I haven’t reviewed a book here for a while. In the past, most of my reviews have been of “how to” or “equipment-oriented” books. Over the years, I have read a number of more inspirational, or “art-oriented” books, but this is the first one I have attempted to review here.
The Art of Photography is published by Rockynook™ publishers, and they have some pretty good, often provocative books for photographers. These days, I (like many purchasers, I am sure) purchase the majority of my books from online sources like Amazon. Photography Books are often the exception, because I like to browse them before I purchase. However, this book was indeed purchased from Amazon. I am not sure what about the promotional material or other reviews drew me to it, but I was looking for some “new inspiration” at the time. I purchased the book a couple years back, now, and read it slowly.
The book is laid out nicely and logically, and Bruce gives us a good, solid basic underpinning for photographic composition and exposure. He begins with the fundamentally important stuff, in my view: Composition, light and color. There are 5 full chapters covering visualization, communication, composition, light and color as they relate to photographic art. Barnbaum imparts his considerable experience and knowledge about the art and science of these areas in a very readable format.
Sometimes a Photographer must decide whether to shoot – or not even bother to shoot a scene
He also brings his personal philosophy to bear in his coverage. In the introduction, for example, he emphasizes the importance of the photographer’s personal response to a photographic scene, even suggesting that there are many times when we should not even attempt to capture a scene. So many of us are prone to being “in the moment,” shooting everything in front of our lens (especially since with the advent of digital, we no longer are concerned about film and development costs). This is particularly true when we have spent significant dollars and time to visit a particular destination and may never be there again. I am not espousing not capturing “record” images of places you visit. But artistic shooting requires some thought about subject, place, composition and – frankly – whether it is even worthwhile to trip the shutter. It is, of course, going to depend on the circumstances. Barnbaum is primarily a landscape photographer, and that is a subject which – in my view – requires more circumspection.
I spent a week last fall with the very talented professional landscape photographer, James Moore, in the field. One of the things I brought back from that trip was a new application of the old phrase: “less is more.” I may have made a record in terms of the fewest shutter actuations of any photographic trip (including back in the film days); while at the same time, bringing back the highest percentage of “keeper” images! That phenomena is directly related to the influence Jim’s thinking has had on me. So reading Bruce’s comment in the introduction hit a chord for me. I think the upshot of his commentary is that for a photograph to meaningful, the photographer has to “say” something worthwhile with his image.
The chapters on composition include the topics of color, line, shape and form, and balance. Barnbaum artfully explains how to use the tools a photographer has, including light, exposure, direction, color, perspective, lens length, depth of field, cropping, and shutter speed, among other things, to present the image, taking these fundamental items into consideration. At the same time, he cautions against being limited by “rules.”
This is exactly the type of inspirational/informational book I was looking for. The first 6 chapters are, in my view, worth the proverbial price of admission.
The zone system may seem to be anachronistic
Much of his treatment of exposure, however, is from a traditional standpoint. He spends a fair amount of time (2 full chapters) discussing film and the “zone system” of exposure. For many new photographers, and for most of us “older” shooters who have migrated 100% to digital, this may seem to be anachronistic. But although the way it is applied to and with technology has changed, the basic theory of exposure has really not changed over the years. So while it may not seem to apply to modern digital exposure techniques, the basic understanding of the zone system assists us in understanding exposure as it is used with our digital capture today.
Likewise, he spends a full chapter (45 pages) on wet darkroom techniques. Again, this material may be seen to be a bit “dated,” but I have always been of a view that historical context can give us a better understanding (and appreciation for) current-day techniques. It is not unusual, for example, for some of the Photoshop processes and tools to be modeled after and indeed named after a historical film-based process. And, while I believe them to be a decided minority, there are still photographers shooting with film and using wet darkrooms.
In fairness, Barnbaum brings it together in Chapter 11, “The Digital Zone System,” with 30 pages of in-depth and useful coverage of digital exposure and how it relates to the traditional concept. Again, I think knowing how the zone system was developed and works makes understanding the magic (and the limitations) of digital sensor technology just a bit more clear. Barnbaum gives useful detail here on how a digital sensor is made, how it captures images, and importantly, how to use and read the histogram, as a tool for exposure. See my blog, “Expose right to Expose Correctly“. He also explains raw capture. I do have a small nit to pick with Barnbaum (or perhaps more correctly, his editor) here, though. Like so many writers, he mistakenly refers to raw capture using all capital letters (“RAW”). This is a convention for abbreviations of multiple word phrases. “Raw” does not stand for anything—other than just that: “raw” (as in uncooked). It should be correctly referred to as “raw.” Like I said, a nit, but nonetheless, a pet peeve of mine. :-)
“Raw” is not be capitalized. It does not stand for anything other than just that: raw (as in uncooked)
Chapter 11 also has some very good coverage of blending raw captures to extend dynamic range (one of the wonders of digital capture and digital post-processing, in my view). Thus, as a technical chapter for digital photographers, this one is really very good!
I think the above materials have great educational and historical significance to the photographer interested in understanding the “craft” of photography. Having said that, I do have to confess that I resorted to a more “skimming” approach to the chapters on the zone system and wet darkroom prints. That is to say, I read them, but not with the intensity, or as in-depth as I read the remaining portions of the book.
There is a brief, but very informative chapter on print presentation, which is still timely today. I purchased my dry mount press about the same time I was reading this book, so his commentary on the subject was very useful for me.
Art and Inspiration
The remaining chapters of the book deal with art, personal philosophy and approach, artistic integrity, and Barnbaum’s approach to some popular misconceptions which he refers to as “photographic myths.” The first 5 “myths,” perhaps unfortunately, relate back to his zone system/negative film discussion. But again, they certainly can be related to photography of all kinds. The remaining “myths,” (6-8) which are really 4 more (8 is actually 2 myths), are universal and deal with “rules” and an unreasonable adherence to them. Good stuff.
A favorite Chapter of mine (probably because I agree wholeheartedly J ), though, is Barnbaum’s coverage of “artistic integrity” in Chapter 14. He hits the nail on the head here, with his thoughtful (and thought-provoking) coverage of this sometimes controversial (though I am usually at a loss as to why it is so controversial) topic. I love the passage (important enough that it is an out quote in the text): “When photographers get away from thinking ‘This is what I can do‘ and get to “This is what I can say,’ photography becomes a more mature interpretive medium.”
Barnbaum also makes the point that as art, photography is more about perception than about reality: “One of the strengths of photography has been its perceived realism.“
Finally, his final 2 chapters on creativity give the reader much food for thought and introspection about his or her own photographic endeavor. I was looking, in Barnbaum’s book, for some inspiration in my continuing quest to take my own photography to the “next level.” I was satisfied that it did that for me and will continue to do so. I recommend this book.