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August 11, 2005


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Worth a thousand words

Digital camera guides bring your photography to a new level

By Lisa Parsons

By all means read the manual, but don’t stop there.

A good photography how-to will (1) answer at least as many questions as it raises within its scope, (2) show diagrams and definitions, and (3) include photos illustrating various effects. Especially, it should have photos of the same scene taken at the same time with different camera settings.

You won’t get everything from one book (though some claim it). Anyway, reading more than one source makes you smarter. Here are some of the newest guidebooks.

Digital Photography Problem Solver: The top 101 digital photography questions answered, by Les Meehan, Collins & Brown, 2005, 144 pages, stiff softcover, $17.95.

Strong emphasis on digital. Much discussion of scanning, file-saving and software.

Pros: Friendly look and feel; lots of sample photos, brief and direct answers with nitty-gritty info like “The same image file would produce a print size of 12 x 12 [inches] if printed at 150 dpi, but only 3 x 3 [inches] if printed at 600 dpi.”

Cons: Some answers fall short. Meehan asks “What are pixels?” but doesn’t answer well, saying only that an image “is composed of tiny individual elements” and “each pixel has a unique color.”

Overall: Worth the time.

How to Take Great Photographs, by John Hedgecoe, Collins & Brown, 2001, 160 pages, hardcover, $24.95.

John Hedgecoe has written many premium-grade photography guides. This one shares much with his latest productions.

Pros: Practical and beautiful. Professional look and feel. Examples superbly demonstrate how different camera settings affect a shot. A coffee-table how-to.

Cons: Not portable. No diagram of a camera’s innards.

Overall: Excellent. You will come away with at least one solid idea for improving your next photograph.

The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Great Photography, by Shawn Frederick and Bill Gutman, Alpha Books, 2005, 191 pages, softcover, $9.95.

The only book on this list that is all black-and-white. Ignores the hows and whys and acts like a cheat sheet, yet has thoughtful moments on photo composition.

Pros: Fits in your pocket yet contains much useable information.

Cons: Very few sample pictures. Bad/useless definition of “pixel” – “a tiny, colored square that ultimately forms your digital image.” (One square forms my image?) On page 14 the authors say “automatically” when they mean “manually.”

Overall: A good booster or life raft, but don’t overburden it.

Digital Photography 101, by Michelle Perkins, Amherst Media, 2005, 94 pages, softcover, $14.95.

Assumes you have a clue about photography but have never touched anything digital.  Wastes space on such gems as a list of useful websites -- including ones you’d never think to visit, like Amazon.

Pros: Good glossary.

Cons: Too many exclamation points, too little substance.

Overall: Digital Photography 101 as taught by a poorly prepared substitute teacher at a non-accredited institution.

Don’t Take My Picture! (4th ed.) by Craig Alesse, Amherst Media, 2005, 102 pages, softcover, $9.95.

“The angle of view of a lens (what the lens sees) is indicated in millimeters. The lens that comes with most SLR cameras is 50 millimeters.” Yeech. Angle of view is stated in degrees and is not “what” the lens sees but how wide a view the lens gets. The 50 millimeters refers to focal length, not angle of view (though they are related).

Pros: Does contain some valid advice, like “Watch out for objects in the background … that might look like they are coming out of people’s heads.”

Cons: Totally amateur photos and advice like “carry spare batteries.” 

Overall: When it’s not confusing, it’s merely vapid.

Photography: the art of composition, by Bert Krages, Allworth Press, 2005, 243 pages, softcover, $24.95.

Calls to mind the art book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Offers cognitive theory and a series of exercises to enhance how you look at things – i.e. what potential photographs you see where.

Pros: A whole new bunch of ideas.

Cons: In an exercise on photographing rocks, I don’t need to know about chelation and geologic history.

Overall: A cool, mind-stretching side trip to broaden your skills.

People Photography: A Guide to Taking Better Pictures, by Michael Coyne, Lonely Planet Publications, 2005, 159 pages, softcover, $16.99.

Small book, beautiful photos, covers everything including impromptu photography and the etiquette of taking strangers’ pictures.

Pros: Lots of stories-behind-the-photo. Every photo has a tiny caption indicating equipment and settings used.

Cons: Most of these were taken with SLR cameras, not your everyday compact point-and-shoots. Principles still hold but your equipment might be a bit lesser.

Overall: Very good.

Landscape Photography: A Guide to Taking Better Pictures, by Peter Eastway, Lonely Planet Publications, 2005, 166 pages, softcover, $16.99.

Just like People Photography (above), but for landscapes.

Pros: One of the better explanations of aperture and exposure.

Cons: Oversimplified discussion of histograms could cause frustration in real-life settings.

Overall: Very good.

The BetterPhoto Guide to Digital Photography, by Jim Miotke, Amphoto Books, 2005, 224 pages, softcover, $24.95.

From the folks at betterphoto.com. Like the Lonely Planet guides, includes a caption with every photo indicating film, lens and exposure used. Offers “The Truth about Digital Zooms” with evidence (digital zoom is not as useless as everyone, including the author, thought). Did more to enlighten me, in a shorter time, on the topics of JPEG vs. TIFF, noise, white balance and composition than any other book here. Also taught me about EXIF data, which no one else did.

Pros: Aimed perfectly at the uninformed but clueful and curious. Talks freely about cases where following the rules won’t work – which is a lot of the time.

Cons: Written by a man who was able to keep his camera accurately pointed at his son’s face while the son was being twirled in the air. No amount of know-how can make me able to do that.

Overall: Exceptionally informative for real life, with great sample photos. If you’re only buying one book....

An Advanced Guide to Digital Photography, by Vincent Oliver, AVA Publishing, 2005, 144 pages, softcover, $22.95.

Assumes you know photography but not digital. Lots of Photoshop screen-grabs and advanced tricks of the trade, like a workaround to get green reflected light out of a wedding photo using Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layers and Gaussian Blur.

Pros: Very detailed. Catchy layout.

Cons: How many people actually calibrate their own scanners?

Overall: Good illustrations, clear writing, probably useful for advanced players.

New books are coming out all the time. I’m looking forward to How Digital Photography Works, due soon from the publisher of the award-winning How Computers Work. And don’t forget the Web, which is full of free information (but you will pay in time and eyestrain). Having surfed extensively, I can highly recommend www.ted.photographer.org.uk, a non-commercial site I stumbled onto (look under “Cameras” and “Photo Science” for nifty interactive graphics) and www.bobatkins.com.

And RTFM. That’s short for read the manual.