With the times being what they are, and microchips no longer requiring an enclosure the size of a Chevette, I've about decided that maybe there's something to this whole computer business after all. I think it might stick around and become useful to humanity here before too long. In fact (and maybe it's just the combination of margaritas and the summer heat talking), I've also decided that film might not be the best route to go when I finally get around to buying my new camera. Call me sloppy, but I take a lot of crappy pictures that I don't necessarily want to pay to get developed.
And maybe you're more like me than even I am (since I'm lying in an effort to identify with the technology-impaired everyman). Maybe you're in the position where you either have a digital camera that you'd like to learn how to use better or are looking to get your first one and want to be able to do a little research on the subject before finally taking the plunge. In either case, you may be looking at picking up a book on the subject. I can tell you from experience, the manual that actually comes with your camera is about as readable as the license agreement that comes with the computer you'll also need (ie: not readable at all, except to three techno-legal-geeks who have never seen the light of day and would only be using cameras to somehow hack into World Of Warcraft, but we do wish them luck in their crusade).
We live in a world where no one has the time to read through manual after manual in a search for the answers to their questions. Most people will either give up and settle for mediocre shots or they'll grab a book at random and hopefully make do. So I've decided to sift through at least one of them for you and let you decide whether it sounds like what you need.
Digital Art Photography for Dummies, by Matthew Bamberg, is one that you may come across. As part of the popular Dummies series, it leans more towards the newbie side of the familiarity curve. Bamberg himself is an accomplished photographer who showcases his work in various galleries and venues. He strives to guide you through the process from the very beginning to the very end. It's a thorough manual for those with the goal in mind of eventually printing and framing their work either for fun, for gifts, or for sale. And maybe that's you.
But maybe it's not. This particular guide isn't for everyone. It's a focused title that may not mirror your primary concern for taking photos. Don't assume it's not for you because you may be surprised at some of the tips and tricks you can apply to your own photos that you might not have considered before. So with all that in mind, I'll break this review into the two categories that also break down most every other aspect of life: the good news and the bad news.
Bamberg has a writing style that I generally refer to as "the patience of a saint." He goes into generous detail about pretty much every step of the digital photography process — from selecting a computer and accessory components, to the actual camera and what all those strange buttons are supposed to do, all the way to saving images for printing and the best type of paper to use for different prints. For those of you unsure if some of this will be over your head or not, it’s an exacting approach that is not going to leave you in the dark. The writing style is a bit corny, but an easy read, and includes a very generous amount of sample shots (both bad and good, "before" and "after") that help more readily explain some of the techniques explained in the book.
In typical Dummies fashion, it's geared towards people more inclined to add when it comes to instructive book reading. It's littered with little symbol things on the margins and a healthy amount of inset boxes, which I'm assuming are to help visually break up the task of going through the chapters. Although not my personal favorite way to read, it does have some tangible benefits for further study (which I'll explain in a minute).
One of the nicest things about the book is the very clear and ordered arrangement of the information. It's almost a literal progression of events for the whole process, from the start of selecting equipment to the end of framing your finished prints, with each chapter further broken down in the table of contents so that you really can find anything he touches on in a matter of seconds. (I'm guilty of using this myself, as I immediately jumped to the sections on shooting at night to help with some issues I was having, before eventually going back and reading through the book in order.) Although most people may not need everything in the book, it is laid out in a fashion that makes it very easy to skip to the information you need.
As for the actual content, or "meat" of the book, it contains some really nice tips anyone could benefit from, whether its techniques for basic composition of shots or digging into the presets and manual options of your camera to help capture the best results for the particular situation you're trying to shoot. Especially with the chapters "Shooting For Color" and "Night Art Photography," there will be plenty of instances where you can't really know the best option, but rather need to try several techniques and then work with the results later at your computer. In that sense, Bamberg does a great job of helping you think about not only opportunities your given circumstances might yield before you get there, but also ways to take advantage of "bad" circumstances to achieve something entirely different. If nothing else, he tries to hammer home the idea that photography is not a list of "do this, then this, and then everything will be perfect," but more the sense of knowing enough of the fundamentals to be able to adapt to and be open to finding situations as they come up.
Now for the bad news. Perhaps the biggest strike against the book is that there really is a lot of information you may not need (and those sections could be different for different people). When I think of the phrase "digital art photography," I think more of taking an artistic, compositional approach to how I capture my photos. I personally have no desire (or time and money) to go through the process of framing my prints for either the home or gallery user. I might do that once or twice, but at that rate I'm probably better off having someone else do it for me and saving some time and energy. The pictures I take are for enjoyment, posterity, emailing, and little more. I have a feeling this is also more the attitude of the general populace. And for those who do wish to take their craft into a more marketable direction, I have my doubts that they're green enough to benefit from chapters on selecting a computer, scanner, and camera. At the end of the day, I got a lot out of about half the book and really had no need for the other half. I might have been better off finding one whole book I could really dig into. If the niche of digital camera newbie who wants to frame their own prints is you, then you've definitely found your book, hands down. But for most other people, I'm afraid it might be too narrow to derive 100% usefulness from the text.
Perhaps a smaller gripe is the monetary investment you're expected to make. For cameras, he is pretty fair and clear that a digital SLR is going to give you the best (possibility of) quality prints, as well as the customization options needed for such. But he also gives you pointers for mid- and higher-end point and shoot cameras, if that's more your speed. For software, however, the book often comes across as an unsolicited advert for Adobe Photoshop CS2. Granted, it's the king-daddy of digital imaging software, but there are other, and cheaper, players on the court that offer many of the same options as Photoshop for a fraction of the price (although you could also consider the less-robust and cheaper option of Adobe Photoshop Elements). In the interest of equal time, here are a couple you can consider: GimpShop (a customization of the popular Gimp software package, which offers most of Photoshop's functionality, and is also laid out in a very similar fashion), which is free; and Pixel (a newer, but very capable and full-featured imaging application), which costs about US $32. Both are multi-platform.
Another item is perhaps not so much a complaint, but something to put on the wish list for a reprint, or other Dummies titles in general. There are a lot of great hints in the book that can be applied to make your photos look much better. But really, way too many for the average person to remember until they've actually applied them in real-life situations. The Dummies series tries to account for this with their "Try This" icon placed out in the margin, which lets you easily go back and find sections that are laid out with steps for instructional application. But they're just too few and far between and randomly placed to really capture most of the information you should be practicing. It would have been much nicer to sum up each chapter with a worksheet section (or even better, a perforated worksheet that can be removed to take with you) that goes over different exercises and settings to experiment with, related to techniques discussed.
So is this book for you? I have no idea. Hopefully this review will help you decide that for yourself. We're all at different levels of the game and have different goals in mind. If you're new to the world of digital photography and would ultimately like to get into displaying and selling your photographs, this is a very solid book with lots of great information and instruction. For everyone else, there is still a lot of great information and instruction, but you might want to first take a glance over it yourself to decide if enough of it applies to you.