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Digital Photography Pocket Guide: A Review

© 2006 Lawrence I. Charters

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Breathless press reports say that digital cameras were among the most popular gifts last year. Apparently every man, woman, child, and computer in the Western Hemisphere purchased at least one such camera in 2005. Based on a flood of complaints to support Web sites, virtually all of these cameras were purchased by people who’d never used a camera in their lives, don’t know the colors of the rainbow, and may have trouble telling light from dark.

Complainers are not the intended audience for Derrick Story’s Digital Photography Pocket Guide, Third Edition. Story is not interested in people who complain about their ignorance, but, rather, those who seek to overcome such ignorance. This tiny book -- 155 pages, smaller than a paperback novel -- is a concise guide to the essentials of digital photography, from selecting a camera to understanding the terminology to explaining what features are important (and which should be ignored) to fine points on taking photos and sharing them through E-mail, Web sites, printing on your own printer, or having them professionally reproduced.

In simple terms, a digital camera is just a camera: it records frozen moments of time. In this respect, it differs little from a traditional film camera. Generally speaking, digital cameras are easier to use: they have electronics to automatically calculate the correct shutter speed, focal length, and focus. Once an image has been captured and transferred to a computer, such images are far easier to copy, print, crop, and adjust than photos on film. The advantages of digital photography are so great that the entire traditional film industry is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Unfortunately, “easier to use” doesn’t mean “no knowledge required.” Taking a good photo has always been a combination of skill, science, art, and luck. Used correctly, a digital camera can drastically decrease the amount of skill and science required to take a good photo. You’re still on your own for art and luck.

And not all the skill and science built in to even the finest digital camera can prevent you from taking bad photos. If anything, the ease of digital photography means you will probably take more bad photos than you’ve ever taken before. With the price of film and developing effectively reduced to nothing, a digital camera encourages experimentation, and with experimentation comes: failed experiments.

Story, not surprisingly, encourages experimentation -- but suggests that organized, knowledgeable experimentation will quickly lead to better results. He explains what controls, buttons, dials, and other features are important, and why you should pay attention to them. He provides common-sense advice, factored with professional experience, on the use of digital zoom (don’t), memory card size (bigger really is better), archiving (burn your original, unaltered images on CD-ROM before you play with copies on your computer), and countless other topics.

If you follow almost any on-line discussion on digital photography, you’ll quickly notice that “digital photography” means different things to different people. Some people are only interested in inexpensive, compact point-and-shoot cameras. Others find these too limited, and set the minimum bar at full-featured “prosumer” cameras. Still others distain anything not taken with the latest high-end digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. Yet others try and squeeze high-quality still photography out of devices designed for other purposes, such as cell phones with cameras, PDAs with cameras, and digital video cameras. Story makes no judgments; he describes the strengths of each, and lets the reader decide what would be best for their needs.

About a third of the book is devoted to explaining how to take digital photographs in specific situations. He covers weddings, passport photos, sports events, architecture photography, the dreaded “group photo,” nature photography, flash photography (including avoiding or reducing “red eye” from camera flashes), and most other environments that your average person might wish to record. There is even brief, but useful, mention of using a digital still camera to make digital video clips.

The very sound, spare advice, excellent illustrations (roughly half of them in color), and excellent index make Digital Photography Pocket Guide an exceptional resource for new and old digital photographers. If you are one of the half dozen people still without a digital camera, the first thirty pages or so will also help you evaluate what kind of camera you should get.

Remember: it is better to light a candle of knowledge than to curse the darkness of ignorance. Don’t complain about what you don’t know: get a copy of this book. With a little reading and a little practice, you can get a very nice photo of that candle, too.

Derrick Story, Digital Photography Pocket Guide, Third Edition. O’Reilly, 2005. xvi, 155 pp. $14.95. ISBN 0-596-10015-9