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So what lessons can you draw from this aged, but not outdated, book?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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2 Replies to “Review: The Amateur Photographer’s Handbook, by Aaron Sussman”

  1. The first edition of the Amateur Photographer’s Handbook was written by A. Frederick Collins and published in 1925. It was revised for one or two more editions br Bruce Downes, before being given over to Aaron Sussman. When I was in high school in the mid-sixties to the early seventies, I borrowed this book (an early sixties edition) from the school library so often, some people thought I owned it. After I got older and started reading less, certain phrases and longer passages were found to be firmly etched in my mind. When I ran into the Collins first edition in a used bookstore, I bought it, and found the source of most of the stuff I had memorized. I now have six different editions, and no matter who wrote or revised them, they are all better than most of the stuff you will finfd written about photagraphy.

    1. Sorry for the belated reply, James, and thanks for writing. I didn’t know the book went back quite that far; I assumed that Sussman was the original author, and that the ’41 edition was the first. I’ll have to keep an eye out for the Collins edition. You’re right, though… the fundamentals are timeless!

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