy books, not gear

Part 2: The Beauty of Photo Books

Magnum Contact Sheets: My favorite photography book
Magnum Contact Sheets: My favorite photography book

I can often tell how good a photographer is not by the gear they shoot with, but the number of photography books in their library. I am sure there are many people who own a lot of photo-books that aren’t great photographers, but to me it shows that they are serious about expanding their knowledge about photography and focusing on the right thing.

The problem about seeing photographs online

Nowadays with the internet, people can generalize there is no more need for photo-books. After all, we now have Google images, Flickr, Google+, 500px, and all of these great photo social media sites to look at inspirational images. However here are the three problems that I encounter:

  1. Most of the photographs you see on the web are crap
  2. Your computer screen will never be as accurate as prints on paper in a book
  3. The actual “good” photographs you see on the web are typically very small and low-resolution in size.

My initial reluctance with photo-books

When I first started getting very serious in street photography, I told myself that I would purposefully not look at the work of other street photographers to not allow their vision to affect mine. Therefore for about two years, I was pretty much shooting in a bubble. I saw a few photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, and knew I liked to capture “the decisive moment” and the beauty of everyday life.

In hindsight I now realize that I was disillusioned in the sense that I thought my photos were 100% original and truly mine. Now that I think about it, considering that I only saw the work of a few street photographers (mainly Henri Cartier-Bresson), all of my photos were pretty much the same aesthetic of Henri Cartier-Bresson as well—in terms of seeing the scene, waiting for the person to enter the scene, and capturing the moment.

The change

Photograph by Bruce Gilden

I believe it was in Paris for the Leica Magnum event when I first met Charlie Kirk we had a conversation about street photography workshops. I remember Charlie saying something along the lines that he thought the best way to teach someone street photography was to give them a few beers and a ton of photo books.

At the time I still wasn’t convinced that I needed to see the work of other photographers, as I didn’t want my own personal vision to become too distracted by the work of others. However the moment in which I had a change of heart was when I first stumbled upon the work of Bruce Gilden, and was utterly fascinated with both his approach and his resulting images. Wanting to find more of his work, I scoured the internet and couldn’t find much. I then realized I had to actually buy his photo books, so after a splurge on Amazon I nabbed up all the books that I could find (as well as a ton of Magnum books).

What I saw in the photobooks blew me away. Not only were the photos so much more large and gorgeous than the small-resolution images I had seen online, but there was a large number of photos that I have never seen. In addition, I could tell that the books were carefully edited and sequenced in such a way that it would give the viewer a narrative and guide them through the photographers’ own vision.

The most defining moment was when I saw several photos by Bruce Gilden and Magnum photographers that absolutely blew me away. By seeing a few of these images, they took my breath away and I could feel the emotion and humanity in the photographs. It set a much higher bar in which I wanted to create more powerful and compelling images. Not only that, but I realized that 99% of my photos were crap after seeing the work of other great photographers, which inspired me to work harder in my photography.

But photo books are expensive!

Photo books (especially the good ones) are not cheap. However I would argue that in order to become a better street photographer, it is the best way to get you there. Let me make the statement I made earlier: Buy photo books, not gear.

An average photo book costs around $30-50. The average lens (for a DSLR) goes for around $500-$1000. The average Leica lens goes for around $2500-$5000.

Let’s do some math:

Assuming that you bought a new $1000 DSLR lens, you can get 20 spanking amazing photo-books. Assuming you just bought a $5000 Leica lens, you could have bought 100 amazing photo books. Also let’s not forget that the average photographer doesn’t only own one lens, but at least 2-3.

I would argue that buying even 5 great street photography books will do more for your photography than any lens out there would. And assuming that each photo-book was $50, that would cost $250. That is a small fraction of any lens that you could purchase out there.

If I could have started all over again

I was having a conversation with Ryan Ong, a street photographer from Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia who recently helped me coordinate my street photography workshop this weekend. We were talking about photo-books and gear, and I had a small epiphany:

Had I started street photography all over again, I would have just bought a Ricoh GR II and a crapload of photobooks. A Ricoh goes for around $550 and has a classic 28mm focal length, fast lens, is light and compact, has zone-focusing, and no shutter lag. I also wouldn’t have had to mess around with DSLR’s and spending tons of money figuring out what equipment I wanted.

Part 3: Books vs Gear – the showdown

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Why books over gear?

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing evil about gear. After all, we need a camera to take photos and certain lenses for our own style.

However what I am ultimately trying to stress in this article is that if you are serious about taking your street photography to the next level, don’t invest your money into gear but rather books. Books will help you see the world in a different way, and set the barometer higher for what makes a great street photograph. Books will inspire you to become a great photographer. Gear often just collects dust.

Other free online resources

If you really cannot afford any photo books (or live in a country where getting books is nearly impossible) I advise you to check out all the portfolios you can find on the Magnum site—and you can also preview all of the books they offer for free. However note the images have watermarks over them which are very distracting, and the thumbnails are very small. But better than nothing!

Also make sure to check out the work on Burn magazine. The magazine is curated by David Alan Harvey (from Magnum) and it shows some top-notch work.

Keep posted with the photo-essays from Invisible Photographer Asia. They are great at sniffing talented Asian photographers from all around the globe, and give voices to the work of unknown photographers.

Don’t forget to check out the work of the photographers at In-Public—some of the most talented guys out there.


Neither having a ton of great photo books or a ton of great gear will help you become a great street photographer. Ultimately you just need to go out and take photos—a lot of photos.

Photo-books will help you understand what makes a great street photograph in terms of composition, framing, content, and story-telling. They will also set a high barometer for yourself to take better photographers. In addition, they will inspire you to actually go out and take more photographs.

Having good equipment will help you create the images you seek after. I still recommend everyone to experiment with different gear (film vs digital, micro 4/3rds vs rangefinder, autofocus vs manual, 35mm vs 28mm and so on…). Once you find gear that you are comfortable with, quit focusing on gear and just go out and shoot.

You can check out a list of street photography books I recommend here: Inspirational Street Photography Books You Gotta Own