Find Me a Useful Digital Photography Text
July 22, 2009 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Recommend me a photography textbook that emphasizes "the fundamentals" and is aimed at DSLRs.

I have a digital camera (a Nikon D5000) and I'm really interested in mastering the basic principles - the kinds of things that matter irrespective of the kind of camera you're using, digital or not. I've picked up Chris Johnson's The Practical Zone System (Focal Press, 1992) and John P. Schaefer's Basic Techniques of Photography (Little, Brown, 1992), and they've been fantastic resources. They're especially good for giving an analog context for what would otherwise just be twiddly dials for me in Photoshop or Aperture: concepts like contrast, tone, dynamic range, and how to get them out of my camera first and my computer second.

My problem is that I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the big differences between film and digital - the ability to control white balance and color management settings on-camera, for one thing, and how post-production in Aperture or Photoshop compare to darkroom techniques on film, for another. Most of the resources I've found for digital photography seem to be more like camera manuals ("Here's the white balance button, and here's what it does!") that don't relate the buttons to the basic concepts. Or else they're the kind of listicles you see online ("Six ways to maximize your landscape shoots!") that have the same problem.

Are there decent textbooks out there that do both, or is digital photography just too young for there to be books that don't treat it like an exotic new variant?
posted by awenner to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Based on what you said, I'd look for books on post-processing -- not digital photography. I own this book (Photoshop LAB Color: Adventures in Colorspace) and it's pretty good for what it is, a book on editing in LAB. A lot of other books on the subject are pretty outdated, look at the one-star reviews on Amazon to see what kind of problems they have.

As far as web resources, I would check out the Understanding Series over on Luminous Landscape, it's very up to date and covers a lot of things unique to digital photography.
posted by jedrek at 2:39 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Digital Photography Book. It's got a lot of good tips, and it's cheap. You can go through the table of contents and stuff using Amazon's 'search inside this book' feature.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 3:03 PM on July 22, 2009

I'm an amateur photographer, so take what I say with a grain of salt. That disclaimer out of the way, I think you're slightly contradictory where you say you want a textbook that is aimed at DSLRs but later you say you're interested in "the kinds of things that matter irrespective of the kind of camera you're using, digital or not". So I'm not 100% sure what you're asking for.

However, I think some good resources (and they're on my bookshelf) are:

Light: Science and Magic (more about understanding photographic lighting, but still a very useful read.

Skin (more of the retouching work you might be curious about).

Also, anything by Scott Kelby.

Good luck!
posted by Imhotep is Invisible at 4:42 PM on July 22, 2009

Complete Digital Photography by Ben Long

This book has been a goodsend to me. It is well organized, thoughtful, well written and fun.

I recommend it to everyone!
posted by Marsha at 5:04 PM on July 22, 2009

Response by poster: I think you're slightly contradictory where you say you want a textbook that is aimed at DSLRs but later you say you're interested in "the kinds of things that matter irrespective of the kind of camera you're using, digital or not". So I'm not 100% sure what you're asking for.

I guess what I'm looking for is a book that situates the abilities of a digital camera into the broader theories of photography and picture-making. Learning about the zone system (for example) was huge for me, because i) it's a critical part of the photographic method, and ii) it does a better job of laying the groundwork for understanding tone and contrast -- and how and why you might want to play around with them -- than any description of levels and curves sliders would on their own. Understanding the zone system helps you understand histograms, which helps you understand metering and metering adjustment, which helps you understand what level adjustment is actually doing, rather than just making your pictures look better.

I hope this makes sense. It's basically that so many digitally-centered books take a piecemeal approach to what you can do with DSLRs and post-production, and they don't relate those abilities to what people have done with pictures up until now.
posted by awenner at 5:24 PM on July 22, 2009

Response by poster: That's what I'm looking for, rather than "How to Photograph Car Races," to take a random example from Luminous Landscape. I'm not looking for recipes, I'm looking for reasons behind why things taste good.
posted by awenner at 5:26 PM on July 22, 2009

Hm. I'd say if you already have a good understanding of things like the zone system and how to use it, then you're pretty far ahead already. As I see it, the main thing is to understand how a camera "sees," and how to adjust your particular model of camera to make it "see" the way you want instead of just accepting the defaults. (Exposure bracketing, or deliberate under- or over- compensation.)

Because that kind of knowledge should hopefully allow you to need less post-processing.

Conversely, a thorough knowledge of digital post processing will help you when shooting, because you'll know what you can put up with in less than ideal shooting conditions that can be fixed later.

But also, something like HDR (high dynamic range - merging more than one different exposure of the same image) is a pretty new concept to photography - something I don't think was really available before in the film world, at least not in quite this way.

I guess I'm just saying that for me, I've just kinda learned to translate in my own head the digital techniques I use now from the film techniques I learned years ago.
posted by dnash at 9:14 PM on July 22, 2009

posted by xammerboy at 9:26 PM on July 22, 2009

90% of "HDR" is Tone Mapping which is really just automated dodge and burn. And yeah, they totally used to do multiple-exposure blending in the good old days, it just took a LOT of work.
posted by jedrek at 4:18 AM on July 23, 2009

I have the 2006 edition of The Book of Digital Photography and found it really useful - it covers everything from the very basics (aperture, exposure etc) through to RAW processing, photoshop techniques, file storage, printing etc. The format is great as each double page covers a particular topic which are quite self-contained.
posted by hibbersk at 4:31 AM on July 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. The basic question, which I probably didn't frame as well as I could have at the outset, remains: does there exist a canonical, "must-read" text on photographic theory and practice for users of DSLRs in the same way there does for users of 35mm film?

The answer might well be "no," at least at this stage in the game.
posted by awenner at 9:11 AM on July 23, 2009

Not sure there's a difference. If you know how to use your camera to control light then it doesn't matter if you're shooting film or digital. You can learn as much about exposure from the canonical Ansel Adams series The Camera, The Negative and The Print as anything else geared strictly for digital photography. That you talked about the zone system tells me you know more than you think. In fact, people who understand the zone system and tone and contrast and histograms and who have printed in an actual darkroom have an easier time understanding Photoshop and other post production applications.
posted by wherever, whatever at 4:52 AM on July 24, 2009

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