Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review: David Pogue's Digital Photography: The Missing Manual

Author: David Pogue (who else?) Format: Paperback, 304 pages Publisher: Pogue Press (January 22, 2009) ISBN-10: 0596154038 ISBN-13: 978-0596154035 Update: March 10, 2009 I never made it to the Pacific Ocean during my trip to California, but I did take my wee digital camera to the Capital Street Bridge that crosses the Boise River near BSU. I posted the pics to Picasa just so you can view my first efforts. I didn't do anything to the photos besides a bit of cropping, so what you see is what you get. If you're interested, you can post comments (be nice, these are my first photos in a very long time) and suggestions. Capital Street Bridge in Winter. Peace. I'll admit that I've used a digital camera on occasion. That's probably an odd admission, since taking photographs with a digital camera is about the same thing as driving with a car these days. Let me explain. I haven't really been "into" taking pictures for quite sometime, even at "family events" or on other occasions when it would be normal for people to take pictures. I don't vacation often (life as a contract worker, though I've got a "day job" currently), so I don't go to places that are unusual enough or spectacular enough to inspire me to record them on film...uh, in flash memory. By the way, that's the other reason I don't take many pictures these days. "Back in the day" as they say, I was very much into photography. Keep in mind this was back in the day of the 35mm SAR (single action reflex) camera. This was back in the day when Kodak still made B & W paper and film (remember "film"?). This was also back in the day when I actually went places and saw things that were (in my humble opinion) worthy of recording on film. I didn't even have to go far, because in those days, I could "see" a lot more. That is, I could see things in my ordinary world that could become art, using the right perspective (and the right filters, and the right film, and the right...). Somewhere along the line, I just got too busy, or I got too committed to practicalities, or I got too cynical. I stopped looking at the world as if it were art, and started wearing my blinders. Oh sure, the occasional sunset still looked "pretty" and I'd sometimes see a bit of loveliness in the world here or there, but then the next second would pass, and I'd have to be getting back to the task at hand (whatever that task might be). My view of the world would once again become mundane and ordinary, and "the vision" would be corked back into its bottle; tossed somewhere into the depths of what used to be my imagination. My wife bought a digital camera several years ago. I remember being surprised, because we had a couple of small film cameras and she's not the sort of person to buy something "just because". There has to be a demonstrated need for the item. I think the film cameras were getting on in years and there was something she wanted to record (probably someone else's backyard...she's into landscaping, or wants to be). Anyway, this camera came into our...her possession. I helped her figure out how to download pictures from the camera to her PC the first time, but that's about all I had to do with it. Recently, I had reason to start creating a number of social networking sites (the original reason is still a secret, but I'll be able to talk about it soon...don't worry...nothing bad) and needed a "profile picture". I'm nothing to look at. In the photos of my son's wedding last May, I looked a bit like a cross between "Lurch" from the Addams Family and Night of the Living Dead. I needed to figure out a way to take a portrait (by myself) and make it look not too scary. With the aid of the digital camera and the bathroom mirror (the missus was out that evening) I managed to create something passable. I "desaturated" the image using GIMP, modified the brightness and contrast a bit, and I was set. Rather proud of my effort, something long dormant stirred within me. I periodically get email notices for different books being published, inviting me to review them. David Pogue's Digital Photography: The Missing Manual appeared in my inbox. I figured "why not"? Then it arrived, and I remembered the digital camera and started wondering if the dead could be resurrected. Yeah, I've encountered Flickr and Picassa and such, and sampled their wares. I thumbed through an old National Geographic at the barber's...uh, "hair stylist's" recently, and spent quite a bit of time going over the photos of the South Sandwich Islands. Was I really still interested in photography? Did I really have time for a hobby? Well, it wouldn't hurt to look at the book. Pogue's book, like most of the Missing Manual series, is written for the beginner. In fact, the first chapter is dedicated to describing the different digital cameras on the market (and there are tons), and the second chapter is a list of the features to be found on said-cameras. I'm pretty sure I still remember the basics of composing a shot in the view finder (chapter 3), but the information's in the book, if I needed a refresher. As I worked my way through the book, I started to get depressed and remembered why I wasn't attracted to digital cameras. They were too easy and too hard. The too easy is like what blogging has done to writing. Everything is instantaneous. Access is automatic. Anything you happen to be thinking of, at anytime, can be translated to text, with graphics added with just a bit more effort, and published to the web for all (potentially) the world to see. Where was the effort? Where was the editing? Where was the gatekeeper to define which piece of writing is "worthy" to see the light of day? All this applies to "instant" digital photography, especially with places like Flickr, that can allow the photographer (and his or her grandmother) to publish to the web anything they can point and click at. I pushed my mental "reset" button and tried to pull myself out of "cynical" mode. After all, I know professional photographers who use digital cameras and edit in Photoshop, so it can't be a lost cause. There are blogs actually worth reading (and I hope mine is one of them), and I've used a microwave oven for decades, so I know that not all "instant gratification" is bad (though my "jury" is still out on cell phone cameras, which Pogue's book covers). I moved on. I started to see parallels between Pogue's book and a book written by Akkana Peck for Apress: Beginning GIMP: From Novice to Professional (2nd Ed) (I reviewed this book for the hardcopy version of Linux Pro Magazine, but due to the publication cycle, you won't be able to read it until the March 2009 edition). I really like GIMP, and though I've never used Photoshop, from what I know of PS (besides the fact that it's overpriced), GIMP seems to be able to do most of the same tasks. I'm reasonably satisfied that Pogue's and Peck's books could work in concert in my life ("My life"? Did I just say that?). Pogue's book is a reintroduction to basic photography for those of us who once loved the art (even though I was hardly an expert) and have let it lay fallow for several decades. If you have never done anything more with your digital camera than "point and click", Pogue teaches you how to do more. If you've never purchased such a camera, the beginning chapters in the book will teach you what to look for in terms of features that will meet your needs. It is a beginner's book. If you are wanting to get into serious digital photography, this book will only take you so far, but it will get you started. That is, it's very much like a person wanting to learn how to paint; you need to do enough still lifes before you get on to "art". You need to lay the foundation for your skill sets before you can build up. David Pogue's book functions like that foundation, or at least shows you how to construct it. Appendix A: Where to Go From Here will speak to you if you want to take digital photography beyond your vacation pictures. It provides various online and print resources you can access and mentions Photoshop (but not GIMP; shame on you, David) as the photo editing software of choice. Appendix B: The Top Ten Tips of All Time is the book in a nutshell, in terms of distilling down all the advice given in the book on how to take a shot into just a few pages. I think the resistance I've experienced around wanting to review this book, and getting anywhere near my wife's modest little digital camera, isn't that I'm afraid of taking pictures with modern technology. It's more that I'm afraid I'm going to start caring about taking photographs again. I've already got plenty of creative tasks on my plate and plenty more practical tasks, all competing for the same 24 hours in each day (and I do have to sleep sometimes, though that too is occasionally elusive). Do I recommend Pogue's digital photography book? Actually, yes. If you are a beginner, either at buying such a device or knowing what to do with it, I think Pogue has produced a document "worthy" of your time and attention. Like most of what comes out of this series, the writing is solid and accessible. Technically, the information is accurate, and Pogue writes from the perspective of someone who also loves to photograph (which is probably why he wrote the book, rather than commissioning another author to do so). I know this review has been more editorial than anything else, but this is one book that squarely collided with my personality and my personal history. No book review, or any other sort of writing for that matter (certainly the popular news media) is without bias, so when I review any book, I review it from my point of view. For David Pogue's Digital Photography: The Missing Manual though, that point of view was a little closer to "home" than most. Unabashed plug time. A friend of mine named Karen (I don't know if she wants me to use her last name on my blog) has breathed new life and new passion into her love of technology by discovering Photoshop (she feels sorry for me because I prefer GIMP). I've been following her progress on twitter with satisfaction and have noticed that some of the tutorials on her blog Pursuing Photoshop have been picked up by some of the more noteworthy Photoshop online venues. She's also been known to hang out at the forums, if you're interested. If Photoshop is your photo editor of choice (and Adobe has as big a grip on that market as Microsoft Windows has on the home desktop space), you can't go wrong visiting those online resources. For those readers out there (all three of you) who are more open source minded like me, you will want to get your hands on a copy of Akkana Peck's Beginning GIMP: From Novice to Professional (2nd Ed). I won't do the review of her book here for the reasons I've already stated, but the long and the short of it is, her's is the best GIMP book on the market, as well as being the most up to date. It will go well with everything Pogue has written in his book and, as far as the photo editing piece; GIMP offers a more "reasonably priced" alternative to Photoshop. Will I use Pogue's book to bring back the dead? Well, the corpse is stirring, but whether or not it will emerge from its tomb, only time will tell. I'm supposed to take a four day trip to Oceanside after my daughter-in-law has her first baby (my first grandchild), so who knows? I haven't seen the Pacific ocean in a long time.