Review: Photography for the Joy of It, by Freeman Patterson

Photography for the Joy of It, by Freeman Patterson

The copy of Freeman Patterson’s Photography for the Joy of It that’s sitting next to me is from 1977. As I write this, the book is out of print (though you can find used copies of the original edition and two subsequent reprints at the Amazon links below). It’s a shame, because even though it shows its age in places, this is one photography book I wish I’d picked up when I was first starting out.

The title isn’t just some marketing gimmick, a takeoff on the “Joy of…” (cooking, bicycle riding, chinchillas) titles that are so popular. Patterson clearly takes joy in his craft, and that joy is palpable both in his words and in his photos. Some of his photos stop you in their tracks for their creativity (be prepared for a lot of “What is that?” moments), but a lot of his advice does the same. Patterson lays out the rules clearly and concisely, but goes out of his way to affirm that they’re just rules, and that it’s okay to break them if it’ll make a better photo.

Too often, the books I’ve read on photography — especially when they’re targeted at novice photographers, as this one is — are weighted heavily, or entirely, toward gear and the minutiae of technique. You’ll find some of that — just enough of it, as it happens — but this book’s saving grace is that there’s plenty of philosophy and insight on design principles, the use of symbolism, and quite a bit else that you won’t find in a more typical introduction to photography… which is exactly why it’s such a good introduction, or even a good refresher on the off chance that you need one.

For as much experience as I’ve picked up along the way (which is by no means exhaustive, but still, it’s there), I was still able to learn quite a bit from this book; for instance, the section on Selective Focus would’ve been worth the price of the book by itself (it goes far beyond depth of field). And there’s plenty here to act as reminders or a call to mindfulness, which we all need from time to time as well, even in something as simple as Patterson’s injunction that “The most important thing you can do with your camera and lenses is to use them.”

Remember last week, when I said it’s all been done? Patterson’s work, for me, is a reminder that while it’s all been done, it’s still worth doing anyway. It’s good to have something to aspire to, a signpost or two on the road ahead that let us know we’re headed in the right direction. It’s also a reminder that we have a chance for us to “pay it forward,” giving a helping hand to those behind us on the road just as those ahead have done for us. If you are, or you know, a photographer who’s just embarking on their path, give this book some serious thought. Yes, photography takes dedication, discipline, and lots of practice, but Patterson reminds us time and again of all the joy it gives in return.


Visit Freeman Patterson’s website here:

There’s also a great Freeman Patterson interview here, courtesy of BermanGraphics:

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Review: Dear Photograph, by Taylor Jones

Dear Photograph by Taylor Jones

For all the talk (including quite a bit in The First 10,000) about mindful, even artistic, images, that’s not all there is to photography. Most photographers are snapshot shooters, and even the most diehard photo fanatic — the ones who obsess over every last setting and compositional detail, nearly every time — have times when they let their hair down, figuratively speaking, and shoot spontaneously. Just because.

There’s something vaguely voyeuristic about Taylor Jones’s Dear Photograph, which began life as a blog and now finds itself between covers. The idea works in part because it’s so simple; find an old snapshot, find the place where it was shot, and “reframe” the shot within a new photo.

The resulting photo is accompanied by a short blurb from the photographer, explaining the story behind the original photo, and the feelings that go with it now. In concept, it comes off a bit “meta,” as though someone’s sending postcards to postcards. In practice, there’s a poignance that you might not necessarily expect to come from looking over someone else’s shoulder.

As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, books derived from websites are a decidedly mixed lot, but this one works in a way that the book based on, say, Awkward Family Photos doesn’t. That’s not to say that I can’t kill an entire afternoon on Awkard Family Photos (I can, and very nearly have). It’s just that once you’ve seen the photo, the joke’s over. You won’t get quite the same effect the second time around.  In the case of Dear Photograph, however, the photograph isn’t just a one-note joke or concept, and isn’t simply self-referential. We’re not just invited into someone else’s memories as if into their living rooms, in other words; we’re reminded first of the power of a photograph to preserve moments in time, then of the persistance of memory, then invited in some sense to think back on similar moments in our own lives.

This isn’t one of those photo books filled with gorgeously-exposed, perfectly composed shots calculated to give you goosebumps because of their sheer, improbable perfection. The goosebumps here come for another reason altogether. These photos are all too probable; they’re ordinary, and lived-in. And that’s fine, ’cause life’s full of “just because” moments, those times when someone does something silly, memorable, even poignant, and it’s up to the person on the other side of the camera to just put all the technicality to one side for a bit and get the darn photo. The power in a photo like that comes precisely from its spontaneity and imperfection. They’re moments captured one at a time from lives not as we wish them to be, but as we actually lived them, with all the complication and emotion and imperfection intact. There’s a palpable warmth to Dear Photograph, not despite those rough edges, but because of them.

You can purchase Dear Photograph through this Amazon affilite link to help support The First 10,000. You can — well, really, you should — also visit Dear Photograph on the web here:

Review: Photographs Not Taken, Edited by Will Steacy

Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers' Essays, by Will Steacy

I’ve passed up dozens of photos over the years. Some of them were missed accidentally (the moment between collecting my jaw off the ground and getting the camera to my eye was one moment too many), but it’s safe to say that I’ve “missed” just as many on purpose. I’ve brought my camera to plenty of social events, for instance, only to fire off a few half-hearted shots and then put the camera away in favor of enjoying the time and the people. Or I’ve felt self-conscious, or would’ve felt heartless, invading someone’s private moment regardless of how good a photo it would’ve made.

In the preface to Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers’ Essays, editor Will Steacy notes that the collection is about “moments that never became a picture.” The contributors’ lives and work cover several points on the globe, from Johannesburg to New York, London to L.A., and elsewhere. The essays are similarly varied, from Massimo Vitali’s chance encounter between a Japanese businessman and a family of pickpockets, to Mark Power’s experiences in the Gdansk shipyard that was the birthplace of the Solidarity movement.

The lessons drawn by the photographers and passed along in essay form are often very short, and could be read in about the same amount of time it takes a Polaroid to develop, but they lose none of their impact for that. Some photos are passed up for the subjects’ reluctance, some for the photographers’; sometimes, as when Timothy Archibald “shot” for an entire day on a camera with no film, it’s a powerful reminder that we need to pass up our own hangups if we want to make better photos (and better photographers). If one sentence could sum up the collection as a whole, it’s probably this one from Nadav Kander: “[S]ometimes you just get an instinct when to put the camera down and be fully present.”

There are any number of images that you may never be able to show to your friends or put on the walls of your home, or hang in a gallery. This book is a reminder that you’re not unique or alone in that phenomenon. More to the point, it’s a reminder that that’s alright. While I think that a lot of photography is inherently social (whether in the documenting, or in the sharing later on), there’s a time — sometimes the split seconds taken to compose and make the shot, but other times much, much longer — that the most important part of photography comes down to putting down the camera. If we owe it to ourselves and our subjects to be fully present in the moment, the best way to do that sometimes is to put the camera down and be present without a viewfinder, sensor, and lens mediating the experience. It’s allowing those moments and all that inhabits them simply to be, without adding your own demands, expectations, or even the click of a shutter.

Like another book covered previously in this space (Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives), Photographs Not Taken contains not a single printed photograph. It’s no less powerful, or even visual, for that fact. Indeed, it draws much of its power from the intersection between image and imagination, allowing the writing to bear witness to the power of visuals that experience burns first into our retinas, then into our minds’ eye. Those images — saints, sinners, soldiers, drunks, or kids, experiencing heartbreak or transcendent joy — end up being every bit as vivid to the photographer as if they’d been committed to film, but in a testimony to the power of the still image (even one evoked less by chemical processes than by words on paper), they end up being every bit as vivid to the reader. It’s appropriate, in a way, that a book about the absence of images should speak so clearly and eloquently to the photographer’s craft.

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Review: Take Your Best Shot, By Miriam Leuchter

Take Your Best Shot, by Miriam Leuchter

Some time ago in this space in the course of reviewing one of Tom Ang’s many introductions to photography, I noted that Ang had covered the same ground, albeit with minor variations, several times before. Upon reading Miriam Leuchter’s Take Your Best Shot: Essential Tips & Tricks for Shooting Amazing Photos, I realized that the issue is by no means unique to Ang, Leuchter, or any other writer who’s already covered this territory (or has yet to do so). Put simply: the fundamentals are what they are, and there’s only so many ways to state the same fundamental principles.

Especially, might I add, when you’re covering them this briefly. The book’s 240-odd page length is a bit deceiving, since Leuchter covers some 86 topics, ranging from useful equipment and a glossary of terms, all the way up to advice on architectural shooting and portraiture. On the surface, that’s all well and good, but the author rarely devotes more than a page to any of her topics.

That leaves somewhere north of 150 pages’ worth of photos illustrating each of the topics. While I won’t knock the photography, which is as good as you’d expect from the Popular Photography stable, I can see where it might be frustrating to think you’re going to get the straight skinny on, say, macro photography, only to end up with a short blurb and some (admittedly beautiful) photos. Far be it from me to complain about photos in a book about photography, but cliches aside, those photos aren’t going to supply their own thousand words. More in-depth writing about the techniques used to get the shots would have been welcome, even if it had meant fewer photos; a small handful of photos accompanied by case studies or deeper technical information would also have been helpful.

This book’s back cover copy promises that even advanced photographers will find the book useful, I differ (albeit politely) with that assessment. While there are a few bits and pieces toward the end of the book that are useful regardless of skill level (especially the bits on the legal aspects of photography), much of the rest will be review to more experienced shooters (even if, like me, you’re not quite “advanced). The brevity with which most of the subject matter is treated isn’t the most useful thing if you needed, or wanted, a more in-depth explanation of the concepts (though, in fairness, there are book-length treatments of nearly every single topic the book covers, and you could seek those out if you want that much depth).

However, if you’re just beginning your journey behind the lens, Take Your Best Shot represents a good starting point. It’s  a brisk and readable overview — illustrated with some breathtaking examples — that can help you hit the ground running.

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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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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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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: 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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