Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Giving Photos as Gifts

This time of year's always a blur...

At one time or another, we’ve all done the holidays on a shoestring. Sometimes it’s meant buying less stuff, or less expensive stuff. It can also mean making something, from a batch of oatmeal cookies to something else that’s handcrafted. But since we’re talking photography here, let’s just assume for the moment that you’re considering giving photos as gifts. Here are a few commonsense guidelines to save you a bit of time and trouble, while also letting your potential recipient off the hook for having to display something that might not be quite their type.

The first rule of thumb: know the recipient well. Well enough, in fact, that you know their tastes. If it’s someone in the habit of wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with glitter accented, weepy-looking kittens and your primary subject matter is urban exploration, you might want to rethink your approach a little. Yes, I know, it’s your art, and you do it primarily for yourself. And if you were making yourself a gift, that’d do just fine. But if you’re going to give your work to someone else – and you genuinely want that person to enjoy it – consider what they typically hang on their walls.

As a codicil to the advice above, it helps to know how sincere your recipient typically is in their appraisal of your work. If they genuinely enjoy it, you’ve got a situation with potential. If, on the other hand, you strongly suspect that they’re complimenting your work because they’re too kind not to, you may want to consider your alternatives.

The second rule of thumb: Give yourself plenty of time. Whether you’ve got a long list of people who’d practically knock each other over to have your photos hanging on their walls, or just a small handful, you still want to pick out photos best suited to those people, which takes time. Budget additional time for any tweaks you want to make to your photos. Allocate still more so you have time to do a series of test prints (your monitor and printer of choice may have different views of how the finished photo will look). Then allow for the finalized printing, framing and matting.

Third rule of thumb: Don’t cheap out on printing. If you’ve got an inexpensive (read: cheap) photo printer and a stack of cheap photo paper,* you’re very likely to end up with cheap-looking results. That doesn’t mean you need to do canvas or metallic prints, but use a reputable place that’s going to use good (heavy, acid-free) papers and a colorfast print process.

Fourth rule of thumb: Choose a nice frame and mat. Matting supplies can be found at most craft shops, not to mention places that specialize in custom framing, while frames can be found nearly anywhere. Choose a mat that’s either neutral (in the white/off-white family) or complements the colors in your photo, and pair it with a frame that’s appropriate to what it’s going to contain. A frame that has the look of weathered wood or driftwood, for instance, would set off a beach scene nicely. Use a little imagination, and if that fails, go with an unobtrusive, plain black frame.

Fifth rule of thumb: know when not to offer photos as gifts, but don’t be afraid to use your talents. Maybe your starving actor friend respects your photography even though the subject matter isn’t quite her bag. Maybe your cousin’s walls are so spartan they’d make a Quaker meeting house look like Mardi Gras. Offer your services as a photographer, whether it’s for a headshot, a family portrait, or a shot of her dog.

There’s something else to consider, as well. If your recipient takes photos – whether they self-identify as a photographer or not is beside the point – and you’ve got a few extra bucks, consider a digital photo frame. Not only can you pre-load it with a few of your shots that you think they might like, they’ll have the option to display their own work without being tethered to a computer.

*Incidentally, I’m not knocking either of those things, and have both; we can’t all have the top of the line stuff. But if you’re giving your photos as gifts, splurge a little.

Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Gear

I'm with ftupide

If you’re already a photographer, you don’t need me to remind you that the costs for even a basic setup can add up quickly. The good news is, if you wanted to tack a few extras onto your holiday list — or even if you’re searching for a stocking stuffer for the photographer who has (nearly) everything — you can do it without breaking the bank. Here’s the “Hard Times” edition of the holiday gift guide:

  • Giottos Medium Rocket Air Blaster: These come in a number of sizes and prices. As camera equipment goes, they’re pretty cheap (the standard size usually retails for between ten and fifteen bucks), and they’re higher quality. I’ve heard that some of the off-brand versions have talcum powder or some other, similar, substance inside their blowers to keep the rubber from sticking to itself, which creates about as much of a mess as you’d expect. Given that this isn’t an expensive item to start with, pay the extra.
  • Nikon 7072 Lens Pen: Lens pens come in a few varieties. Some will have a soft felt tip, others a small brush with soft bristles; others still will have both, one at each end. The brushes are good for things that settle in crevices around your camera, in your eyepiece, or in your lense’s filter threads. The felt end, in the meantime, is handy for the stubborn stuff the brush won’t take care of. I recommend this particular one because I own it; if it had some other logo on it than the brand I currently shoot with, it’d still be as competent. If the lens pen by itself isn’t quite enough, consider a lens cleaning kit.
  • Microfiber Cleaning Cloth: Similar to the cloth used for glasses, this is a soft cloth that’s good if you have a larger area you want to clean. It’s good for your lenses and filters, and even works well in getting nose grease off your LCD.
  • FishBomb Lens Filter and Accessory Case is a smallish neoprene pouch with pockets on either side that close with velcro closures. There’s a loop at the top, so you can slip the bottom part of the case through the loop in order to secure it to a belt, camera strap, or camera bag. Its compactness is both good and bad; on one hand, it won’t fit a ton (it fits two 67mm filters comfortably), but on the other, it takes up a lot less room in my camera bag than the plastic cases the filters originally came in.
  • The Tamrac S.A.S. MXS536801 Memory and Battery Management Wallet"", like most things Tamrac, features competent, no-frills construction.  Mine currently holds  . It’s good for the times you want to travel light, taking little more than a backup battery and cards, and is also good for corraling your batteries if you’re using a speedlight.
  • The Promaster Xtrapower Traveler turned out to be a lot better than I expected, handling batteries from a few different SLRs. It also includes a USB power “out” jack, enabling you to stash a handful of cords for anything capable of charging through USB, meaning one charger instead of a pile of transformers taking up space in your bags.
  • Finally, something that’s not a piece of equipment, but that has the potential to be just as useful: if you have a camera shop in your area, see if they offer classes. Most do, in addition to single-day workshops and trips to local destinations for photo opportunities that the average person might not otherwise be able to get to on their own (one shop local to me recently did a shoot in an old penitentiery).

A word to the non-photographers among you: Most photographers are a picky lot when it comes to their gear. Buying decisions usually come after considerable research, reading, and debate. When all else fails, a gift certificate to the local camera shop may be your best bet.

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Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Books

Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures, by Hans-Michael Koetzle

Whether you’re a photographer looking for reading material, or a non-photographer trying to figure out what you can buy your photographer friend/spouse/coworker that won’t break the bank, books on photography — be it history, technique, or philosophy — are a pretty safe bet. Below are a few personal favorites, some of which have been reviewed in this space, and others of which we haven’t gotten to yet.


Fundamentals of Photography: The Essential Handbook for Both Digital and Film Cameras (Tom Ang): At some point, nearly anyone who’s serious about photography will want to give themselves an overview of the basics. Ang’s book is best suited to novices and amateurs, though it’s a useful reference for the more forgetful among us, as well. It’s all here — the technology, the technique, postproduction, et cetera. Since there are at least half a dozen books by the same author covering similar subject matter, I’d strongly suggest browsing the books before buying to make sure you’re getting one that fits your personal style.

Jim Krause’s Photo Idea Index could be termed a how-to for the self-motivated. There’s less in the way of explicit instruction here than a series of short exercises with examples, designed to act as prompts to creativity (the same formula followed in most of Krause’s other work). While he’s enamored with creativity, he doesn’t have any particular affection for one type or brand of gear. That ethos, and the approach of the book as a whole, makes it useful if you’re in a mood to experiment and see where it might take your photography.

If you or someone you know is going to be finding a new DSLR under the tree, consider the Magic Lantern Guide series. These guides are written by, and for, photographers (Simon Stafford covers most of the Nikon gear, Michael Guncheon covers Canon, and other guides are available for those of you using Sony, Pentax, et al.). David Busch’s exhaustive reference books for various camera systems, and somewhat more compact field guides, are likewise well worth the time and money.


The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography follows in the footsteps of earlier Michael Freeman works The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos and The Photographer’s Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos, presenting sound practical advice with history, theory, and philosophy. Here, Freeman explores the importance of visual literacy in understanding the “reading” of a photo, but also how that practice extends to how we make photos.

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes (Andy Karr and Michael Wood) is a book-length treatment of the ways of seeing. The authors’ intent is to have us check conception at the door, in favor of perception. The advantage, they argue, is that you learn to see in detail, and in depth. In other words, you stop just looking at things, and start to pay closer attention, being present with the subject nearly to the point that your photograph is a means of bearing witness to it, rather than simply getting the cold facts of an image onto your memory card.

 Visual Poetry: A Creative Guide for Making Engaging Digital Photographs, by Chris Orwig, is as helpful to the beginning photographer as to one who’s more advanced. The former will find plenty that helps them develop habits and ways of seeing that will serve them well, while the latter will find much to rejuvinate their approach to their craft, not least because of the insistance on first principles that can help kindle, or re-awaken, the joy to be found in simplifying one’s gear, approach, and process. 

Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision. put David duChemin on the map, and for good reason; it’s page after page of wisdom perhaps best summed up in the author’s maxim, “Gear is good. Vision is better.” Most of us are more likely to go ’round the bend than around the world for a photo, but the advice given here applies equally well regardless of where you happen to find yourself.

History/Photo Books:

Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures (Hans-Michael Koetzle) provides the backstories on several legendary images, from the dawn of photography (Niepce’s “View From the Study Window,” made in 1827) to the early 1990’s (Salgado’s 1991 photos from Kuwait). Unlike many other books, which simply provide a title, date, and photographer’s name, this one gives you a sense of history, and often also shows other shots from the same session, giving further insight into the photographer’s creative and editorial processes.

Pillars of the Almighty: A Celebration of Cathedrals (Ken Follett and F-stop Fitzgerald) is currently out of print, but if you’re at all interested in photography, cathedrals, or historical fiction (or some combination thereof), take the time to seek it out; the writing, adapted from Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, is thought provoking, and it’s perfectly complemented by Fitzgerald’s gorgeous photography from cathedrals around the world.

Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives is a small book, both in size and number of pages, but that belies the big idea that underpins it. Author Peter Davenport, through nothing more than a series of captions on blank pages, argues that certain images have the power to transcend their time and even their original purpose.

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Review: The Photographer’s Vision, by Michael Freeman

The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography, by Michael Freeman

By now, Michael Freeman’s probably written about as many words as he’s made photos, and like the images, his words are generally keepers. The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography follows in the footsteps of his earlier works The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos and The Photographer’s Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos, presenting sound practical advice with history, theory, and philosophy. However, this is much less a how-to than his previous books; in this case, the author is as apt to indulge the when and why of good photography as he is to deal with the how.

The subject matter is presented in three sections. The first of these is “A Momentary Art,” which makes a cogent case for what makes a good photograph, and also lays out a theoretical framework within which the rest of the conversation can unfold. With that done, the second section, “Understanding Purpose,” takes up several genres of, and approaches to, photography. To tie the whole of it together, the third section “Photographers’ Skills,” explores the skills brought to bear by a photographer when making a photo. The technique here has less to do with settings than with things like the element of surprise, and realizing that your photos need not be technically perfect to have an impact. In the early going, the book reads like a collection of essays. However, like one of those photo mosaics that reveals a series of small photographs up close, but which reveals a different, bigger, picture when one steps back from it, the reader begins to realize at some point that each of these thematic bullet points contributes to, and reinforces, a larger point.

If we view this as the third book in a trilogy that started with The Photographer’s Eye, this would be the capstone. In effect, it recaps all that came before, not just in this book but the two preceding, and brings the trilogy full circle. What Freeman seems to be saying throughout the book is that by learning to read others’ photos we can learn, in essence, to “read” the scene before we’ve even framed the photo. Visual literacy, in other words, isn’t just something to apply to others’ work, but to our own as well; it aids us in understanding why photos work (or fail to), and allows us to apply that understanding to our own photography. Being able to “read” a photo by Erwitt or Hoepker is only a first step, and assists the photographer in forming a visual vocabulary and syntax with which he or she may then begin to “write” and express a unique story, whether via an individual photo or a photo essay.

If you’re looking for technique, it’s entirely possible you’ll be disappointed in, if not put off by, this book. Of course, if it’s technique you’re after, there’s no shortage of options from the same author, and from what I’ve read of him thus far, you’d be in good hands with any of them. If, on the other hand, you’ve had your fill of technique, or you’ve come to realize that what’s missing in your images has less to do with settings than with soul, this would be a good antidote to your photographic doldrums.

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Review: Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives, by Peter Davenport

Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives, by Peter Davenport

What makes an iconic image? What makes a painting, photo, sculpture, drawing or even logo indelible in our minds? What, in short, makes it unforgettable?

In Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives, Peter Davenport argues that the best images are those that transcend their context — time, place, and sometimes even their original meaning — to take on a meaning that’s both broader and deeper. These are images that need only to be named, and their power is such that we recall them instantly. Not in an abstract sense, mind you. Very specific images.

After a very brief introduction, Davenport spends the next 240-odd pages proving his point in a striking and, I’d even argue, polarizing fashion. Roughly half of the people who see this book, or to whom you show it will be convinced that it’s genius, and the other half, give or take a few, will be convinced that it’s utter crap. Here’s why: Each of the aforementioned 240-ish pages is nothing more than a blank page adorned with a caption, a credit, and the year in which the photo, art object, or logo first appeared. That’s it. That’s all she (or he, in this case) wrote.

And therein, I think, is what makes this work. Just to give you an example, on facing pages, we find Grim Natwick’s Betty Boop squaring off with Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Other bits and pieces of visual history, from the book’s earliest image John T. Daniels’ 1903 photo of the Wright Brothers’ first takeoff) to its latest (the Towers of Light that commemorate the World Trade Center) and all points in between (the Hindenburg explosion, the Swastika, the Golden Arches) are left to unspool in chronological order, sometimes resulting in interesting juxtapositions.

Which brings me to the only gripe I have with this book, and it’s a minor one, at that. I understand the logic behind sequencing the book chronologically, but I think it’d be interesting to see the book done in the form of a card deck or even on the walls of a museum. For one thing, it leads to more opportunities for interesting juxtapositions. For another, while I’d argue that each of these images has a certain power in its own right (hence their longevity), I’d also argue that certain images are more powerful than others (with the relative “stickiness” of the image depending to some degree on the viewer’s own preferences, knowledge, and experience). 

At some point — and this is why I think there’s more to this book than meets the eye, if you’ll forgive the pun — the juxtapositions leave the page. Most of us, if not all of us, have seen the photo of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, for instance. But when all you’ve got is a blank page with a caption, leaving your imagination to literally fill in the blanks, something curious starts to happen. The images start to superimpose themselves, one over another (in Johnson’s case, it was hard for me to shake the image of the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Quang Duc, “depicted” only a couple of pages earlier).

Sometimes, then, this results in the images communicating with one another in ways far more effective than if the editor had simply printed them side-by-side. Whether Davenport intended it or not, by leaving the pages blank, he made the images less a literal fact and made them something both more free and more resonant. All of which is a long way of saying that for all the things this is — a trip down memory lane, a test of visual and cultural literacy, a testimony to the power of the image — what it’s not is as glib or as slight as it might at first come off.

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Reviews: Short Takes

The FishBomb

I’ve come across some useful things in the time since I started this site, and it seems rather silly to give them their own reviews, because sometimes something either does what it’s supposed to or doesn’t, and there’s not a heck of a lot more you can say about it after that. So I thought I’d do a roundup of small items that can be useful to have in your kit.

We’ll start with the FishBomb Lens Filter and Accessory Case. It’s as ingenious as it is simple. It’s a smallish neoprene pouch with pockets on either side that close with velcro closures. There’s a loop at the top, so you can slip the bottom part of the case through the loop in order to secure it to a belt, camera strap, or camera bag (if your bag has attachment points for lens holsters and other doodads). It’s not extremely high-capacity, but it fits two 67mm filters comfortably. I could probably fit a second filter on the side that has my IR filter on it, but fitting another filter alongside my polarizer would be a bit more snug than I’d like. It’s inexpensive, and takes up a lot less room in my camera bag than all those plastic cases the filters originally came in.* I chose it over other filter wallets that I saw from Tiffen, Opteka, et. al., because I wasn’t impressed with the construction, nor was I happy with the space they took up. As it turned out, I was happy with my choice.

Next up is the Tamrac S.A.S. MXS536801 Memory and Battery Management Wallet. As with most things Tamrac (I also own one of their monopods), the materials and design are competent, but no-frills (and the price generally reflects that). This can hold AA or AAA batteries, memory cards, a spare SLR battery, CF cards, or some combination of the above. I’d originally picked it up to hold memory cards, and then ended up with a camera bag that had memory card storage built (or, more accurately, sewn) in; however, I’ve hung on to it up ’til now because at times I want to travel ultra-light, it’s handy for my backup battery and cards, and I can see where it’d also come in handy if you’re using a speedlight. As an added bonus, there are small fabric tabs that fold out over each of the four internal pockets. This doesn’t seem like much of a big deal ’til you’re carrying multiples of something and want to figure out which of those somethings you’ve used/filled and which still have a charge, or space on them.

Finally, we come to the Promaster Xtrapower Traveler. Here’s the thing with buying used equipment: if you buy a used piece (like my wife did with her SLR), sometimes you get lucky and the person who sold it back to the camera shop also thought to bring back all the little bits and pieces that came boxed with the camera. Sometimes not; the charger for my wife’s battery wasn’t in there. The shop was kind enough to throw this in (have I mentioned lately? Buy local!), and it turned out to be a lot better than I expected; not only does it handle the EN-EL3 from the D60, it also handles the EN-EL15 from the D7000. Better still? There’s a USB power “out” jack, so if your cell phone, MP3 player, e-reader or other gadgets can charge through USB, you can bring one charger (with the appropriate cords, of course) rather than a pile of chargers. It’s a minor thing, but when space is at a premium, it’s a bigger help than it seems on paper.

*With that said, before you throw out the plastic cases, make sure you scavenge the little foam discs that often come in them to protect the filters; they come in handy if you want to double up filters in a Fishbomb or any other filter wallet.

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Review: Stories in Stone, by Douglas Keister

Stories in Stone, by Douglas Keister

A few weeks ago, in writing about doing photography in cemeteries, I mentioned Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography in passing. I debated elaborating upon the book itself as part of that post, but decided that this would take me a bit further off-topic than usual. It’s been nagging at me, though, so I decided to review the book on its own today.

To start with, this isn’t exactly something you’d sit down and read in one sitting. That’s not to say you couldn’t convceivably do just that (I did when I first bought it), but given that it’s more of an encyclopedic reference than a story told in narrative form, it’s not exactly bedtime reading. So if you purchase this sight unseen, at least you won’t be able to say I didn’t warn you.

The book is broken down into thematic sections. The first section provides a concise overview of funerary architecture and iconography, allowing the reader to trace the trends in, and evolution of, the design of your average memorial. The stones have become such a utilitarian affair nowadays that older markers, with their profusion of finely-wrought flora (ferns, weeping willows), fauna (lambs, lions, dogs) saints, people identified and unidentified, and a host of cherubim and angels, make the modern way of death… well, a pretty sad state by comparison. Beyond the simple vital statistics (name, dates of birth and death, a halfhearted heart or a bas-relief Jesus), a modern stone often doesn’t tell us much about the person buried beneath it. An older tombstone, on the other hand, could tell you the same facts as its modern equivalent, but also give clues about status, wealth, one’s affiliations and place in the community, and even a bit of his or her philosophy.

Wish You Were Here.

There’s also a listing of common acronyms for organizations, which comes in handy once you get past the handful, like the DAR and BPOE, that are household names. Finally, the book also contains a short bibliography if you’d like to explore further. One of the bonuses here is the photography; the author, besides writing the book, shot all his own photos, which are the perfect counterpoint to the text. There are also asides here on the grave sites of celebrities and commoners alike, often delivered with a sly sense of humor.

The title of this book doesn’t quite say it all, but it does manage to say quite a bit. There are stories to be seen in the tombstones of your local graveyard, if you’re willing to seek them out and learn how to read them. If you’re serious about cemetery photography beyond just image-making — if, in other words, you’d like to learn something from the experience, and also be able to sight-read a cemetery in much the same way you can with art or architecture — this is an indispensible tool to have. If there are, as the author suggests, stories in the stone, and you’re willing to seek them out, this is a good first step toward decoding them; a Rosetta stone for the stones, if you will.

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Review: The Exposure Field Guide, by Michael Freeman

The Exposure Field Guide, by Michael Freeman

Since I seem to be in the habit of simplifying things to an almost silly degree, let me at least be consistent. If we’re going to take photography down to its barest essentials, it comes down to framing a subject (composition) and getting that subject to look the way we want it to in our photographic medium of choice (exposure). There are, of course, dozens of ways to approach each of these things, and buckets of ink have been spilled on both. One author who’s added his two cents’ worth to that pile of prose is Michael Freeman, who’s approached the mental game of photography, composition, and a multitude of other subjects. While I’ll be revisiting the aforementioned works another time, today I’d like to consider Freeman’s The Exposure Field Guide: The essential handbook to getting the perfect exposure in photography; any subject, anywhere(Focal Press).

Freeman doesn’t just give an overview of the basics of exposure; if that were a photographer’s only concern, a camera’s Automatic mode would be sufficient to cover any situation under the sun (or under tungsten, for that matter). What he explores here is much more useful, whether to a beginning photographer, or a rather more experienced one who’s bedeviled by certain lighting situations.

After dealing with a handful of technical considerations in the book’s first section (terminology, sensor behavior, metering, gray cards and the like) and admitting that he’s none too fond of generalizations, Freeman nonetheless proceeds to spend the book’s next section laying out twelve types of lighting situations into which every picture falls, dealing not only with the kind of “average” lighting that makes for easy exposures, but also the low- and high-key lighting that’s the bane of many a photographer, and also leads to some of the most striking images once you’ve got the hang of the exposure.

The final sections (“Style” and “Post-Processing”) ensure that the book goes beyond exposure. There are brief pieces on finding one’s personal style, but also on using exposure to set/capture mood, making use of shadows, exposing for black and white, and the zone system, in addition to subjects like HDR imaging and exposure bracketing.

There’s more that could be said on each of these dozen scenarios, but to summarize them in a short enough form that they’d make sense in the context of a book review is to sell them short. As it is, none of the sections of this book is so long (each is two to four pages on average, with plenty of photos illustrating the principles discussed in each section) that you’ll be very long reading it.

This book’s small size (it should fit easily in your camera bag, and it probably isn’t a half-bad idea to keep a copy there) belies the wealth of information in its pages. Like Freeman’s other books, it’s thought-provoking, but just as importantly, it shows how to put those thoughts into action — to get them on paper, or on a screen, as you envisioned them when you framed the shot. If you flip through the pages at your local bookstore and are a bit intimidated by the information (as I’ll admit I initially was), that’s pretty much precisely why you need it. If, on the other hand, you’re an experienced shooter but still find yourself tripped up in certain lighting situations, this probably still wouldn’t be bad to have on hand. It won’t make you an overnight expert, but if it does nothing else, The Exposure Field Guide just might give you the confidence to take on shooting in more challenging lighting situations… and that’s where things start to get interesting.

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Review: Tao of Photography, by Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro

Tao of Photography, by Philippe Gross and S.I. Shapiro

A couple of weeks ago, I ran a review of Wayne Rowe’s Zen and the Magic of Photography in this space, and noted with disappointment that the book didn’t go as deep on the philosophy as I would’ve hoped. With Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing, by Philippe Gross and S. I. Shapiro (Ten Speed Press), I think I’ve found the book that I had hoped Rowe’s book would have been. While it’s enlivened in parts by the authors’ (mostly Mr. Gross’s) personal experience and philosophy, the book is mainly devoted to a way of seeing, and photographing, that’s heavily informed by the Tao.

Insights abound here. Some, as I’ve mentioned, come from the authors themselves. However,  these are smaller threads woven into a rich, if simple, tapestry that consists of quotations and photos by such past masters as Arbus, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and Winogrand (to name only a few), and a wealth of material from the Chuang-tzu¹, one of the core Taoist texts.

Trying to explain the Tao is a bit like explaining chess; the rules aren’t difficult, but mastery can take a lifetime. The authors do a fine job of explaining the core concepts; rather than simply summarizing, I’d rather give you an example from the Tao itself:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

These aren’t dualities in the sense we’re used to, a series of diametrically opposed options; rather, each are halves of a whole. The goal, therefore, is to harmonize those halves in order to see, and live, more clearly. Throughout this section (and the ones that follow), quotations and photos illustrate the core concepts.

Having put forth an explanation of the Tao in the book’s first section, Gross and Shapiro use the second section to explore what this means for how we see, and in turn photograph, the world around us. As the passage quoted above suggests, some part of this involves letting go of our distinctions between beauty and ugliness, letting go of expectation, and surrendering our stubborn tendency toward control. To see the world as it is, in other words, you need to begin by allowing it to be as it is.³ The book’s third part then proceeds to list the barriers to that kind of vision, and ways to address them.

The remainder of the book is given over to ways of putting the ideas into action. There aren’t may exercises here (aside from a couple cribbed from Bryan Peterson), and the section on teaching Taoist photography tries to argue both for and against, but comes off a bit slippery in the end, since (as the authors note) the Tao that can be taught is not the true Tao. There’s the added complication, of course, that teaching generally involves setting goals or benchmarks, which tends to fly in the face of the idea of Wu Wei (variously translated as “action without intention” or “action without action”), a central tenet of the Tao. As with everything else relating to the Tao, the trick seems to be finding flow and balance: learn from others, but benefit also from your own experience; “exercise” and experiment, but do it for its own sake rather than meeting a clearly-defined metric.

If all of this sounds more like a manual for living than for photography, that probably isn’t coincidental. Neither the book, nor the Tao itself, would draw a distinction between photographic vision and everyday seeing any more than they would draw a distinction between photography and life itself. It’s all part of the Way, and to separate either from the other, the authors seem to suggest, serves only to diminish both.

¹Available online at

²Cited from, which houses a full translation of the Tao Te Ching.

 ³This is, admittedly, an over-simplified explanation; I’d strongly suggest the book, and the links above, to begin to get a better grasp on the subject, as well as a better explanation than I’ve managed here.

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Review: Photo Idea Index, by Jim Krause

Photo Idea Index, by Jim Krause

In the preface to one of this book’s companion volumes, Jim Krause describes the pages that follow not so much as a “How To” book as a “What if?” book. That seems an apt enough description for Photo Idea Index, one of a number of books Krause has authored for graphic design imprint How Books.

A dizzying array of topics are covered here. To Krause’s credit, he doesn’t neglect the place of the photographer in all of this, putting vision front and center. Nor is he particularly enamored of expensive gear (likely an outgrowth of his graphic design background; everybody I know who does graphic design is routinely asked to work miracles on a shoestring budget), which is a great reminder for photographers and others in the habit of always having only the latest and most expensive stuff. If you’re concerned with postproduction, layout, workflow, general creativity or vision, and whether you’re photographing products, people, real estate, or pretty much anything else obvious or obscure, there’s probably a tip or three here for you.

In a sense, it’s probably a good thing this isn’t explicitly marketed as a “how to,” since the dozens of exercises presented here are mere hints at, or suggestions of, larger concepts. If you’re looking for detailed step-by-step instructions, you’ve come to the wrong place. Each of these examples is a mere starting point, as with Krause’s other work. To my mind, there’s no downside here, as I’m the type to take what I need and leave the rest, and I’m willing to take the germ of an idea as a jumping-off point. If you approach the book in that spirit, it’s useful no matter who you are. If, on the other hand, you need more of a kick in the ass, you might be better off in the self-help section.

Here goes nothing… hopefully what follows won’t sound like I’m damning Mr. Krause with faint praise: While this book’s target audience seems to be people who are vaguely scared of photography (artists, graphic designers, and others of that ilk), novice and even experienced photographers will find much to use and appreciate here. Krause does for photography, and photographers of all skill/comfort levels what his graphic design books accomplish so well: he demystifies the process and makes it accessible. More importantly — to this reader, at least — he’s mindful of a spirit of improvisation and fun that pervades the best photography. Those “what ifs” can be found on page after page, challenging the photographer even as it welcomes him or her. If you’re not a photographer, you might give that a second thought after reading Photo Idea Index. And if you’ve got some experience under your belt, you may find yourself inspired to stretch your techniques and thoughts just a bit futher than before.

Postscript: Jim Krause is also the author of the perennial design bestsellers Layout Index, Design Basics Index (Index Series), and Idea Index, plus the companion volumes to this book, Photo Idea Index – People, Photo Idea Index – Places, and Photo Idea Index – Things. Like this book, each combines tips with stories, exercises and prompts, many drawn from Krause’s own experiences as a working designer.

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