KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai

The Art of Reading Pictures

KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai
KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai

There is an ‘art’ to reading pictures– not just looking at pictures.

Images traced of AKIRA KUROSAWA, one of the masters of photography, film, and cinema.

Reading a picture vs looking at picture.

Kurosawa Seven Samurai
Kurosawa Seven Samurai

If you ‘read’ a picture– you analyze the picture, and try to figure out why it works. You try to analyze the composition, see if there are any diagonals, spirals, etc.

KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai
Note the spacing of the subjects. KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai

You read a picture by trying to analyze how you look around the frame. You ask yourself questions like:

  • Who is the main subject in this picture?
  • Is this picture interesting to me, or boring?
  • If this picture is boring to me, why does the photographer like it? Does the photographer see something that I don’t see?
  • What is happening in the foreground, middle-ground, and background?
  • Are the elements in this picture overlapping, or not?


Kurosawa Seven Samurai

By ‘reading’ a picture– you are much more ACTIVE as a participant.

KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai

For example, when you watch a film– don’t just passively watch/consume the movie. Rather, READ the film. Analyze the film. Study the composition, the storyline– and write notes (either on a piece of paper, or in your mind).

KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai

For example, when I watch films I like (Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa is a favorite) — I take screenshots while I watch the film. And afterwards, I trace them, to understand the composition, and see how I can integrate those compositions into my own pictures.

When I look at pictures in a photo-book, I will often use my iPad to take pictures of the pictures I like, and then trace them afterwards. I look for the diagonals, and the composition. I try to study the ‘figure to ground’ (the contrast between the darks and the lights) in the frame. I also study color theory in pictures– trying to figure out what are the warm tones (orange, red, yellow) vs the cool tones (blue, violet, green).

I am trying to actively understand why a picture is good.

What does the background look without any people?

How do you perceive depth in a picture?


Why did Kurosawa use a telephoto, and why are some subjects standing, others sitting?

Therefore when it comes to ‘reading’ a photo book, try to think to yourself:

“If this photographer was a movie director– what kind of story are they trying to tell through this book?”

KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
Just the actors. KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai

As you are looking through the photo book, try to make your own story– by READING INTO THE IMAGES.

Actors and the foreground added. KUROSAWA x KIM / Seven Samurai
Just the foreground.

Where do my eyes go?

KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai
How my eye travels. KUROSAWA x ERIC KIM / Seven Samurai

Also ask yourself, how does the shot track my eyes? What direction do my eyes go?

“I wonder how the photographer took this picture?”

Love the layers and depth. I ask myself, I wonder what lens he used?Kurosawa, Seven Samurai

Also, whenever I see a picture I like, I think to myself:

“I wonder how the photographer took this picture?”

Just the faces. Notice the size and the placement of the heads.

I try to analyze it, and break it down and deconstruct it– like how a child breaks down a toaster to figure out ‘how it works.’ I did this to my computer as a child, and also to my car– to figure out how it works, by breaking it apart, and trying to put it back together.

Now with their clothes added.

I then try to IMITATE the photographer, by re-creating the same picture. I try to find a similar scene, and try to re-create the composition, the lighting, or how the elements are spaced in the frame.

Now with the background added, in orange.

Or I will just trace the picture. And the more I trace pictures, the more I internalize in my brain, mind, and nerves– what makes a good picture.

As a reminder, for me– all studying art is for the purpose of IMPROVING MY OWN ART. I don’t study or read pictures/photos/philosophy for the sake of it. To me, all studying of art must be APPLIED TO ‘REAL WORLD’ practice. All photo books you study and consume must (in one way or another) affect how you make pictures.

Do you want to be a producer or a consumer?

Seven Samurai death scene. Why did this image make me feel so emotional?

Almost all children prefer to make art, rather than look at the art of their peers.

Just the samurai, isolated.
Added background.
Adding more of the background.
KUROSAWA x KIM. Adding the foreground and flowers in orange.

Why is it that as adults, we prefer to look at the pictures of other photographers– than make our own pictures?

Buy books, not gear


Trust me I love to buy shit, especially gear. I am always suckered by the ‘new new thing‘ — whether a new phone, camera, or digital tool.

new spread from upcoming book, MASTERS by HAPTIC

Ultimately, the best way to motivate yourself as an artist is to invest in experiences, in photography books, and other educational resources or tools that will improve your eye, improve your visual understanding, and also will motivate you to make more of your own art.

MASTERS spread

So when you have extra money, invest it in a photo book, or any artistic– something, that will motivate you to make more of your own art.

MASTERS spread

Conclusion: The formula how to become a better artist/photographer

Dark man in suit. Dark Skies Over Tokyo.
Dark man in suit. Dark Skies Over Tokyo.

The simple solution to becoming a better artist:

  1. Consume, study, or analyze the artwork of others, as well as your own artwork (pictures you shot in the past) and trying to figure out why they are good pictures.
  2. Go out and practice, make pictures for yourself.
  3. Analyze your pictures post-mortem (after you shoot, once you get home), and ask yourself, ‘What did I do that worked well for me, and how did I fuck up? How can I improve next time?’
  4. Rinse and repeat.
DARK SKIES OVER TOKYO / Man with umbrella.
DARK SKIES OVER TOKYO / Man with umbrella.


Find inspiration anywhere, and everywhere.

  1. Study CINEMA
  3. Study your own pictures (from the past, and figure out how to improve them)
Tokyo diagonal composition, 2016
Tokyo, 2016

Also for more inspiration, invest in HAPTIC TOOLS to help break you out of your artist’s block, and to MAKE MORE ART!

Frog garbage can. Tokyo, 2016
Frog garbage can. Tokyo, 2016

To find support, join ERIC KIM FORUM and ask for constructive critique on your pictures, and also provide constructive critique to your fellow peers.

Tokyo urban landscape in rain. Tokyo, 2016
Tokyo urban landscape in rain. Tokyo, 2016

To learn how to make better pictures, invest in an ERIC KIM EXPERIENCE.



Seoul, 2009

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Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos
Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

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