Review: Tom Ang: Fundamentals of Photography

Tom Ang: Fundamentals of Photography

Tom Ang has made something of a cottage industry of writing books for novice and amateur photographers. The challenge isn’t the books’ content; Ang’s style is concise, thoughtful and user-friendly. Rather, the challenge lies in choosing among the close to two dozen titles he’s authored, since many have overlapping themes, structure, and content. While a few genuinely break the mold (Tao of Photography: Unlock your Creativity Using the Wisdom of the East comes to mind), many of the others (Digital Photography Step By Step, How to Photograph Absolutely Everything, Digital Photography Masterclass) repeat themselves like a forgetful uncle.

Given the above paragraph, you could be forgiven for wondering why I bought Fundamentals of Photography: The Essential Handbook for Both Digital and Film Cameras. Well, a couple of years back, when I wanted a primer in photography that’d give me a little of everything, I browsed several books to see what would give me a fair overview of photography — the technology, the technique, postproduction, et cetera. This book does an admirable job of covering exactly what its title suggests. Light, composition, shutter speed, aperture, image manipulation, lens types and different kinds of photography (in other words, the stuff you’d need to get started regardless of what kind of camera you own) are all touched on here.

Another bonus: Unlike many of the other books on photography published in the last few years (and indeed, a large number of the author’s own books), this one doesn’t neglect film photography. This is a minor point (much of what applies to one also applies to the other, after all), but a welcome one nonetheless. There are also ample illustrations and diagrams, which are useful if, like me, you’re the type that likes a bit of visual reinforcement. If you’re new to photography and want something that’ll help you make sense of the jargon and also the technique, this is an excellent starting point, and probably one book that I’d recommend as a great first photography book. While it’s not “the only photography book you’ll ever need,” there’s no shortage of options available as you start to grow and branch out.

To clarify the opening paragraph: I’m not complaining. I found, and still find, Fundamentals a useful and informative read. It’s simply that unlike, say, Michael Freeman, whose books each cover a very different facet of photography, Tom Ang’s photography titles*  amount to taking the same Photography 101 course with the same professor for several straight semesters. The prof’s a knowledgeable and affable guy, but after a while, you’ll have heard these same things, in only slightly different words. For that reason, I would strongly suggest going to a bookstore that has multiple Ang books in stock, read them over, and figure out which one explains the information in the way that’s clearest and most useful to you, since you might come to the same conclusion that I did: you really only need one Tom Ang book. For me, Fundamentals of Photography: The Essential Handbook for Both Digital and Film Cameras was that book, but you may find one of the author’s other titles more to your liking.

*At least the ones not geared exclusively toward postproduction, which I haven’t checked out so I’m exempting them from what’s admittedly a blanket criticism.

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Review: Zen and the Magic of Photography, by Wayne Rowe

Zen and the Magic of Photography, by Wayne Rowe

There’s a concept in Zen called “Monkey Mind.” Simply put, when you’re trying to be mindful — whether you’re sitting zazen or just doing the dishes — your mind’s trying to be anything but. If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that I try to emphasize mindfulness in photography. It probably also hasn’t escaped your attention that my mind tends to wander a bit much… suffice to say, I know Monkey Mind when I see it. And Wayne Rowe seems to have quite the case of it in Zen and the Magic of Photography: Learning to See and to Be through Photography.

Normally, I’m not one to mind digression. Here, however, it gets difficult to figure out which bits are subject, and which are digression. Ostensibly, this is a book about Zen and photography, but there are stopovers in Roland Barthes, a number of Dean and Brando movies, a splash of haiku, a dash of Walker Evans, and perhaps a layover in Long Beach, during which I lost my bags (but I digress…) The shame of it is that there are some moments of genuine, and useful, insight here, but there are so many interruptions, detours and proclamations of the author’s own satori that the overall effect is somewhat like listening to a friend try to tell a story while their significant other keeps interrupting: “You forgot, he was wearing a blue scarf.”

To be fair, the author does tie each of these things back  to his subject, though some are more tenuous than others. The extended meditations on method acting especially was reminiscent of  a self-help book, in the sense that both lean heavily on a vague idea of authenticity, but neither really caution you that this is one person’s highly individual and idiosyncratic take on authenticity. The pitfall in this is that you can’t even begin to live out someone else’s authenticity; it’s about finding your own voice, and giving yourself permission to use it. In that regard, I found Karr and Wood’s The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes a more useful, and in a sense more inclusive, book.

According to the author’s bio that graces Zen, Mr. Rowe is both a professional photographer and professor of photography, with a stack of publishing credits to his name. I won’t fault his photographic technique; indeed, even independent of the credentials, his work is gorgeous, and at times even inspired. For all I know, he may have similar credentials when it comes to the Zen of which he writes… I’m not in the habit of questioning the depth or validity of someone else’s spiritual practice, and I’m not about to start doing that here. Having said that, however, one thing I’ve taken away from my own (admittedly wobbly) study of Zen is the idea of non-attachment. Perhaps that’s why, of all this book’s minor flaws, the author’s seeming attachment to the idea of satori (to the point that satori seems nearly an end, rather than a transient means to a perhaps equally transient end) feels like the written equivalent of a stone in one’s shoe.

This book may not have been quite what I was looking for; I may go back for a third read just to be sure (it’s very brief, to the point that you might read it in one sitting without quite intending to). As they used to say in commercials, “Your mileage may vary.” As I mentioned above, there is insight to be gleaned from these pages. Getting to that insight, however, may prove to be frustrating. Each time you feel the hint of a breakthrough, the subject changes.

Hmm. Perhaps Mr. Rowe is a bit more sly about his Zen than he lets on…

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Review: The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr & Michael Wood

The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr & Michael Wood

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes indulges a little truth in advertising, for a change. “Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes.” That’s it; no hyperbolic promises, no B.S.

This is, in a sense, a book-length treatment of the ways of seeing. We see either by conception (what’s in our field of view is filtered through our ideas, thoughts, and feelings about it) or perception (we see what is, as it is, free of any mental or emotional baggage). 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.

The upshot of this is that rather than being caught up in “big” things — expressing some big idea, making a grand statement — photography is freed to celebrate the small and the ordinary. What (hopefully) goes on behind the camera — letting go, being spontaneous and genuine — follows through to what’s captured by the camera. Furthermore, it encourages the photographer to broaden his/her sense of what constitutes things like “beauty” and “art.”

Far from being purely philosophical, the book also has a practical bent. This expresses itself first by the inclusion of exercises (some requiring a camera, others not) in areas including light, texture, shape, and visual awareness, that are designed to take all that theory and make it concrete. It’s also expressed by the practical advice given on the mechanics of making a photo (lighting, depth of field, shutter speed, etc.), because if you’ve only got one shot at capturing an image that jolts you into mindfulness, it helps to get it right that first time. Finally, it finds expression in the photographs, some by the usual suspects (Strand, Steiglitz, Modotti, Adams, Weston, and Kertész), and others by the authors and their students. Without all the photos, this would be a very slim volume — nearly a pamphlet — but the photos, besides being gorgeous, serve to illustrate the points made by the authors in the preceding pages.

There are appendices here on image processing and buying the right camera. They’re short, even by the standards of this book, but that isn’t to its detriment. Really, those things are supplemental to the authors’ main point, and they’re treated as such.

In short, this book delivers on its premise, and its promise. If you want to change how you view photography, your best starting point is to change how you see the world before you’ve picked up the camera; the photography will flow naturally from that. If you’re looking for even the basics of photographic technique, this book wouldn’t be the best place to start; if, however, you’ve mastered those — or moved well beyond them — and find that your photography’s still missing something, this may well be the right thing to point you back in the right direction.

Postscript: There are two websites worth checking out, either independent of, or in tandem with, the book:

  • is intended as a companion to the book
  • predates the book, and provides both further examples of the authors’ philosophy, and also a wealth of visuals.

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Review: Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

A friend of mine recommended David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking to me some time ago, and it’s only recently that I’ve finally gotten around to actually buying a copy and reading past the first chapter, rather than doing my usual (reading the first chapter in the bookstore and saying to myself, “I really should pick this up one of these days”). Let me skip ahead to the end of the review, and say that if you’re the kind of person in the habit of talking yourself out of your craft rather than through it, this is a book that belongs on your shelf (provided, of course, you read it first).

Having started off the review ass-backwards, let’s now take up how, exactly, I’ve come to that conclusion.

The book’s thesis is laid out pretty well by the simple declarative that opens the book: “Making art is difficult.”* It goes on, in its first section, to lay out a series of fears that we internalize (the adequacy of our vision and execution, the limits of our talent, our expectations for ourselves) and those we project onto others (the kind of reception we expect from them). And that’s just what we have to deal with before the art’s made; if we clear that hurdle, another one awaits right after in the form of what actually happens when (to paraphrase Brian Eno) you set your art free from your excuses and unleash it on the world. There are forces that, if they don’t intentionally work against the artist, certainly don’t do much to work in his or her favor, either, whether you’re dealing with the whims of popular taste and the marketplace, capricious critics, hard economic times, or any number of other bugaboos.

Thankfully, the book isn’t just a litany of complaints and problems; there are solutions here, if you’re inclined to seek them out and use them. Not least of these is seeking out the support of other artists. If you’ve studied the arts in an academic setting, you may find that any support you may have enjoyed within those walls vanishes like steam from a bathroom mirror once you’ve graduated; if your studies have been largely self-directed, on the other hand, you may not have even had that degree of support. In either case, individuals with whom to collaborate and commiserate can be a vital factor in your continued success.

I realize that I’ve elided and oversimplified the heck out of this book, but that’s alright; this review’s hardly intended as a supplement, much less a substitute. Having summed up so much so far, I’ll do it some more: The remedy could be summed up succinctly as, “You’re worried. I get it. Now cut that out, and get to work.” It could be summed up somewhat better as the authors do at the book’s closing:

In the end, it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot – and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

Letting uncertainty be your motivation can seem a bit perverse, but when the alternative is the certainty of demotivation and defeat, it suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. The book as a whole, and that last bit in particular, is a great reminder and motivator during those times when you need one… and from time to time, I think we all do.

*Incidentally, I’m going to put my usual prejudice against calling it “art” to one side for a bit. There’ll be time enough to address that later, and I intend to.

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Review: Within the Frame, by David duChemin

Within The Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision

As I was reading this book, something occurred to me. Photography’s become an awful lot like television, not only for the people who view photos, but also, sadly, for many of those who make them. People turn on to tune out, and when it comes to photos, it’s not much different; often as not,  whether it accompanies a news story in a magazine or on a website, the visual barely registers. I think that unfortunately, a lot of times even experienced photographers approach the craft the same way; what’s in the viewfinder, or on that little LCD, barely registers. And that’s to say nothing of what’s in front of the camera, the subject that compelled us to press the shutter button in the first place. Neither audience (reduced to mere “consumers”) nor photographers (reduced to mere “producers”) take much time or trouble engage with what’s in front of them, choosing instead to take an active rather than passive role in the process.

Of course, it doesn’t need to be this way. Maybe it’s a bit presumptuous of me, but it seems that this is one of the larger issues that David duChemin’s addressing with Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision.

Du Chemin, whose specialization in photography for humanitarian causes has taken him all over the world, shows that it’s not enough to bring a photographer’s eye to your work. There are also large doses of (and plenty written on) ethics, getting by in other cultures, and the importance of knowing local laws, customs, and mores. Regardless of the geography, the question remains the same: how do we approach the “other” on his/her ground, and his/her terms, lovingly and respectfully?

You don’t have to set foot within a country mile of Addis Ababa or the Angkor Wat; these things still apply equally on Main Street as they would if you were photographing in Moscow or Marrakesh. So even though a large portion of this book seems almost anthropological, it’s applicable on a local scale, as well. Your task is to make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange, or at least fresher than it was before.

At its heart, then, it’s not about the physical journey, so much as a mental leap; not to be disconnected from our images, and (more importantly) not to be disconnected from our subjects, whether they’re halfway around the world, or just ’round the bend. Yes, there are the requisite bits on technique and gear here, but they’re peripheral to the main thrust of the text, which is perhaps best summed up by duChemin’s now-famous maxim, “Gear is good. Vision is better.”

If there’s a lesson to be drawn here, especially as we add more images to a culture that’s already up to its eyeballs in them, it’s that we should capture the resonant shot, rather than just the obvious or pretty one. Not an easy task, as it requires the photographer to bring to bear not only the artistic and technical skills we too often take for granted, but — more importantly — a mind that’s as open as our eyes are to what’s before us, and a heart that’s compassionate. When we do this, effectively allowing ourselves to be as vulnerable behind the camera as our subjects are before it, we aren’t the only ones who stand a chance of forming, and portraying, deeper connections; those who view our work are more likely to do the same.

Postscript: David duChemin is also the author of VisionMongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography, Vision & Voice: Refining Your Vision in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look at Creating Stronger Images (Voices That Matter) (due in October). You can visit him on his website (which has his portfolio and a blog that’s as insightful as his books), find his e-books on Craft and Vision, find him on Twitter, or follow him on Facebook (the guy’s everywhere).

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Review: Visual Poetry, by Chris Orwig

Visual Poetry, by Chris Orwig

As should probably be pretty clear by now, my approach to photography is as much centered on the “why” as it is on the “how.” There are innumerable ways to get the right exposure even for a single shot (as we saw a couple of days ago in Shooting in Aperture Priority). But there are also innumerable “Whys” for each of us as photographers. Why pick up a camera in the first place? Why that subject, at that angle, in that light, and not some other?

Consequently, I’m drawn to photographers whose Why shines through in their work. Photography doesn’t necessarily always have to be about something, but should always be motivated by something. And when it comes to books on photography, I’m similarly drawn as much to writers that address the thought process or philosophy behind the shot as much as the settings used to get it. All of which brings us, in a rather roundabout way, to Visual Poetry: A Creative Guide for Making Engaging Digital Photographs, by Chris Orwig.

Like a number of other photo books, it’s split into thematic sections. Unlike many of those other books, thankfully, it doesn’t include extensive information on post-processing (which is all the more admirable given that Orwig teaches, and has written a number of books on, those tools). Here, instead, he seems primarily concerned with what happens before you’ve pressed the shutter. A good thing, if you ask me, since an overreliance on postproduction tends to lead to sloppier photography (if the photo’s mediocre, the thinking tends to go, you can always just fix it later). Given the thematic organization, you could probably skip straight to the section on photographing weddings, or family, or whatever suits your particular taste. Don’t. Each chapter, whether it’s about your particular bailiwick or not, has information that will be useful to you, regardless of your specialty (or lack thereof).

If there’s plenty here to stimulate thought, there’s also practical advice on technique and gear. With that said, even these sections are intended to make you think about what you’re using and why; it’s one thing to spell out a list of options (brands, focal lengths), but quite another to give someone the tools with which to make the right buying decisions. You can have all the heart and all the compositional skills in the world, but they won’t get you very far as a photographer if your photos are otherwise a mess visually. So there’s technique scattered among all the philosophical bits as well, and it’s addressed with the same lucidity as the rest of the subject matter here.

The best part comes at the end of each section. Not only is it a succinct summation of what went before, there are also interviews with experienced photographers, a wealth of print and web-based resources, and a series of exercises designed to take all that thought and theory and make it tangible through practice.

I’m of two minds on this book. On the one hand, I think it’s an ideal resource for a novice or an amateur who’s not particularly advanced; those readers, particularly, will find plenty that helps them develop habits and ways of seeing that will serve them well. On the other, advanced amateurs and professionals shouldn’t overlook it. When you’ve been shooting for years, it’s easy to become jaded and maybe a little bored by the craft; there are moments here that can help you shake off some of those cobwebs, and some of the apathy. Regardless of skill level, there’s something to be said for a reminder of first principles that can help kindle, or re-awaken, the joy to be found in simplifying one’s gear, approach, and process.

Postscript: Chris’s website, which you can visit here, is a gateway to his portfolio, blog, and quite a bit else.

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Google Picasa 3.8: The First 10,000 Review

We’d all love our photos to come out of the camera perfect from the moment we’ve pressed the shutter down. While that will happen every so often, it’s generally the exception that proves the rule. More often, we look at the photo and realize the exposure’s just a little off, something’s in the frame that shouldn’t be, or we feel that maybe the photo would work better in black and white. There are literally dozens of photo editing and retouching options out there, some of which cost hundreds of dollars (and give you the degree of control a software package that costs you hundreds of dollars had better have) and others of which will cost you absolutely nothing, yet still manage to disprove the old saying that you get what you pay for. Case in point: Google’s Picasa 3.8. It’s a free download, and it’s easy enough to use that even though books have been written on it, you can easily teach yourself the basics and then some over the course of an afternoon. It does a great job of helping you organize, prioritize, tag, and share photos, but I’ll be concerning myself here with its use as an editor.
Figure One (Let's Just Call Him "Walter")

To give you an idea of the program’s capabilities, I’ll be performing a series of operations on multiple copies of the same photo. The image to the left is the original image, with absolutely nothing done to it. Obviously, there are some issues here. For one thing, it’s crooked. There’s also a bit of highlight clipping on the subject’s left sleeve, thanks to the mirror to his left that provided me with what was otherwise some nice reflected light. The whole thing is slightly out of focus. Obviously, under normal circumstances, not what you’d call a “keeper.” The burning (and/or dodging) question, then, is can Picasa turn this into, if not a work of art, then at least something less of an embarrassment?

The Basic Fixes screen

As you can see, the “Basic Fixes” screen provides limited EXIF and histogram data (a nice touch), as well as a number of basic commands. The “Crop” function allows you to crop to common custom sizes and aspect ratios (common print sizes, square crop, 4:3, 16:9, etc.). The “Straighten” feature overlays a grid on the entire photo, making alignment very easy. “Redeye” does a respectable job of reducing or eliminating redeye. “I’m Feeling Lucky” takes an educated guess at fixing color, contrast, saturation, and white balance. True to the name, sometimes you get lucky, but other times not; the program tends to cheat toward looking either too warm (think 1950’s postcard) or a bit too cold. “Text” works as advertised. “Retouch,” meant for minor blemishes, is a pretty ham-fisted solution. When I tried it on this fella’s sleeve, it looked as though he’d spilled something on it, and the less said about what it did to his nose, the better.

“Edit in Picnik” could probably get a review all to itself, but truth be told, I’d find very little nice to say about it. The bottom line about this feature, which includes all sorts of speech bubbles, cartoon characters, ribbons, frames, and cheesy filters to add to your photos, is that it’s just the thing if you like your photos to look like they were retouched by a five-year-old. If that’s not your thing, look elsewhere.

The Tuning screen

Now we come to the Tuning screen. “Fill Light” can be used if your photo is, on the whole, too dark. The problem is, your photograph can very quickly go from being too dark to being washed out; you may recover some details from underexposed areas, but you’ll also find that highlights that didn’t look clipped before suddenly do. “Highlights” is supposed to emphasize highlights, and does give a somewhat finer degree of control, but still leaves you with fundamentally the same issue.

Tuning: Shadows

“Shadows” takes the issue presented by the other two controls and inverts it; it can be used to increase shadows and contrast, but as there’s no way to choose the areas to which it’s applied, you’re really applying a global setting that darkens the entire picture. Now, instead of your highlights looking clipped, your shadows might instead. The “Natural Color Picker,” meantime, is meant to ensure accurate white balance, or blacks that are truly black. It generally works well for white balance, but be aware that it will also change color values across the rest of the photo as well, sometimes drastically.


The Effects screen

Finally, we come to the Effects screen. “Sharpen” is a mixed blessing; while it can sharpen edges and somewhat mitigate the effects of something that’s slightly out of focus, if it’s used too much, it gives you all sorts of ugly artifacts in the photo. The “Sepia” and “B&W” effects work as advertised; however, you may find yourself wanting or needing to go back and adjust other settings to get the most out of these effects (the black and whites produced, while they’re okay, leave a bit to be desired if you like a more contrasty look). You may also find that the “Filtered B&W” presets, which simulate shooting black and white through colored filters, serve you better.

The "Soft Focus" effect applied

“Soft Focus” isn’t. A true soft-focus shot is still in focus, but the edges are softened; done right, it gives a nice, sort of ethereal, glow to the subject. This just makes it look as though you’re looking at your subject through a foggy window. The “Glow” feature actually manages to get somewhat closer to the intended effect, but still makes your picture look a bit like a poorly-done Glamour Shot.


Walter, "Warmified."

In theory, “Warmify” is supposed to make your photos look as though they were shot through a warming filter. In practice, though, it doesn’t just warm the tones, it also has a distracting tendency to warm  everything to the same temperature, to the point that the photo looks flat. “Saturation” tends toward overkill if not used carefully. The “Tint” and “Graduated Tint” presets likewise take some practice; the latter is useful for adding a color cast to a washed-out sky, but since Picasa doesn’t allow layers or intelligent selection, odds are pretty good that the colors used will “bleed” into parts of the scene where they’re not needed or welcome.

PROS: Cost (free), ease of use, and a generally useful set of options; also an excellent tool for organizing and viewing your collection.

CONS: Lack of fine control over fundamentals like Hue, Saturation, and Brightness can make for a frustrating experience; some options can give your images a markedly overprocessed look.

Walter's Close-up

THE END RESULT: The straightening and cropping gave the expected results quickly and easily. Sharpening, however, introduced a bit more noise and loss of detail than I would have liked, and the color adjustments – in the instance of this particular picture, I should point out – just weren’t doing it for me. Being unable to selectively burn (darken) the subject’s sleeve, and finding the shadow tool a bit too heavy-handed in this case, I tried to split the difference. Converting to black and white, as I’ve done here, turns the noise from a distraction into something closer to film grain, and is also a bit more forgiving of the program’s issues with shadows.

THE VERDICT: This isn’t the most powerful tool available, even in its price range. However, once you learn its quirks and limitations (and get the hang of which features “need” other features to be used to full advantage), it can be a useful tool for small tweaks to individual photos. It isn’t quite the tool for major photo salvage; then again, that rather underscores the importance of getting the photo as close to correct as you possibly can the first time. Download it here:

Camera Essentials: The Cleaning Kit

Giottos Rocket (image courtesy

No matter how careful you are, you’re going to get your camera and lenses dirty. Shit happens, as does dust, schmutz*, fuzz, fingerprints, lint, and all manner of other large and small debris. Therefore, it helps to have the right stuff to clean your camera.

A few recommended items:

  • Giottos Medium Rocket Air Blaster: These come in a number of sizes, some with directional nozzles, some with a little doohickey (pardon the technical jargon) that ionizes the air before it leaves the nozzle, supposedly leading to better cleaning. The reason I suggest Giottos over some of the other options out there: 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 from a couple of photographer friends who’ve bought cheaper versions that on the first few uses, they’ve ended up with a fine white powder on their lenses or sensors; apparently, some manufacturers put talcum powder or some other,  similar, substance inside their blowers to keep the rubber from sticking to itself. D’you really want powder on your lens, or, God forbid, your sensor? Didn’t think so.
  • Nikon 7072 Lens Pen: These 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.
  • 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. These are available in multiple sizes, and some even come in their own neoprene pouch, complete with lanyard, for easy storage.
  • Lens papers and cleaning solution: I know these are both supposed to be reliable, but I’ve never trusted the papers, especially. Many of them break down into a linty mess as you’re cleaning, which rather defeats the purpose.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to use these in the order in which I have them listed. The air blower should come first, to get all the larger crap off your gear, followed usually by the brush, and followed last by the cleaning cloth. Why that order? I’m glad you asked (and if you didn’t, you’ll be glad I told you anyway). If you reach for a cleaning cloth first and you’ve got something abrasive on your lens, all the cloth is going to do at that point is act like sandpaper, scratching the lens/filter coating, or sometimes even the lens/filter itself.

A few things to NEVER use: paper towels are an obvious no-no. Tissues are, too, since they’re not as soft as they may feel. Puffs tissues (or any other that contains lotion) are even worse, since the lens will shoot everything in soft focus for a long time after that. Avoid harsh cleaners (like Windex, or other glass cleaners), rubbing alcohol, and the like. Also worth noting: if you frequent discussion forums (fora?) and blogs, every so often people will suggest that a t-shirt is about all you need for most of your camera needs. Generally speaking, a cotton t-shirt is pretty soft; the problem is that if you’re out somewhere that your camera can get dusty and dirty, your t-shirt is picking up the same stuff, and then some (things don’t adhere to glass the way they will to fabric). Add sweat to the equation (and/or fabric softener) and you’re setting yourself up for more problems than you solve.

If your sensor needs cleaning, use your air blower in an environment that isn’t going to introduce more dust and dirt into the guts of your camera. Your best bet regarding the sensor is to have it professionally cleaned, since it’s one of the most delicate parts of your camera, and also one of the most expensive to fix if something goes wrong.

Your local camera shop should also have lens cleaning kits that contain the above items in various combinations. Don’t pay too much attention to branding (aside from the caveat about your air blower). If you shoot Pentax and happen to find a kit that’s perfect for your purposes, save for the Canon logo, buy it. Unlike a lens, cleaning kits won’t discriminate between one body or brand and another. The tools listed above are made and sold for a reason; they’re the right tools for the job. Your camera, no matter how large or small, no matter how much you spent on it, is an investment. Take care of it, and it’ll return the favor.

*Schmutz (n., Yiddish): Dirt, debris, random filth.

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Beyond the Manual

One way or another, you'll get there.

If you’ve been paying attention (cue Sister Mary Elephant), you know by now that you should be reading the manual. But what do you do if your camera comes without a manual (oh, the joys of buying the floor model), or if the manual’s better suited as a doorstop than a source of quick, coherent instructions? Nearly every DSLR has a book or twelve written on its care and use, and there are also plenty of options to choose from if you’re shooting with a compact or bridge camera.*

I’ll take the Nikon D7000 as my example, since that’s my primary camera. The instruction manual runs to a dense, information-packed 325 pages. Just how information-packed? Well, I’m glad you asked. “Basic Photography and Playback” — you know, the part where you actually get to turning on the camera and making a photograph — starts on page 35.

I’m not knocking the instruction manual. However, sometimes you want something that lays out your options with a nod or two toward concision, and that’s where your “aftermarket” options come in. In no particular order, some of those options, with commentary:

Nikon D7000 Digital Field Guide by J. Dennis Thomas (Wiley): I bought this book for one simple reason: at the time, it was the only thing available on the D7000. I was hoping for something that’d familiarize me with the camera before I bought it, and it delivered pretty well in that regard. True to its name, it’s a field guide; a lot of information’s seriously condensed, and some of it elided. It’s also something you can read in a sitting or two if you have a mind to, or just toss in a camera bag for quick reference. It isn’t as exhaustive as some of the other options listed below, but it’s good in a pinch (and I’ve had my share of pinches).

Nikon D7000: From Snapshots to Great Shots by John Bartdorff (Peachpit Press): Like other books in the From Snapshots to Great Shots series, this is a nice balance of technical information and technique. There are exercises and detailed examples of how to get certain types and styles of shots. This book is particularly good for photographers with less experience for the simple fact that, like photography itself, it’s about more than just the camera.

David Busch’s Nikon D7000 Guide to Digital SLR Photography by David Busch (Course Technology PTR): The bad news: if you’re looking for concise, look elsewhere. The good news: just about everything else you’d think to look for, and a few things you wouldn’t, are here. At 560 pages, this dwarfs the instruction manual. However, chapters devoted to lenses, DSLR movies, and peripheral technologies give this book a depth to match its considerable heft. Recommended for all levels of photographers. For the impatient, there’s also David Busch’s Compact Field Guide for the Nikon D7000 (Course Technology PTR), which condenses its bigger brother down to its bare essentials.

Speaking of patience, maybe someday I will muster enough of it to figure out what’s “expanded” in Nikon D7000 (The Expanded Guide), by Jon Sparks (Ammonite). Unlike Busch’s book, it doesn’t venture much beyond the traditional camera guide; nor does it venture much beyond the manual, though it’s more readable (but that isn’t saying much given the writing in the average instruction manual, which is tantamount to typesetting something with Ambien). Not quite a waste of money, but nothing to make it stand out in a crowd, either.

Nikon D7000 For Dummies by Julie Adair King (For Dummies/Wiley): I have to confess that I have a bit of an issue with the structure of the Dummies/Idiots/Everything genre of books. To me, all the little icons and cautions and pull quotes and sidebars and lists are a bit like getting to a magazine rack after Godzilla’s been through town. The information is there, but you have to go over quite a number of speedbumps to get to what you’re looking for. My gripe with this book isn’t with Ms. King or her writing; both prove to be adequate to the task of teaching you how to use your D7000. Maybe I’m too easily distracted; if you’re not, this could very well work for you.

Magic Lantern Guides: Nikon D7000 Multimedia Workshop (Lark Books): There’s probably a good reason that these are put out anonymously. I got lucky and found one of these out of its shrink-wrap at Barnes and Noble, so I thumbed through the “book” portion. It has nothing at all to do with the D7000, or any other camera, specifically. Just some boilerplate writing on settings and exposure that you’d find in any book that’s an introduction to photography technique, only not done quite as well. The “Nikon D7000 Quick Reference Wallet Card” is only marginally useful, and one of the DVD’s is about as specific to the camera as the book is. Out of sheer curiousity, I ferretted out another open copy, this time for a Sony SLR. Same booklet, same nonspecific DVD, same half-assed wallet card. In short, you’re paying for one DVD that might be remotely relevant to your camera, bundled with a bunch of filler. If you want to learn visually, most camera companies have DVDs for their cameras, and I’m guessing they’re put together with more care than the Multimedia Workshop Lark is offering. If someone you know owns this, borrow it; otherwise, pass on it.

Lest anyone think I dislike the Magic Lantern series as a whole, however, that’s far from the case. The full-on guidebooks, the ones that actually explain the camera’s settings and functions, and that actually come with an author’s name on the cover, are very good. Case in point would be Magic Lantern Guides: Nikon D7000
(Pixiq Books), authored by Simon Stafford. This is the polar opposite of the Multimedia Workshop, in that it’s a book that gets very deep into the camera’s functionality, in a style that’s readable and accessible. Worth having.

The field, therefore, tends to divide into two categories: there are some titles out there that, at least to this reader, don’t seem all that useful; then there’s a batch that contains quite a bit of useful information, with a lot of overlap between one book and the next. What sets each apart is the author’s approach and teaching method. Find the one that works for you, and roll with it. Are these quite as exhaustive as the owner’s manual? Mostly not, but neither are they as exhausting. If you’ve got to choose between leaving a couple of bits out (or perhaps exploring them in less detail) but reading the darn thing, versus having every conceivable piece of information at your fingertips but letting it languish at the bottom of your camera bag, the choice is pretty obvious.

*Of the myriad options available for compacts, one of my personal favorites is Rick Sammon’s Confessions of a Compact Camera Shooter: Get Professional Quality Photos with Your Compact Camera
(Wiley). See also some of Tom Ang’s many books on photography (generally published by DK); he’s one of the few writers out there who doesn’t seem allergic/averse to showing the average photographer how to put a camera’s automatic/scene modes to good use.

In the interest of full disclosure, my wife is an employee of John Wiley & Sons, publisher of three of the aforementioned books.

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The Review: Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu

"Overpowered," by Slinkachu

It’s a bit of a challenge trying to pin down what, exactly, Slinkachu does. You could classify him as an installation artist, photographer, gentle provocateur, or even philosopher; each would be accurate in its own way, but even all of them, taken together, still somehow miss the whole that’s bigger than all those parts.

The method’s deceptively simple: take a miniature figurine (most of them look to be about HO scale), paint it, and then place it somewhere in the city, perhaps to be happened on by chance, and perhaps not. But then, installation art is not unlike real estate: it’s got (nearly) everything to do with location. Part of Slinkachu’s simple genius is putting his little people in very specific places to echo very specific predicaments faced by the world at large on a daily basis.

Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu documents several of the artist’s installations. The book, like the art, works on several levels, wherein lies a lot of its appeal. On the one hand, you can skim the book, as I did the first time, getting chuckles from photos that seem to have taken some visual cues from Gary Larson (filtered, at times, through a sense of melancholy that could easily have been borrowed from Edward Hopper). But there’s so much more than that.

For one thing, if it were just for the humor, the concept and the book itself would both wear pretty thin, pretty quickly. Taken as pure “surface,” it’s a pretty shallow artistic conceit. But then, on a second or third viewing, you realize there’s something else going on here. These installations, and the resultant photos, aren’t just of something, they’re also about something.

They’re also useful, for two reasons. First, it’s a much-needed reminder that it doesn’t need to be serious to be art. Humor is a vital part not just of life, but also of the creative process. Sometimes it’s useful as pure comic relief, and sometimes as a lure, or foil… something to draw you into a deeper meaning that lurks behind the laugh, or something to throw a bit of sadness or melancholy into sharper relief. Slinkachu does both here.

The second bit is the photography. There are a number of lessons you can draw from the photos, from exposure to many elements of good composition (such as paying attention to your backgrounds, or including something in the frame that gives a sense of scale to your photo).

The verdict? If you’re of a certain frame of mind (and sense of humor), this book’s worth checking out, or even owning. As to the artwork itself? I won’t belabor you with my interpretations of any of this stuff, or the feelings certain pieces did or didn’t arouse in me; that would, frankly, be the least interesting part of the whole enterprise, especially when the point is to crack open the pages and find your own experience and interpretations. Try it, and enjoy it.

Explore further: a link to Slinkachu’s main page, which in turn links to his website and blog.

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