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Book Review: Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look At Creating Stronger Images by David duChemin

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Photographically Speaking is the fourth book in David duChemin’s Vision trilogy series – you will have to read the book to see why this makes perfect sense. This time it is the goal of expressing ourselves through the words and grammar of photography.

When the author teaches workshops, it is usually in places like India, Nepal, or Kenya and these are not the kind of workshops that you learn the basics – it is assumed that you know the fundamentals, instead at these workshops you take pictures and you talk about them. This is so that you can begin to understand what is within the frame and why it is there.

The problem is that most photographers have difficulty when speaking about images. This is because they don’t know how to think about them and if you don’t know how to think about them, then how can you realistically take the best shot you are capable of?

Photographically Speaking is about learning the visual language of photography. It is about examining what you are putting into the image and why you are putting it there. It is also about what you are leaving out – and most importantly, knowing the reasons before you ever take the shot.

This book is 272 pages and is divided into three parts.

Part 1, “The Photographers Intent,” begins with what is in the frame and why it is there. If it is there, it should mean something. Just as a writer puts words to a story or a musician puts notes to a song, if a photographer puts something into a photo, it should be with an intended reason or it should not be included.

In this part you will look at why the content that you place in a photograph has meaning and why this important with regard to the “reader” of your image. You will break down the subject, the subject matter, as well as the composition of your photo and see these three bring together the meaning of the story that you are trying to convey.

You will also examine the frame that you choose to work with and how it sets the stage for the story that you are trying to tell. You will see how it can make the difference between an ordinary photo and a great one. You will also learn about seeing as the camera sees – the flattening from three-dimensions into two, and how that translates the world into that frame and more importantly, how you can compensate for it in your image.

Part 2, “Visual Language,” covers what allows photographers to move from having a vision to having the ability to express it within the context of the photograph. Once you see something that you want to capture and you raise the camera to your eye, you have to use the words and grammar of the photographic language to be able to say what you mean.

Once you click the shutter, it becomes your decision on what is being said and in this part you will examine the ways that you can make these choices – how you put the elements together and the decisions that you must make to express and communicate your vision.

The elements are pieces of the photograph that go into becoming the subject matter of what you are trying to capture. The author uses the metaphor that these are the words to the story that you are trying to tell. The decisions that you make then would then be the grammar of the story – how it is put together. This would include the framing, cropping, orientation, and other things that you can employ to make your point.

Part 3, “20 Photographs,” now takes the process to full circle in that the author now discusses 20 photos that he created using his words and grammar to convey his vision. But this is more than just him telling you how these came to be. Rather you are to analyze them first. You are to take what you have learned from this book and put it to use.

In this part you are to take some paper and write down as much as you can about the image. What you see, what you think his intent was when creating the shot, what the photograph was about, and other things that you gleaned from reading this book. The aim is much like it is in one of his workshops – the photographer has spoken through his image and normally he would just sit and listen, but here he will explain his though processes and this allows you to compare your evaluation with that of the author.

Photographically Speaking may be the best book of David duChemin’s Vision series. It pulls together a lot of the things that he has talked about in his other books (no, you do not have to had read those to read this), but it does so in a tangible “put into practice” method that really allows you to get into the mind of the photographer and really see how he works.

What I really like about Photographically Speaking is that it takes the topics that have been covered in countless books and brings them new life. One example is a topic that been cover in many books – the rule of thirds. This book however takes it to new places in that it doesn’t treat it as a rule, but rather more as a principle and explains how it can be used to relate information to the reader of the photograph as well as how it can be used for other things like creating depth within the frame. It is this way with many of the topics that are presented in this book.

The other thing that I really like about Photographically Speaking is that the second half of the book is made up of the 20 photographs. These are not simple explanations of his photos. These are detailed discussions that take between four and six pages with additional photos and breakdowns that really explain what went into the creations of the image.

If you truly want to become a better photographer, if you want to become a more deliberate photographer who is able to present your photographs much more clearly and with better vision and expression, then I very highly recommend Photographically Speaking: A Deeper Look At Creating Stronger Images.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.