Thoughts on a few photography books


I have always been a voracious reader of books – loved them as a kid and still do today.  Bookstores are some of my favorite places in the world – real bookstores, that is, which means the smaller, quainter ones that actually have character.  B&N, BAM, Borders, and the like do not count.

Photography meshes nicely with this love of reading, since there’s no shortage of books on the subject.  Problem is that there is a shortage of good books; there’s a lot of pure crap out there, to say nothing of the mediocre.  So I have become rather hesitant when it comes to ordering photo books.  But around December I broke down and ordered three that I was certain were worth it.  Interesting topics, great photographer authors, names I admired…a sure thing, right?

Turns out, not so much.


First up is Secrets of Great Portrait Photography by Brian Smith.  This guy spends a lot of time shooting photos of celebrities and honestly, his cover photo of Sir Richard Branson is just awesome.   A lot of the photos inside are also great and there’s no doubt that he’s very good at capturing some essence of his subjects when he makes their portraits.  Which is what we’re all aiming for.  Good photographer, certainly.  But the book…no so much.

I tend to judge photo books by the number of sticky notes I leave in them.  McNally’s books look like a Post-in factory blew up inside them when I’m done reading them.  Secrets of Great Portrait Photography got three; one for on a section about shooting less and thinking more, one for some notes on using black flats in lighting, and the last for some midday photos shot into the sun, which I’m not crazy about but think I can adapt to my own style.  So nothing particularly earth-shattering there.

I think I’d enjoy looking through Brian Smith’s website; his portfolio is certainly interesting and worth studying.  But his book came up a bit lacking.  It’s a little too much “hey, look at all the famous people I get to shoot” and a little too thin on solid note-worthy material.  It’s all hat, and no cattle – to borrow a line from Boston Legal.


Next up is a book I was sure I’d like: Kirk Tuck’s LED Lighting: Professional Techniques for Digital Photographers.  I’m a huge fan of Kirk’s blog, The Visual Science Lab, and of his photographic work.  I think that mainly, I admire how open he is as a working professional – he shares a ton of really great information on his blog, all the details of shoots or the profession in general, both good and bad.  And he isn’t afraid to stop talking about gear and actually address the tough issues, like the nature of photography itself, and what it means to make an image.

So I was really sure that LED Lighting was going to be worth every penny.  Well, I feel kind of bad saying it, but I’d like my pennies back – or at least about half of them.   I think that if I was starting out in photography, with a limited lighting background, then this might have been more helpful.  But really lighting theory is the same no matter what kind of technology you use, and what works with flash works with LEDs.  But the book starts slow and there’s a lot of “back to basics” material, followed by several “let’s build a lighting setup one light at a time” samples.  I finally started just skipping ahead.

Turns out the good stuff came at the end of the book – actually the last 15 pages – when Kirk talks about commercial photography applications with LED lighting.  The section on food photography was one of the best.  (The single page given to shooting events – including weddings! – with LEDs just made me blink, however.  Really?)

Which isn’t to say that some of his portraits throughout weren’t good – many were.  And some of the write-ups and setup shots that accompanied them were nice, and again, especially if you’re new to lighting.  But some of the photos were pretty bad, too.  He several times uses photos that are, at least to my eye, too dark.  Underexposed, even, or lacking in enough fill-light.  To give Kirk the benefit of the doubt, maybe it’s a printing issue.  The snapshot above shows one such image – the caption identifies it as a “final” portrait, but it looks underexposed to me.

Overall I’m disappointed.  Only four sticky notes, and two of them are references to gear I wanted to look up.  In the end I feel that LED Lighting also suffers from a lack of meat.  It’s too basic.  I’ve learned more reading LED-related posts on The Visual Science Lab and would definitely recommend that other photographers bookmark the blog and use the book money on lunch instead.

BRENT PENNINGTON Administrative cat in the bookstore in Jim Thorpe, PA, on the afternoon 17 February 2013.

Bookstore Cat is indifferent to both these books.

The third book I bought was Natalie Dybisz’s Creative Portrait Photography.  I haven’t finished reading it yet, so I won’t say much except that it’s the best of the three.  Whereas the other two are destined for resale, this one I think I’ll keep.  Natalie’s Photoshop skills are way, way, way above mine – above where I even have the desire to go.  But her portraits are interesting and some are inspirational (while others are just a little…odd).  Maybe more to come on this book later.

After this 66% failure rate, I’m done with photo books for a while.  But the good news is that redemption is at hand in October, when Gregory Heisler’s book is due out.  I’m pre-ordering it on Amazon because I am that certain that it will be great.  (Yeah, I know I’ve said that before, but this is Heisler we’re talking about.)

Notes: neither Brian Smith’s nor Kirk Tuck’s book was awful.  Not anywhere near as bad as this crap.  It’s just that when I buy books I prefer to keep them – it’s why libraries don’t do much for me, I don’t like having to give the books back.  The photo at the very top of this post is my photography book collection.  It has its own chest, separate from all the other books.  So buying books only to turn around and sell them again is kind of like getting socks for Christmas.  They serve a purpose, but it’s still a disappointment.

Also, with the exception of Bookstore Cat, all the photos in the post were shot with my Galaxy S3 phone.  I’m experimenting with using it’s camera for shots like this.  They’re just snapshots, so having the ability to take them and upload them directly from the phone is just easier than breaking out the camera, transferring the card, etc.  They aren’t meant to be anything special (although I did add additional lighting with my LED panel).

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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1 Comment

  1. You’re misreading Bookstore Cat. That is clearly a “you should give me a treat” look.

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