What this book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective, editing
Catching Up …..
Wow. My last post was at the beginning of May, 2 full months ago. I guess I have fallen into one of those “lulls.” Nothing new and notable on the shooting front, and nothing much unique to say.
Over the winter, I played around with B&W and “painting.” I read several books on those subjects, and reviewed a couple of them. More recently, something got me realizing that I needed to renew my acquaintance with supplemental and artificial light; and particularly, flash – the stroboscopic variety.
New Gear and Flash …..
Several years ago, I made a monumental (for me, anyway) change in my “gear.” Having been “married” to Nikon for nearly 40 years, I made a complete changeover to Sony mirrorless cameras. The primary reason for my changeover was not creative or technical. It was convenience; and in particular, size and weight. Along the way, I discovered some creative and technical advantages. These are not really attributable to brand, but to “new” and to features. Every manufacturer seems to have certain areas they do better than anyone else. If only I could build my own ala carte camera.
One thing Nikon did better than anyone else (in my view) and Sony seems to do worse than anyone else (again, in my view) is flash. I got spoiled with Nikon’s creative flash system. You see, flash involves math, and there is very little about math that is either appealing or comes naturally to me :-). Nikon took the math out of it and let me not have to “think” about it. Maybe that wasn’t such a good thing.
A detractor for many of us is cost. Brand-dedicated flash units are ungodly expensive. As much as a good lens. And sometimes you want to use multiple units – as much, or more than the camera! And, flash units are complex, and befuddling: right?
I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.”
During my 40+ years of shooting, I have shot 98% natural light. I have, for sure, used flash (I even remember those big, blue, “lightbulbs” that bayoneted into a reflector on my Asahiflex, popped once and ejected – hot!). But I think it is time for me to start expanding my shooting, to include supplemental lighting.
So, I started reading. Always my go-to. And I learned that there are less expensive, after-market units out there (some good/some not so good). Sure, they have compromises. My friend, Kerry Leibowitz, once said to me in an e-mail exchange, “everything about photography is a compromise. .. Everything.” So I am good with that. For 1/4 the cost (or less), I was able to find a Sony-compatible flash to play with. Maybe I will review it at some point (after I understand more about it 🙂 ).
There is a lot out there to read. I am a book person. Hence, the review. But before I do, let me recommend the website, strobist. There is a huge amount of information, free for the reader, here. I have just begun to dig into it, but some would say it is all you need. Me? I am still a book guy. I like to read and highlight and flag, and go back from time to time. I already had Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Flash Photography,” so I started there (I highly recommend two other Peterson books: “Understanding Exposure” and “Learning to See Creatively“).
There is some really good material. But you you really have to work for it. And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version
So, The Book …..
Wanting to dig deeper, I started researching on Amazon. I have long known of John Gerlach, and his workshops, and the bulk of the reviews liked his book “Outdoor Flash Photography.” I had read some of his other books over the years, and was familiar with him, as he originally lived in my “backyard;” the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As many readers know, I have spent some time up there and my “Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” is a guide to many of the wonderful shooting opportunities there. So I bought the book.
This book is in my “suggested” category (meaning, I don’t necessarily believe every shooter should have or read this, but I have it, or have owned it, and found some useful material there). But what makes this a “suggested” book rather than a “recommended” book is largely editorial style, unfortunately. There is some really good material in there. But you you really have to work for it. And to me, that is off-putting, particularly in an “instructional book.” With some work, this book could be made into a pithy, useful, field guide that someone like me just might carry around with him. But not in its current version.
As I looked at the different offerings, and the editorial reviews, I was struck at how often the description said something like, “demystifies” flash, or “contains unique material, not found anywhere else.” This book suggests that there is something unique about “outdoor flash photography,” and that there is no other resource out there that covers these topics. But my research and experience demonstrates otherwise. To be sure, many, if not most of the resources out there have a heavy concentration on portraiture and even sometimes studio lighting techniques. But my conclusion is that there are some basic lighting principles that really apply to photography in general, and they are not that unique from genre to genre.
I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops
Need For Objective Professional Editing
Readers here know I am good at digression. But I want to say something here, to put my “critical” (“Critical: expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work ….“) comments in context. I have absolutely no doubt that the authors of this book are consummate, professional photographers and workshop leaders, and that they really, really know their craft – in particular – the ins and outs of everything “flash.” And you only need to go to their website to see that their imagery is first class, and their workshops well-attended and widely praised. I had the fortune of bumping into one of their workshops a couple years ago, while shooting fall colors and researching locations for my own Photographing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and introduced myself to John. He is a very nice man, with an undoubted bank of technical and locational knowledge. One thing that really impressed me: neither he nor Barbara had cameras in-hand. It was their workshop and they were there to be a resource to the attendees. I would have no hesitancy to sign up for, and attend one of their workshops! I also studied nearly everything their own “mentors” (the late, Larry West, and John Shaw – both former Michigan residents themselves ) wrote and know the authors’ pedigree is estimable. Knowing this, I was mildly disappointed in this product.
What I was looking for was more of a hands-on, practical, experience-based text. How is “outdoor flash photography” different from “flash photography?” This book partially hits that mark, but it is a difficult path to get there! What the book is in great need of, in my opinion, is experienced, professional, objective editing. The term I would use to describe the current text is: “rambling.”
I would describe the author’s (while both John and Barbara are listed as authors, it is clearly primarily written in John’s voice) style as conversational. Too conversational. It feels like maybe a day in the field, or in the lecture facility with John speaking. This style probably works well in person (he is said to be engaging and entertaining). It doesn’t work in written form. As anyone reading here knows, I am all for an informal written presentation. But in written communication (especially instruction), there needs to be a certain level of formality, structure and organization. This book lacks that structure – in a way that makes it difficult to stay with it. Here are some specifics:
Style – The “conversational” style, as noted above, is off-putting. Sentences throughout the book are replete with misplaced modifiers, which I suspect is a matter of conversational usage, but is jarring when repeatedly read. This doesn’t affect the technical presentation of information, but it certainly makes it less effective. The frequent attempts at humor fall flat. Again, they probably work well as one-liners in an oral presentation, but they come across as borderline lame in a more formal, written text.
And words and phrases…….. I have always been a firm believer that good, strong writing and clear communication means simple, direct writing. It is good to vary word choice from time to time to make the writing less repetitive and more interesting (I use a Thesaurus frequently, when I feel that I have been repeating a single word too much). But the use of “big” words, or flowery phrases does not automatically make writing better or more interesting. Sometimes it is just best to say the word that applies in common usage – direct and simple. I have to believe that an objective, professional editor would eliminate the majority of these issues, and create a more straightforward, informative and readable text.
Relevance – Too often, the author wanders “off the reservation,” getting into totally irrelevant commentary which, while perhaps anecdotally interesting, takes us away from the subject matter of the book – flash photography. While some of it may have nominal relevance, a quick reference to it and “move on,” would be, in my view, much more effective. There is too much “Cannon vs. Nikon” philosophy, for example (I appreciate that these authors each use one of these systems, as do perhaps the majority of their audience, and surely there is some relevance to how these makers handle flash issues – but again, “just the facts ma’am” and then move on would be a good thing here). 🙂
Organization – The book is divided into 14 chapters. Respectfully, I do not believe there are 14 separate chapters of material here. I am not sure about publishing requirements and standards, never having personally done more than my own eBooks (which may not be models of clarity either). I have written enough to know that organization is not always an easy path, and there are always choices about how, where and when to present materials. But I truly believe this book could be condensed down to no more than 5 chapters. What we instead find here is a lot of needless (and I think, confusing) repetition. In an effort to distinguish terminology and techniques, the author ends up repeating the same materials under different topics. The implication is that there is something different, and yet, there really isn’t (a great example is the segue from “fill flash,” “main flash” and “balanced flash.” After 3 long, repetitive chapters, it really boils down (and is implied, in my reading, by the book) that they are not really different categories. They are just applications of the flash fundamental that every flash exposure is composed of two exposures, one being the ambient light exposure and the other being the flash exposure. The rest is just understanding the relationships of the light sources, and how the technology in the units and cameras handle it.
There are many Positives …..
Having been critical, I have to say there are many positives to take away from this book. It is why I “suggest” it. I believe it is worth the work to slog through it and try to distill the very good information that is in there. I will go back and re-read, and take personal notes on this information and hopefully add it to my own kind of “field guide.” Here are some items I think are worthwhile information/tips from my first reading of the book:
- The author gives one of the better explanations of how the strobe flash works, including flash duration, that I have read.
- There are a couple comments regarding the use of flash when shooting waterfalls that I had not previously considered – particularly the ability to “freeze” water droplets while maintaining the “silky” look of the main waterfall in the image. You can be sure I am going to experiment with that.
- While most experienced users are aware of this, his explanation of how TTL in the flash unit relates to automatic and manual control of the camera was helpful. He re-inforces why those of us who rely on “automatic” modes, because we don’t know better (or in my case, because we have become lazy), don’t get the results we expect.
- There are some helpful tips on the placement of flash (particularly in close subjects) to maximize color and texture.
I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list
The Takeaway …..
The paperback cost just under $27.00. Today, that is a rather modest cost for a full, published, hard copy book. So I certainly didn’t feel put off or cheated by the purchase. And there was enough in it for me to keep it rather then send it back. But it would not go on my list of “must own under any circumstances” books.
What I think might be a dynamite re-work of this book would be to have some heavy editing, drilling down to the relevant, useful information in the book, perhaps adding some more practical and experiential information, into a shorter and perhaps smaller format (think “field guide”). I could see it being transformed from an “eh” book, to one I would put on my “must own” list.