Books: Learning photography
A camera-specific beginner’s guide
Before I delve deeper into this section, I want to mention that there is a class of books that straddle the realm between a user manual and beginner photography. That is a beginner photography book sold in a camera specific way. The other day, Kara of Peachpit dropped off Jeff Revell’s book: Nikon D5000: From Snapshots to Great Shots. Jeff is the author of the PhotoWalkPro blog and, from the back cover photo, a Canon photographer—so the books are available for popular entry-level Canon and Nikon models.
In reality, this book is actually an introduction to dSLR photography, but with camera-specific callouts in it. The first chapters cover the camera usage in descending order of priority (setup, basics of photography, scene, and “professional” modes). The later chapters cover a specific shooting style, like portraits, and show you how to take that photo. Two notable approaches deserve mention: first, each chapter begins with a “poring over the picture”: double-truck photos with callouts explaining the settings, why they were chosen, and how they affected the photo; the second are a set of shooting assignments at the end of each section.
I’m a little jealous of the format. So of course, I had to open the book and find a few errors after five minutes of reading. They’re really minor:
- Pages 2-4 have a diagram of the controls of the Nikon D5000. They are missing the often-overlooked flash and function buttons.
- On Page 5, he says “what you really should be dong is giving the power-cell a fulll charge…No matter what claims the manufacturers make about battery life and charging memory, I always find I get better life and performance when I charge my batteries fully and then use them right down to the point wehre they have nothing left to give.” As I explained earlier, it’s perfectly okay to use the battery without charging first (if it is a Lithium-Ion rechargeable)—for safety and testing purposes, they have to charge the battery a bit in order to ship them. And as I explained here, running the battery down every time risks “deep discharge” and permanent death of the battery.
- On Page 7, Jeff states that the JPEG format was around since 1994. Actually, JPEG compression has been around since before 1992 (when it was first standardized). 1994 is the year it became an ISO standard. 1994 is also the year I graduated college, so I was as curious how it could be possible I was manipulating JPEGs in college if they didn’t exist.
- On Page 24, the proper way he shows how to hold your camera vertically is not the most stable. (Though many of us do hold cameras that way.) If it were for a book, I’d show the reversed method: arms tucked in.
- On Page 11-3 of the bonus chapters, he wrote: “Most polarizers are circular and allow you to rotate the polarizing element to control the amount of polarization that you need.” This implies the circular “feature” allows you to rotate the polarizer. This is not correct, nor is there any explanation of why you need a circular polarizer. A circular polarizer is a linear polarizer with a quarter wave plate to circularly polarize the light, and, as I explained in the previous section, the reason you need a circular polarizer, instead of the cheaper linear polarizer, is that the dSLR autofocus and metering systems will be confused by linearly polarized light.
In any case, despite the criticism, these books appear to be well written, the photos are somewhat compelling, and this purchase kills two with one: it is both a camera-specific manual and a beginner’s guide.
The only beginner photography books worth buying
Last month, I was at Costco when I saw they had Scott Keby’s Digital Photography series for sale:
“I’m unimpressed with his photography and dislike his writing style.” I commented.
“So you wouldn’t recommend them?” Marie asked.
“No, I’d recommend them. We need to get a copy.”
Reinventing a genre
Here’s how I explained it to Marie: Scott Kelby is a photographer by way of Adobe Photoshop—he is the president of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. Almost a decade ago, he wrote a book called Adobe Photoshop for Photographers, which is still published in updated form today. Before that book, all Photoshop books and almost all graphic instruction material were designed around either the concept of teaching you a list of features or delving into some advanced Photoshop topic using a single photo and cooking it. This was the first book that focused on a complete photographic workflow from start to finish. That style was so effective that it has been copied by others.
It reinvented the genre.
And that’s because Scott Kelby understands how people learn things, and presents his topic that way.
Consider the case of competing “introduction to digital photography” books—let’s take Michael Freeman’s The Complete Guide to Digital Photography as an example. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read the fourth edition, but I remember peeking through the 1st edition many years ago.) Michael Freeman is the lead photographer of Smithsonian magazine—his photos are infinitely more compelling than Kelby’s. He’s also a good writer, having written a great book on photographic composition which is a notoriously hard subject to tackle well.
And yet, his Complete Guide, like almost all in the genre, spends an introductory chapter explaining how a CCD and CMOS sensor works followed by an extremely long and involved discussion of exposure.
The problem is no beginner cares how a sensor works or how that’s different from film. That might have been useful for someone coming from film, but most people buying these entry-level dSLR cameras never shot film—and certainly not seriously. The problem is a long discussion of exposure is throwing a beginner into the photographic equivalent of the deep-end and telling them to swim. We live in a world where cameras have accurate and advanced evaluative metering systems tied to pretty intuitive scene modes that make these decisions for you. These discussions are fine for an advanced photographer, but really these chapters just scare the beginner away from photography—assuming you haven’t bored them to death.
If people wanted to learn that way—entry level dSLRs wouldn’t be outselling professional ones by a large margin and manufacturers would be moving to less automation, not more. In reality, it‘s the reverse. What a first time wants to know is the answer to questions like: “what do I do?”, “how do I shoot this?” “what should I buy?” and then later you can bore them with what the Bayer pattern in digital sensors is or how to read a MTF curve.
Kelby’s series on digital photography is a must-read for this reason: it teaches you what you want to learn when you want to learn it. In three slim volumes, there is most every trick I know about photography after years of practice and a few I don’t. I wish these books existed back then because it would have saved me a load of time and frustration.
And, like Adobe Photoshop for Photographers, many writers out there would do well to read these books and copy Kelby’s formula.
Why I hate Kelby’s writing style (and you should too)
Now that I’ve praised the books and you’ve ordered them on Amazon, let me trash them.
While I was at Costco, I flipped into the introduction of the first volume and started reading. I got as far as the to the second paragraph where he defines “tack sharp”:
TACK stands for Technically Accurate Cibachrome Kelvin (which refers to the color temperature of light in photographs), and SHARP stands for Shutter Hyperfocal At Refracted Polarization.
I put the book down. I was ready to rush home and write an entire article dedicating to blasting Kelby for being full of shit. If, instead, I had been patient enough to read the next sentence, I would have realized it was all part of Scott Kelby’s “humor”:
Now, you have to admit, it sounded pretty legitimate at first. I mean, I almost had ya, didn’t I? Come on, you know I had you, and I’ll bet it was that “color temperature of light” thing I put in parenthesis that helped sell the idea that it was real, right? It’s okay to admit you were fooled…
Haha, the joke’s on me right? No. I’m the one fucking buying your book, asshole. (Besides, I wasn’t fooled at all.)
I’ve seen Scott Kelby write this way since I read a book he wrote in 2002. He is attempting to write the way he talks (or thinks he talks)—this is known in literature as the conversational style. The problem is when you do it, but actually don’t care about the craft of writing, it fails because we don’t actually “converse” the way we speak. Our speaking is…In fragments. Tossing around cliches, and with wrong grammar.
William Zinsser famously called this style “breezy.” From my high school textbook, Zinsser destroyed Kelby’s writing style over thirty years ago:
It’s crude. It’s corny. It’s verbose. It’s contemptuous of the English language. It’s condescending. (I stop reading writers who say “You see.”) But the most pathetic thing about the breezy style is it’s harder to read than good English. In the writer’s attempt to ease the reader’s journey he has littered the path with obstacles: cheap slang, shoddy sentences, windy philosophizing…Nobody ever stopped reading E.B. White or V.S. Pritchett because the writing was too good. But readers will stop reading you if they think you are talking down to them. Nobody wants to be patronized.
Write with respect for the English language at its best—and for readers at their best.
Perhaps you might like being treated like dirt—given the popularity of IDG’s “For Dummies” series, many do—but I don’t.
We should expect more from our authors, if they are to deserve the title.