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: 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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