Review: The Amateur Photographer’s Handbook, by Aaron Sussman

The first edition of The Amateur Photographer’s Handbook came out in 1941. The edition sitting on my desk right now is the revised seventh edition, published 1967. The Handbook would continue through further editions, remaining in print through the early 1980’s. Of all the books I could’ve chosen for a first review – including perennial favorites by Ansel Adams and Freeman Patterson, among others – I’ve picked this one on purpose to illustrate a larger point.

No matter which of the many editions you choose, one conclusion is inescapable; photography has changed a lot since then. Even the author’s foreword admits as much: “All things change; but none more than photography.” But as you thumb through the pages, another, equally compelling, point begins to emerge; for all the changes we’ve seen in photography over the years, to say nothing of the changes yet to come, the fundamentals of the whole thing have remained surprisingly consistent.

Of course, as you’d expect in a medium where so much has changed, there’s information here that’s a bit past its sell-by date. Not many of us shoot film any more. Fewer still develop their own photos. The construction of the typical digital camera (not to mention a plethora of options for photo editing in software) renders many filters redundant. You may find yourself nodding off during the extended chapters on film types and development, if you don’t choose to skip them altogether.

On the whole, though, the topics covered in most of the book’s chapters have aged remarkably well. The fundamentals remain… well, fundamental. For instance, chapters — or even whole books — on shutter speed are still being written as we speak. With all that’s changed, it still and always comes back to the basics: light, f/stop, shutter speed, composition, and the perennial favorite, “What Camera Shall I Get?” A glance at the “What’s Wrong?” chapter reveals that it’s not just the technique that’s gone largely unchanged. Blown highlights, chromatic aberration, distortion, underexposure, soft lenses… now as then, whether as novices or experienced photographers, the problems and mistakes haven’t changed much, either.

So what lessons can you draw from this aged, but not outdated, book? One lesson that Sussman delivers is not to forget the simple joy in photography. Whether you’re doing this as a hobby or you’re lucky enough to get paid for it, for your own sake, please don’t let an outing with your camera be a chore or just another day at the office. The other lesson, whether the author intended it or not, is that for all the changes, much has stayed the same. So if you want to be a better photographer, your best bet is to remember and always return to the simple, timeless techniques that have applied from the medium’s earliest days, no matter what else may have changed.

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The Mindful Photographer

I really dislike the term “point and shoot.” At some point, it isn’t just a description of a camera; it becomes instead a description of a mindset and way of seeing that sucks the life out of your photos. To be sure, snapshots aren’t somehow evil. They have their place (more on that another time). But if you want to move beyond the crap shoot that is snapshot photography, it’s going to take an adjustment not only in technique, but also, more importantly, in your approach to photography. In short, you need to rethink the how and why of making pictures.

There’s a difference between taking a snapshot and making a photo because there’s a difference between looking and seeing, and it goes deeper than simple semantics. If our eyes are in reasonable working order, we look at things all day every day. We can’t help it. The world is a visually saturated place, whether you’re standing in the middle of Times Square or stuck behind a desk working on spreadsheets. We’re continually bombarded by visual stimuli, and we can’t possibly pause to take in every last millimeter of what fills our field of view. If we tried, we’d have no time for any of the rest of what life has to offer. So we scan briefly, and if something sufficiently bright, shiny, or colorful wanders into our field of vision, we might give it a few extra seconds’ half-assed attention.

Often as not, we take photos the same way. Bunch of visible stuff? Check. Camera? Check. Point. Shoot. Done. Then we wonder, when we didn’t stop to consider the dimensionality of our subject, why its photograph is flat and lifeless. Whether we’re seeing with our naked eye or through a viewfinder, think for a second about all we’re missing.

Seeing is active, a process rather than a result. It’s a conscious choice, a slowing down and a decision to focus. It’s taking the time to study something, to engage it with your head or your heart. Too often, we let stimuli of all sorts flow over us like water through a coffee filter, rather than being present in the moment and asking what that moment requires of us.

At first blush, this probably sounds like some kind of pseudo-mystical babble. It’s not. Don’t just point and shoot. Be still for a minute. Take a good, long look at what’s in front of you. What does it say to you? If something in your field of vision hasn’t grabbed you, will it really make a good photograph?

I use the term “making” a photo (versus “taking” it) on purpose. You can “take” anything, whether it’s a picture or a package of cookies, without giving much thought to it. But to “make” something signals intent, effort, and mindfulness. You can taste the difference between cookies you’ve taken and the ones you’ve made; your photos are no different. Sure, if you take that extra second, you’ll miss the occasional shot. Just like anything else you’re not in the habit of doing, it feels a bit awkward at first, but it gets easier with practice.

Further reading: Darcy Norman’s “On Photography as Mindful Seeing”

Tips: Photographing Fireworks

I know what you’re thinking. “I just started reading this thing yesterday. You want me to shoot fireworks already?” Relax. It’s not (bottle)rocket science. Everybody loves a good fireworks display. They also love ooh-ing and aah-ing over good fireworks pictures. So let’s run down the top ten tips for taking better fireworks photos.

  1. Test your equipment ahead of time. This is a best practice no matter what, or when, you shoot. If something’s wrong with your gear, or if it doesn’t work as advertised, you’re better off finding out before the main event than during, right?
  2. Scout your location ahead of time. You’ll want good lines of sight, but you also want to pay attention to what else will be in the frame depending on where you aim your camera. If you’re a good distance from where the fireworks are going off, you’re likely to have a flatter angle of view, meaning the potential for more clutter in your photos from surrounding buildings, people, etc. If you’re closer, you’ll have the option of shooting from a low angle, leading to fewer visual distractions.
  3. Turn off your flash. The only thing your flash will do when you’re taking fireworks photos is annoy the people sitting around you, and override your camera’s shutter speed settings, resulting in an empty black frame (I’m talking from experience here).
  4. Use a support. Full-automatic cameras (your trusty point-and-shoot, or the camera in your cellular phone) will tend to default to a longer shutter speed because it’s dark out, which means that every last vibration and jiggle will translate to fireworks that look… well, more like space creatures than fireworks. Even a camera that allows you to dial in settings will get better photos if it’s on a tripod than it will if you’re trying to handhold. Just make sure that the tripod head (that’s the bit at the top connected to the bottom of your camera) has a bit of give to it so you can pan easily to point your lens where the action is.
  5. If you have a remote or a cable release, use it. If you’re using (or just stuck with) a long shutter speed, camera motion from pushing down the shutter button can still register in the photo if you’re not careful. Using the remote eliminates the need to press the shutter button, eliminating with it one more source of camera shake. Test your remote ahead of time, both to make sure it’s working, and also to see where you need to be in relation to the camera for it to work.
  6. Use a zoom lens. Primes are great for a whole host of things, but this is one of those times when the flexibility of varied focal distances comes in handy when it comes time to frame your shot. Shoot wider (zoomed out) rather than tighter (zoomed in) at first, since it can be hard enough predicting where the action will be without adding to your troubles by shooting long. Once you’ve got a better idea of where everything’s going to be, you can zoom in tighter. Besides, you can always crop later, if need be.
  7. Use the lowest ISO setting possible. Yes, I know, you spent extra on a camera that’d give you lovely low-light pictures at a higher ISO. Good on you. But you won’t need that here, since you’re taking pictures of a light source rather than trying to pick up on what little reflected light may be available. Boosting your ISO is likely to boost chromatic noise and grain.
  8. Use your camera’s burst setting, if it has one. The first shot you get may not show the fireworks in full bloom, or may not get everything that’s exploded if a few fireworks have been set off at once. With a burst shot, you can pick and choose your best shots. A caveat here: depending on your camera’s write speed, buffer size, and the class of memory card you’re using, shooting a burst can result in long lag times between shots. The first burst may come off just fine, but the next burst might come 30-45 seconds later, and may not be a full burst (you may get one or two shots off if you’re lucky). Rather than being disappointed by missed shots on the big night, try your camera out in burst mode right now, paying attention to how many shots it takes in a single burst, and how long it takes before it can take another full burst. If you find yourself gritting your teeth between shots, skip this step.
  9. Shoot manually if your camera allows it and you’re comfortable doing so. If you can’t, or you don’t feel comfortable, don’t. If your camera has a fireworks setting, you can use that. Night Mode is also an option, though not necessarily your best one; you’ll get a longer shutter speed, true, but it also tends to boost the camera’s ISO (see number 6, above). If it doesn’t (or you’d prefer not to use it), do this instead: set your camera to 100-200 ISO, f/8 to f/16 (no higher, since some lenses are fuzzy at higher f/ numbers), a long shutter speed, focus set to infinity.
  10. Chimp. “Chimping” is the practice of checking your camera’s LCD to see how the last photo came out. You don’t want to overdo it (nothing’s worse than missing the next shot ’cause you were looking at the last one), but checking your shots from time to time will give you an idea of whether you need to tweak either your settings or your technique.

If you’ve done all of the above, or at least as much as your gear will allow, you may still have blurring, noise, or other issues. If that’s the case, don’t despair; see what you can do to work with your camera’s quirks to make photos that are interesting in their own right.

Hopefully this demystifies the process of photographing fireworks. Have any other tips to share? Pass them along!

Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand

Not exactly my best work.

“Your first ten thousand photos are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson knew a thing or two about good photography. From the late 1920’s ’til his death nearly eighty years later, he was responsible for some of the most iconic images in photographic history… all of which is rather a longish way of saying, the man knows whereof he speaks.

Your first several (thousand) photos won’t be your best work, and that’s okay. Photography, from the act of making an individual photo, to the learning curve associated with being a photographer, is a learning process that, if you’re lucky, never ends. That’s not to say that you won’t have some keepers, and maybe even an image somewhere in that batch that knocks the socks off nearly anyone who sees it. What it does speak to is the discipline and sheer repetition you’ll have to go through to be any good at photography.

That’s the good news. The better news is that technology is still growing at a dizzying pace (well, it’s better news unless you’re the type who absolutely must have the latest and greatest everything; in that case, prepare to be broke more often than not), with the end result that photography is now a more democratic medium than it’s been at nearly any point in its history. Continue reading “Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand”