Photography Book Review

Ever since embarking on our nature photography journey, we have been avid readers of photography books and magazines.

April Review

I went to Yosemite with my Dad in April (see blog) and prepared by reading/absorbing three books for planning and inspiration.  First, there are several photography guides for Yosemite and I read many.  However, I found the most useful one was by Michael Fry.  The book is small so you can bring it with you and keep it in your backpack or car.  It is very specific about where to go and what time to be there.  He also offers tips interspersed throughout.  If you only have one book for Yosemite, this is the one.

I also absorbed Four Seasons of Yosemite by Los Angeles Times photographer, Mark Boster.  There are many many photo books of Yosemite and we have seen so many photos of Yosemite that we think no one can do it better or differently.  Well, this one is a modern take on the valley and I think he actually sees it with fresh eyes.

Lastly, Mary bought me a book about the Japanese artist Chiura Obata, who is famous for his simple and elegant watercolor paintings.  The best thing about this book is that his paintings distill complex or complicated subjects into their essence.  It was enlightening to see these beautiful watercolors and then go out and try to compose something as simple, beautiful, and elegant.  It was inspiring.

February Review

Let’s stay with John Shaw.  Jack Graham was constantly quoting John Shaw to us when we first started doing photography workshops.  After mastering the basics, we started to read Shaw’s books.  The best thing about his books are he just does not tell you what to do, he tells you how, and why.  Though this book was written for film and has some outdated sections, it is still a classic and useful for all.

I found particularly useful his explanation about the relationship of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  We all need to master this triangle in order to make photos.  He then goes on to explain how these work with different lens.  He does all of this so that you have the tools to create the photo on paper (or screen) that you see in your mind.

His 20 pages on composition are worth the entire cost of the book.  I have downloaded this book onto my iPad and review it on the plane when we go on photography trips to sharpen my mind and remind me of the basics.  The photos are inspiring and will show you where to make some great photos.  This is another “must” book for your photography library.

December Review

John Shaw is one of the greatest living nature photographers in the world.  He is also a great teacher and writer.  Many nature photographers will cite “the John Shaw questions” before they make a photograph.  His books on photography AND the business of being a photographer are informative and impressive in every way.

Even though this book was written in the film age, everything still applies.  He covers everything from technique, to lighting, to equipment, and mot importantly composition.  He explains, what looks complicated, in simple terms.  He also describes some of the specialty equipment you can buy, or how to repurpose what you already own – like turning your lens around with an adapter and shooting with it “backwards.”

If you are not know much about macro photographing and are interested in knowing how to do it right and well,  “Closeups in Nature” opens up a new world for you.  Get it.  See this month’s camera kit about equipment for macro photography.

November Review

Mary and I just completed a 9 day trip from Capitol Reef to Grand Staircase-Escalante and on to Bryce Canyon and Zion. In planning and executing our trip, we used Laurent Martes’ Photography the Southwest Volume I.  This is an extensive guidebook with all the detail you need to see the most obvious sites, but also the sites off the beaten path in Southern Utah.  To say this book is exhuastive is an understatement.  He covers the entire Colorado Plateau and the “Grand Circle” sites in Southern Utah in great detail.  If you actually did everything in this book, it would take you a year.  The photos are not necessarily outstanding, though they are not bad.  This is not a coffee table picture book.  It is a detailed “topo” for serious photographers.  He also does a good job of identifying how to get to the location, including GPS coordinates for almost everything.  He rates how hard a drive or hike it is, how long it will take for a round trip, and what the quality of the subject may be.  In fact, he has an index in the back that is most useful in planning your location shoots.  He also has a Volume II covering Colorado and New Mexico and Volume III covering Arizona.  We will definitely be buying and using these guide books in the future.  I highly recommend this book for photographers, hikers, and even off-roaders.

October Review

The Missions of California by Bill Yenne

The Missions of California by Bill Yenne is a good introduction of the Mission system and each particular mission.  Yenne gives a nice overview of each mission’s history as well as the history of the entire mission chain. While the format is repetitive, and at times, boring, the photos are decent.  This is not a photography book per se, but has serviceable photos and good information to plan your visit.  It includes historic and modern photographs of the exterior and facades, interior, courtyards, gardens, grounds, and various mission complex buildings.  We use this book to plan our photo shoots.  We have also used it to prioritize which missions we visit.  If you are interested in the history of the missions, photographing the missions, or just visiting, this is a good guide.

September Review

After bashing Galen Rowell in May, I feel the need to revisit his work.  The Sierra Club has re-published 170 or so of his most famous photographs along with some never before seen.  Galen’s work is always visually stunning for its color and quality of light.  He also has fun with his self portraits and making natural portraits of people in their environment.  He was always one to visualize a shot; plan it; and then execute on his vision.  We can all learn from him.

He also traveled extensively, but also made many of his best photos in his “backyard, ” the Eastern Sierra Nevada.  One of the treats of this book, is seeing his photos digitized and enhanced from the originals.  We have several of his books, including the classic, Mountain Light.  When comparing the originals with the new ones in Retrospective, you can see the trend to a brighter and more saturated image, as is the style now.

I find the photos and accompanying reminisces from friends and admirers inspiring.  Buy this book and get to know some of the best nature photography of the past 20 years.

August Review

Ah…ya…missed a few months here.  We are still reading and exploring.  Here is another “beginner’s” book that I really like.  The Magic of Digital Landscape Photography by Rob Sheppard.

Rob Sheppard’s Book

He runs through the basics pretty well, covering equipment, working your camera, Light, and Composition.  I think what differentiates this book from other starter books is his sections on Sky and Water; Landscape and Man, and Themes.  He calls these topics out specifically and gives good advice and examples of how to create a good image in these classic landscape situations.  I think if you are a beginner or just starting out, his section on Themes gives you the full range of landscape photography in 60 pages with plenty of advice and examples.  If I could quibble over one thing, it would be that he really does not go in-depth into any one topic.  If you really want to become an expert nature photographer, you are going to have buy more books than this one.  If you are dabbling or just starting out, this book, along with the Gerlachs’, and Brenda Tharp (see below)  make up a fine beginning of a photography library.

May Book Review

Galen Rowell’s The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography

If you are new to photography and want to be serious about it, you should know who Galen Rowell was.  He died in 2001 in a plane crash with his wife, Barbara, who was also an excellent photographer.  Galen wrote many good and important books about photography and he made many important and beautiful photographs.  Mary especially likes his famous book, Mountain Light.

However, this book is not the one to read.  First, it is simply a compilation of articles from Outdoor Photographer magazine.  Like most magazine articles, few become timeless pieces.  Each article may be of interest to you, but taken as a whole, I was disappointed.  First, because he did the vast majority of his work on film, his technical advice is out of date and no longer relevant to the digital age.  Second, his ecological preservation point of view may have been ground breaking 20 years ago, but has become mainstreamed, now.  Lastly, he often comes across as arrogant and preachy at worst and persnickety at best.  Our friend, Jack Graham, who knew Galen Rowell personally, said simply, he was like many artists, “obsessed, particular, and ultimately a perfectionist” about making great photographs.  Without knowing him, I think he comes across as a photography snob.

The main disappointment in this book is the disconnect between the title and the content.  I was expecting to hear Galen’s philosophy about making photographs.  I wanted to know more about what he thought about and how he thought about his shots.  There was some good information interspersed throughout, but nothing coherent.  In fact, its looks more like a list of articles about his travels.

One last comment, the spirit of the book comes through as he described his interaction with his wife as he and her made similar photographs (the one on the cover).  When he tells the story and shows his and his wife’s photos, what came through to me was someone who was more concerned about being right, rather than being generous about his wife’s work (which is, in my opinion better than his).  Don’t buy this book.

April Book Review

Digital Landscape Photography by John and Barbara Gerlach

The first thing I do when buying any photography book on tips and techniques is to look at all of the photographs and evaluate them for quality, composition, and how they make me feel.  The photographs in this book are excellent.  They are well composed, exposed, and natural looking.

The Gerlachs are a husband and wife team.  John shoots Canon and Barbara shoots Nikon.  They do not individually identify who made which photograph, but say that all the photos are from both of them as a team.  This is the best soup-to-nuts landscape photography book I have come across.  They write for the beginner and give a great overall description of how to get started in landscape photography from the very basics on every kind of equipment you need to advanced techniques like shooting panoramas and HDR.  The emphasis of the book is to get a good image out of the camera as they do not really talk about processing images.

Even after reading many photography books and having my own techniques, two specific suggestions still stick out to me and are extremely useful.  The first is to make photographs with histograms that are exposed to the right without any clipping.  This suggestion assures that you get the maximum amount of information in the image, without any blown-out highlight or “blinkies.”  However, in practice this is hard because the image on the LCD will look slightly overexposed and you will want to make another one.  To this day, it makes me uncomfortable, but I know if the histogram is good, I can process it in Lightroom or Photoshop and adjust the exposure.

The other “brilliant” advice for landscape photography is “back button focusing.”  I have been doing this now for about 18 months and use it exclusively.  The benefit here is that you can separate focusing and exposure.  You use the back button to focus and the shutter button for exposure.  This is invaluable when shooting landscapes, especially ones that have a lot of contrasting light and large depths of field.  You will need to read this section carefully and use your camera manual to make the change.  For those of you using the latest Canon firmware, you can do this in Custom Function IV.1.  Set the Shutter button/AF-ON button option to 3.

Lastly, I thought their sections on shooting techniques for High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Panoramas were very useful, and a little outdated, now.  The techniques described are perfect, but there are new software packages from Nik and Photoshop that make the processing easier than ever.

Again, this book is not for experts or advanced amateurs, but for those of you starting your journey of nature and landscape photography.  I can think of no better book.  I review it periodically, just to make sure I am doing the basics correctly.

 March Book Review

One of the things I look for in photography books is how I feel when I see the photographs AND then, what do I think.  When I see Brenda Tharp’s photos I feel a sense of awe, wonder, and peace.  Then I think, she is a very good technical photographer, especially in her composition.  In her new edition of  Creative Nature & Outdoor Photography she describes how she and we can learn “to see.”   She covers all of the basics for newer and medium-experience photographers.  If you are an expert, this is probably not a book for you.  She describes how she develops creative photographs using light, balance, color, design, pattern, texture, composition, and other techniques.  She illustrates this with over 150 really nice images.  The book is a quick read and something to help you ponder your own creativity.  This is not a cookbook, by any means, but I did find her prose and photographs inspiring me to do things differently in the field.  This is a good addition to anyone’s photography library.

Creative Nature & Outdoor Photography, Revised Edition

February 2011 Review

After reading Killer Photos with Your iPhone, I saw great improvement in my iPhone photography.  Authors  Matthew Bamberg, Kris Krug, and Greg Ketchum , cover the basics, as well as more sophisticated techniques.  The first part of the book discusses the basic camera function and provides tips for taking overall better photos.  The second section provides techniques for specific subjects, including portraits, places, and things.  The last portion of the book focuses on what to do with the photo after you take it:  sizing, apps, and sharing.

The photographs in the book provide insight into what is possible with the iPhone camera and how they achieved the end result.  I have used it often over the last few months as a reference for how to achieve a certain effect.

This book is written in simple accessible language and is a quick read.  I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking to quickly improve their technique using their iPhone camera.

Killer Photos with Your iPhone


January 2011 Review

During a rainy vacation, we discovered an incredible used bookstore, Bart’s Books in Ojai, CA.  We found a first edition of this Ansel Adams book:  The making of 40 photographs.  In this book Ansel Adams describes how he interpreted a natural scene, exposed for the various tonalities, and processed the photograph.  While the technology has changed, the artistry has remained the same.

Ansel Adams’ Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs is a unique book because it is an instructional manual, that is a historical record, that is also a highly entertaining series of stories.  For those of us that love California, the Southwest, and our National Parks, this book is for you.  Just imagine sitting around the fire listening to Ansel Adams tell these vignettes and have everyone keep asking him for one more story.

This book as instruction manual for making great photographs is both timeless and completely outdated.  It is quite fun to see that some things never change like having the right light and the perfect composition.  His many descriptions of using the Zone System and how to “see” in black and white are illuminating.  His visualization of tonality, contrast, shapes, forms and light are quite instructive.  On the other hand, Ansel’s description of how he sets up and uses his box camera with the heavy wooden tripod and his various lenses and filters with glass plates will be of no help to anyone nowadays and can be tedious and boring.  It did make me pause to appreciate how easy we have it now with all of the technology at our disposal.  Can you imagine what he might of done with a medium format digital SLR?  However, these technical sections are the very beauty of the book.  These very descriptions are the historical record of how he made these photographs and his equipment and these techniques will never be used again

Lastly, Ansel is a pretty good story teller and uses lots of details, people he was with, foreshadowing, climaxes, and thrilling descriptions to bring his experiences alive.  His vignette about making the “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome” is only a great yarn because the best photograph came from the very last glass plate he carried that day…of course it did.  Without that little detail, the story is flat.  He built his legend on these serendipitous encounters.  Would “Moonrise (over Hernandez)” be so popular if you knew that he set up and waited all day long for this very shot that he had visualized by looking at moon charts?  No.  We love this photograph because he saw it while driving along the road and had only seconds to make one photograph with no light metering, and then the moment was gone.

Examples is a highly entraining book for everyone, whether you are a serious photographer or just had Ansel Adams posters in your dorm room in college (like I did).

What we are reading right now


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