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Review – "Rick Sammon's Exploring the Light"

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as disappointed with a photography book as I am with this one.  Moose Peterson featured it on his blog, and from his comments I imagined it to be a Canon-oriented version of a Joe McNally book.  Teaches me to order a book without first previewing it on Amazon or Google.  A McNally book it is not – no way, no how.

Exploring the Light

I’m hesitant to sound like I’m bashing a fellow photographer, but speaking as someone with a degree in English/Writing, I just have to say it bluntly: some people have no business writing books.  They just aren’t good at it, the same way I’m not good enough to play professional sports.  Sammon’s style of writing is, to put it mildly, irritating.  And from a photography perspective, his conclusions are sometimes terrible.

For example, he begins the book with a short chapter on composition, presenting “good” and “bad” compositions of the same image.  Unfortunately, 75% of the time he chose the wrong one, in my opinion substituting a boring composition for a more interesting one, and worese yet cropping right through the center of both foreground and background elements on several occasions!

I’m forced to further question his professional status when he speaks about salvaging iffy shots using Photoshop.  I consider myself fairly tolerant of digital art, especially when it’s labeled as such.  But I do expect some semblance of integrity when it comes to photographs.  Several times Sammon took an iffy photo and manipulated it in a way that produced a result that was barely related to the original.

There are plenty of tricks we use to boost the impact of an image, both in camera and in post.  On pg. 50 he takes a soft twilight shot of a bridge & waterfall and transforms it into a “golden hour” sunset shot.  The result is quite nice, but the scene did NOT look like that, and I’m not sure that it ever actually does.  This, however, is minor compared to his actions on pg. 18, where he ruins a wonderful shot if a hawk in flight by cropping a tight square around it (leaving the poor critter feeling blocked-in), and then adding blur to the trailing edge of the wings!

Adding blur to a wildlife shot?  Why, in the name of Ansel himself, would you want to take a sharp bird-in-flight shot and add “motion blur” to it?  He apparently believes this is an artistic enhancement – I’m baffled.

Add to that pg. 19, where he boosts the saturation of the blues in a shot of an iceberg to a level rarely seen on this planet, and hopefully you see what I mean when I question his photographic integrity.

By “photographic integrity,” I mean that when I see photos of exotic lands or foreign critters, I expect to see them accurately represented.  Meaning, not “enhanced” beyond their natural state.  Meaning, photos honest enough to be published in National Geographic. Whether you shoot locally or in Antarctica, there are days when the light sucks and the colors are drab and the critters don’t cooperate.  But I’d still rather see that than a clearly artificial image.

The book itself is definitely not aimed at experienced photographers; it progresses through some visual basics, followed by use of auto modes, creative zone modes, and finally some basic Photoshop enhancements.  For someone with an advanced point & shoot, or their first DSLR, I suppose they could do a lot worse.  But they could also do a lot better.

I’ve already relisted my copy for sale online.

** Note: I don’t want to sound like a harsh jerk in this post.  But I firmly believe that an honest critique is far more useful to the artist than blowing sunshine at him.  If my photos are awful, I want to hear that, and why.  If my writing is bad, I want to be told, and why.  Hearing criticism and the logic behind it is the only way that we can advance.  Rick Sammon has apparently made a career out of photography; more power to him.  Hopefully this book was a a bad fluke, and his other publications and workshops are better.  But either way, the above review is simply the honest opinion of one photographer/writer.  Take it as you will.

Brent Pennington

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