May 3, 2006

Shooting Digital | Book Review

Good digital photography books are hard to find.

There are plenty of good, even great, books about the art and science of photography in general. The newer ones often contain some specific digital information, and a fair bit of the info in even decades-old books is still perfectly applicable to digital. F-stops, focal lengths, lighting, composition; all of that stuff works much the same for digital as it does for film.

When a photo book starts banging on about emulsions and fixatives and cross processing and slide versus print film and enlarging lenses and colour compensation and how to keep light out of a Holga, though... well, those pages are good places for a digital photographer to rest a coffee cup.

And if you're looking for information about the relative merits of JPG, RAW and TIFF image formats in an old photo book, you're going to be looking for rather a while.


Buy one now!

Mikkel Aaland's Shooting Digital (subtitle: "Pro Tips for Taking Great Pictures with Your Digital Camera") doesn't pretend that film doesn't exist. It mentions silver halide technology when it's relevant, which'll help film photogs making the leap to digital to get up to speed. But like the title says, this is a book about digital photography, and it aims to give the most inexperienced digital happy-snapper information on how to get good results in all sorts of photographic situations.

It's got 269 content pages plus an index, and they're good-sized pages, too; the book's about 205 by 255mm. Every page contains either digital-relevant info, or example photos; Shooting Digital is lavishly illustrated. Nowhere is there information that's dead weight to a non-film photographer.

What you get

Shooting Digital opens with a primer on the differences between film and digital, resolution, lenses and focal length differences and what's up with that "35mm equivalent" stuff, the kind of digicam you'll need for different tasks, and the importance of knowing your particular camera's capabilities.

Throughout the book, the ordinary point-and-shoot consumer cameras that most people use get a lot of air time. Shooting Digital is not a publication for camera snobs or penis-free young professionals. The book even makes clear those times when a light, simple, flexible consumer camera will be a better photographic tool than a hefty pro-cam.

Chapter two is about shooting portraits, both candid and studio. How to stop your subject from looking like a serial killer, the Elephant Man or a Rembrandt shadow study, when and how you can use flash without ironing your subject's face flat, and why non-professional photographers might still want to bother setting up a mini-studio.

The most difficult portraits - kids, animals and people at parties - get their own whole chapter, which addresses picking the moment to shoot, dealing with shutter lag, and how to minimise the chance of disaster if it falls to you to photograph an Important Event ("Sorry, I missed that - could you take it again from 'I do'...?").

Next, it's action photography; more on how to pick the moment, how to minimise blur, and how to make worthwhile pictures even if you can't get rid of a lot of the blur.

Movie mode gets a whole chapter to itself. The slow seepage of camcorder capabilities into still cameras is one of the biggest new things about digital, but most "mini-movies" might as well not have been taken. Shooting Digital talks about how to make even very short movie clips say something, and how to use them to work around the artistic limitations of still photography in general. This chapter goes on to talk about mini-movie editing and distribution, with software suggestions for Windows and Mac.

Where Aaland talks about software, he tends to talk about the Mac more than Windows. Here it's particularly obvious, with more than two pages devoted to telling you how to add a fat black border to a low-res movie so it won't turn into LegoVision when played back on a Mac OS system which, apparently, plays everything full-screen.

Shooting Digital isn't a really Mac-centric book, though. Windows users don't have to plough through much more irrelevant info than this.

Next, there's a chapter on shooting on the road - kit bags, camera care and maintenance, storage and archiving, shooting strangers, dealing with adverse weather, and so on.

Next up, interiors and exteriors. The insides and outsides of buildings may have the decency to sit still, but that doesn't make them easy subjects. This chapter has lots to say about light, composition, exposure, and maximising image quality.

This flows naturally into the next chapter, on shooting landscapes. This chapter touches on the ineffable-word-of-God or idiotic-creativity-strangling (depending on your point of view) Rule of Thirds, but that's about as artsy-fartsy as Shooting Digital ever gets. I like the fact that Aaland talks about the technical aspects of beautiful pictures - How You Could Do This - and leaves the pictures to do the rest of the talking for themselves.

Next, there's a whole chapter about panoramas, including the fully or partially spherical "virtual reality" variety, and "object movies", where you can turn a virtual object around on screen rather than looking around a virtual landscape.

The next chapter's about "Shooting Your Stuff" - photographing objects for fun and profit. EBay sellers and hardware reviewers, ahoy; this is the bit where you learn how to make good looking product shots.

Next comes the out-there chapter - infrared, underwater and aerial photography, night shots, and the benefits of "digital grid" mosaics of low-res images. Then there's information on organising and sharing your digital photos - printing, storing, sorting, sending, showing - followed by some technical appendices about sensors and RAW data and image processing. And then there's the index.

Everything, and I do mean everything, has at least one photo to illustrate the principle being discussed, and Shooting Digital is also riddled with boxes talking about how software can help (in an old school photo book, these parts would be darkroom tips), what accessories may come in handy, and what's going on inside your digicam. The accessory and Know Your Camera boxes aren't necessarily specifically relevant to the chapter they appear in, but it's all good stuff.

Web support

Shooting Digital has a companion Web site, the inventively named Shooting-Digital.com. The site's not what you'd call a heavyweight at the moment, but it's got a bit of content and some perfectly good links, and promises to be better in the future.

Even if Mikkel Aaland gets eaten by a hippo tomorrow and the site freezes in its current state, though, there'll still be plenty of excellent photography sites on the Web.

Shooting Digital is worth the money without any extras. And, pleasingly, its price is not pumped up by a CD of questionable value inside the back cover.

Overall

Shooting Digital is both commendably up to date and likely to age well. It doesn't mention the very latest cameras and software, but it's not talking about particular cameras anyway, except to show the moments when some feature of a particular camera made it able to take some particular picture. In five years' time some of the technical info in Shooting Digital won't be relevant any more, but its basic points will stand - and there'll no doubt have been another edition or two by then, anyway.

Shooting Digital really is packed with useful advice, the value of much of which I can personally confirm. For instance, "Bracketing The Heck Out Of The Exposure" is indeed a valid technique, and yes, "prying flesh from frozen metal is painful".

Modern digital photography is, genuinely, a step up from film for most purposes, and it's only getting better. Sure, digital doesn't have the grass roots hackability of film, or the near-zero-dollar entry point, but just removing the image capacity and processing time limitations of film gives the photographer a much more direct involvement with the activity of image-making. Digital definitely does make learning easier.

And, importantly, consumer digicams now have good enough price/performance ratios that regular people really can do better with digital than they can with film - much better. Books about high quality digital photography are no longer like books about Lamborghini maintenance - this is mainstream now.

If all you ever do is take badly lit pictures of stunned-looking relatives with their noses in the dead centre of the frame, you're missing out on almost all of the value of any kind of photography. That's where this book comes in. Shooting Digital genuinely is full of "Pro Tips for Taking Great Pictures with Your Digital Camera"; it is the digital photography book that the vast bulk of digicam users have been waiting for.

Shooting Digital isn't likely to be very useful to someone who's already an accomplished photographer, even if they're moving into digital for the first time.

But if you don't look at your digital photos and think "Wow!" very often, it's high time you bought this book. Highly recommended.