Learning Photography: Books

By Roger (9 August 2015)

We're out at Photoshop World, this week, but I wanted to keep the series going. Let's talk about learning from photography books.

I've always loved books. My mother was a librarian. I can read a paperback and never break the spine. I'm lucky enough to have my own library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Many of my books traveled with us, while I was being transferred around the world, in the Army. I still buy books and will probably bring back a couple from the expo floor, at PSW. They just feel good.

Just a few photo books from my library.

Just a few photo books from my library.

When I started photography, the internet wasn't really a thing – as in, it didn't exist. Photography books and magazines were the way I learned the sport. I joined one of the photography book clubs because there weren't any American bookstores in Germany, where we were living, but they would ship them to an APO address, which got them to me in Augsburg.

For beginners, books allow you to move at your own pace; provide examples of great photos to amplify the author's instructions; and give you a handy reference you can go back to.

Michael Freeman's books are great for a comprehensive overview to photography. I have several old film books he wrote, and he's still putting them out there. One of his latest titles is The Photographer's Eye (link), and, don't worry, he has moved on from film to digital. Since we're at PSW, I guess I should also mention Scott Kelby's series, The Digital Photography Book. The series has five different books, each one with different topics and different photos. Here's a link to the boxed set (link).

As you start to get a better handle on the mechanics of the camera, you might want to move to books from some of your favorite photographers. Besides being filled with photos from a photographer you admire, you get a better sense of how they approach their subjects and some good stories about their adventures. I really like Joe McNally's sense of humor and admire his lighting skills. I have all of his books. His first book, The Moment It Clicks (link), is still a favorite read for me. Art Wolfe comes across well in his book, The Art of the Photograph (link), too.

When I get to meet some of the authors of my books, during conferences and workshops, I feel like I know a little more about how to they'll teach from reading their books. If I liked the books, I'm more likely to spend the money on their workshop. As I said, in my last blog, Photoshop World is ideal for meeting these photographers.

If you want to read about photography theory or philosophy (yes, I'm that geeky), there are plenty of good reads out there. You can go deep into your artist mode with these books. I have found answers to questions I didn't even know I had and new approaches to try.

The first book like that for me was Susan Sontag's, On Photography, (link). It's a classic that came out in the late 70s. There is still good stuff in there for today's photographers. I still go through it every now and then.

For something a little more recent, you should read a book Mark and I have recommended before: Jay Maisel's Light, Gesture, and Color (link). You'll never find Jay without his camera. And, the lens cap is always off.

If you think you'd like to start a photography business and make it your entire income, I would suggest reading about the topic from those who have accomplished the feat. You'll find it isn't all happy snaps every day of the week. There are many things that can interfere with your dream. For straight talk, with no punches pulled, I like Zack Arias' Photography Q&A (link). He is an Atlanta-based photographer who has been through the fire – failed – and came back, again.

Enough examples? Wait, we haven't even started on the post-processing titles...

There is no denying books are still worthwhile resources to learn photography. Though it is getting harder to find a big bookstore to browse for hours, there are still some out there. You can buy a cup of coffee and sit on their couches as you scan the pages. Don't forget the used bookstores, either. You can pick up some good books for much less than new. Or stay home, and hit our Amazon link. There are thousands of books, ready to be delivered to your front door.

And, while we're talking convenience, tablets are great for taking several books on the road, without adding to the weight of your camera bags. E-books on a tablet make the airport layovers pass more quickly. Most new paper books now also published as e-books You can usually get both for only a few more dollars. The high quality screens make the included photos pop. I'll have my tablet, in PSW Vegas, loaded with a couple dozen photography books, and I'm sure I'll buy a couple e-books while I'm there.

So, turn off the computer screen, and curl up with an old-fashioned book. They've been a great way to learn for a long, long time. Feel the paper. Enjoy the quiet. And learn more about photography.

Read them; don't put them in a museum.

Read them; don't put them in a museum.

Talking to Strangers

By Roger (5 June 2014)

Many photographers are intimidated by the thought of asking strangers to be in their photos. They're shy or don't want to intrude or some other reason. I find that the worst thing possible in this situation is the person will decline. No one has ever hit me; called the cops; or even threatened me. “No” is not a word that hurts my feelings, so I just look for the next subject. For the record, I usually never hear the word.

If you are one of the more shy variety, there are some things you can do to make the situation easier.

Before you even leave the house, decide on what you will say. You should keep your introduction short and to the point. Always be friendly and polite, using positive words that will encourage them to agree to the photo. “You wouldn't want to be in my photo, would you?” uses negative and hesitant wording: “wouldn't;” “would you?” Ditch this pitch!  Give them your name, a genuine smile, and try something like, “I'm working on a photography project and would like to add your photo.” No questions; no negativity; no reason to refuse. My spiel is short enough that I can say it in less than 15 seconds. Again, they almost always (95%) agree.

20110709-_RAD2534.jpg

I met the Teaman at a Farmer's Market in Alexandria. There was a big flag nearby, hanging from a building, so I asked him to pose with it in the background. No problem.

You can make it easier on yourself by going to and photographing at events: weddings; parties; graduations, etc. When I'm at an event, I always talk to the participants. This, immediately, puts them more at ease, and you can get more genuine emotions from them. Of course, don't interrupt them if they are busy; just wait for some down time and ask them questions about what they are doing. When you keep the conversation on them, they will be more interested in participating. It's just human nature.

Renaissance Rider, Lake Anna, VA

Renaissance Rider, Lake Anna, VA

At events, most people are already aware that there will be a roaming camera here and there. You probably won't stand out in the crowd with yours. Look for people who are not the center of attention and put them in the spotlight. Most people appreciate being noticed. This couple was at a wedding as friends of the groom. They didn't know many of the people and were off to the side, just enjoying the reception. The stairs in the old mansion made a nice background, especially with the candles. The bride and groom were on the dance floor and the other photographer was there. I just grabbed a quick snapshot.

Poznan, Poland

Poznan, Poland

Never miss the opportunity to be helpful. This couple was at a Civil War sesquicentennial event, in full costume. I heard them ask someone to take a photo on their phone, so I walked over and shot a few frames at the same time. I believe I've mentioned before, I give them a card with the time of the photograph. They can email me for a free copy. Less than 50% actually do this, but 100% of the time I have willing subjects. I always send a copy those who email me within 24 hours. Everyone wins.

Bushong Farm, New Market, VA

Bushong Farm, New Market, VA

If the direct approach is too much for you, there are other methods you can try.

You can go to a public event or location and shoot from a distance. This is another place your camera won't seem out of place. Sit at an outside restaurant, with an intriguing background or something of interest nearby, and photograph the scene as it unfolds. This is a good way to capture absolutely unposed photos. You have time to compose the shot and set your exposure while you're waiting to get the photo you want.

Fresh baked, at Lake Anna, VA

Fresh baked, at Lake Anna, VA

I also use this method when I can't get too close or talking to the subject would be an interference. For example, this Swiss guard, near St. Peter's, in Rome. He was directing traffic, so he probably wasn't interested in some American tourist chatting him up. But how can you go to Rome and not take at least one photo of a Swiss guard?

Vatican City, Rome, Italy

Vatican City, Rome, Italy

I try not to do this too often because you miss out on meeting someone new. Or, worse, you can make people uneasy. Make sure if people notice what you're doing, you smile and acknowledge what you're doing. Don't give them a reason to question your purpose.

Here are a couple of cautions. Know what is legal for your current location. In the US, photographing people in a public location is completely legal, but, in some other countries, you must ask permission before making a photograph of someone. Don't try to claim your First Amendment rights to a German Polizei. Your candid people photography isn't worth getting harassed or arrested.

One of my favorite subjects is children. Again, use caution. Parents get real edgy about strangers taking snapshots of little Johnny. Why put yourself in that situation? It's just common sense to talk to the parents, even if you're in a public space. Just because something is legal, doesn't mean you should do it.

Often, if I haven't yet identified the parents, I'll make photographs that don't show the child's face, like below. I always make it a point to talk to the parents, showing them the photo and giving them a card. If they are not enthused about their child being in a photo, I quit. Once, I even deleted a photo to show the parent I wasn't some freak. She responded that wasn't necessary, and I photographed him for another 20 minutes, with her looking on – after she looked up the website on my card and was satisfied I was safe. That is the only time I ever had anything close to trouble. Once you know the parents are comfortable, you can get in there for close ups.  The kids will quickly forget you're there and act "normally."  Your tone and demeanor can diffuse most any situation. If you doubt this, then move along to some other subject.

Playing in the fountain

Playing in the fountain

This little girl is, obviously, not bothered by my camera.

This little girl is, obviously, not bothered by my camera.

You can find strangers to photograph every day. It's like we're surrounded by them. Go out and explore. Greet them with a positive, friendly attitude, and you'll have an endless supply of subjects for your photography. Soon, you won't think of them as strangers, but new people to meet with and share a little bit of the day.  The practice will keep you moving forward with your photography.

Veteran's Day Parade, Manassas, VA

Veteran's Day Parade, Manassas, VA

That Light in Your Eyes

When you are making a portrait of someone, you certainly want to do everything you can to make the photo stand out. Keep in mind that little things can help your photo look better, even if the viewer isn't consciously aware of why he likes it. One of the techniques to learn is adding catchlights.