The BOOK BYTES INTERVIEW with Ben Long

On November 8, 2007, in Interview, by John Nemerovski

Complete Digital Photography, 4th Edition
by Ben Long

Charles River Media
ISBN-13: 978-1-58450-4; ISBN-10: 1-58450-520-6
566 pages plus Mac/Windows CD included
$39.99 US, $50.95 CN

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Ben Long’s latest masterpiece is the best single one-volume comprehensive text on digital photography we’ve seen at Book Bytes in a LONG (excuse the pun) time. Learn more about this book and author, in an extensive interview, the first in our new series.

Q. From the perspective of being the author, Ben, and working with your publisher, what are the advantages and drawbacks of including a comprehensive CD containing image files, plus QuickTime and PDF tutorial lessons?

A. As an author, the CD is really liberating in a couple of ways. When I’m revising a book and page counts get tight, it’s a real luxury to have the CD — a place where I can offload older material that’s still got some relevance. As a teaching tool, it’s nice to be able to shore up areas of the book with interactive QuickTime examples, and additional PDF material. Being able to put deeper information on the disk means I don’t have to break up the flow of the book with material that’s a little out of the mainstream, but still important enough that it needs to be covered somewhere. While I personally still prefer books when I want to learn something, there are some situations that are better-covered with an interactive video. It’s great that an inexpensive media exists to deliver this extra content.

Q. This book is heavy on informative text, and not loaded with pages of images or screenshots. How do you achieve a balance to make sure neither one dominates, and your page count and price don’t become prohibitive?

A. Well, ideally the book would be 2 hardback volumes, coffee table-sized, with big full-bleed hexachrome printing, bound in expensive silk, would span precisely as many pages as were necessary for every image and every paragraph, and be priced at $19.95.

Unfortunately, there are all those pesky practical concerns that keep that from being possible. I would always like the images to be printed larger, but to keep the book at its current price, it has to fit within a certain page count. So, I prioritize to cover the material that I think is necessary, and we work to fit the images in so that the concepts that the images illustrate are legible. While it can be frustrating that the book doesn’t look more like a “photography” book, the fact is it’s really a textbook. That said, I think it’s important to try to keep the imagery as high-quality and interesting as possible, so that even images that are predominantly simple technical examples might also make a nice photograph. Looking at good photographs is a great way to learn about photography. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s difficult to find beautiful images that also convey a particular concept, so some images are more utilitarian than “artistic.” I’m always on the lookout for pretty situations that make good teaching images.

Q. Which camera, operating system, and digital photo software are optimal for beginners or experienced purchasers of this book?

A. As a photographer, it’s so easy to be seduced by gear. I gather it’s what golf players feel — the certainty that a new club will improve their game. A high-end camera will definitely yield an image that is technically superior; but good, compelling images can be shot with any type of camera. Obviously, if you’re a stickler for sharpness and noise-free images, you need a particular type of camera, but a good photographer can make nice images with a lowly camera phone.

That said, if you’ve got any type of camera with a little bit of manual control — shutter or aperture priority — you’ll do fine with the whole book. Even if you don’t, your camera still probably provides a bit of exposure control in the form of exposure compensation, which is plenty of control for most of what’s in the book.

The main thing that separates successful photographers from unsuccessful photographers is that successful photographers shoot a LOT. Practice makes, if not “perfect,” at least “better.” So don’t use your camera as an excuse to not shoot. If you feel you need to wait till you get something better, you’re wrong. Get out there and start working with whatever you have.

As for software, there are lots of good image editors out there today from Photoshop to Aperture to Lightroom to Nikon Capture NX to iPhoto, and more. If you’re on a budget, Photoshop Elements is probably the best way to go. You’ll be able to follow along with most of the book, and you’ll be learning skills that will translate to many other editors.

Q. Do you recommend digital photographers “over shoot,” taking dozens or hundreds of photos to select the best later on, or spend more time making every picture count from beginning to end?

A. That’s a tough question, and the answer is sometimes dependent on the type of stuff you shoot. For event shooting, you usually need to shoot lots of images because it’s hard to get a frame where every person has a good expression/eyes open/etc. For landscape shooting, you’ll most likely shoot far fewer frames.

Automatic cameras are a great way for beginning shooters to quickly get good images. This means it’s easier to experiment, which means they’ll learn many things far more quickly without getting discouraged. However, it also means that there are some basic photography fundamentals that will be skipped. There’s a lot of merit in trying to learn to get things right in-camera. This will shorten your post-production time, speed your workflow, and give you strong basic skills that will mean you’re more likely to successfully get a shot when in a pinch.

Personally, I hate having to wade through gobs of images after a shoot, so I prefer to shoot economically. However, there will be times where you’ll be much safer shooting bracketed shots, or shooting bursts of images to capture a particular moment. These practices will lead you to shooting more images.

There are some people who don’t believe in ever deleting images, because you never know when you might need something. I’m not like that. I wantonly delete images that have technical problems, or that I simply don’t like, and I’ve never found that I later needed any of them. But perhaps it’s just that when I shoot a bad image, it’s a REALLY bad image.

By reducing glut, it’s easier for me to manage my library, and it’s also less depressing to not have to look at a bunch of second-rate pictures. Also, if I delete a shot and need something later, it’s a reason to go out and shoot, which is never a bad idea.

Q. Are you a gadget guy? What are your personal most essential non-camera, non-computer accessories, and which ones should your readers buy as quickly as they can?

A. Well, there are “gadget guys” and then there are “gadget guys.” I don’t own a car, so that keeps me from getting mired in car gadgets, and I don’t like to cook, so I don’t go nuts in Crate and Barrel. But…uh…yeah, I tend to have a lot of computer and photo gadgets. My travel photography kit includes my camera, lenses, a few point-and-shoots, my MacBookPro, a lot of external storage, external flashes, battery chargers, some white balance aids, an iPod, solar chargers, requisite cables, tripod, etc. Though I don’t travel with it, I even have a rig for attaching a camera to a kite, for aerials, so I do like camera gizmos.

As for things you should buy quickly. If you’re a raw shooter get a WhiBal card (www.whibal.com) this is a great white balance tool that’s light, cheap, and can be used anywhere. I do a lot of backcountry shooting so power is always a concern. I love my Solio solar chargers for re-charging my camera, iPod, and GPS.

Q. Why do you bother with so much detail about arcane matters such as color theory and lens design? Do people really need to know this stuff to take a decent digital photo?

A. Well, as I said, with an all automatic camera you can get good pictures very easily. However, if you really want to move to an advanced level, then I think it’s worth understanding the deeper issues. You’ll have an easier time solving problems when they arise (or understanding why your image has gone wrong) and you will better understand what is possible. That, in turn, will make you visualize scenes in very different ways, and will make you look for different types of images.

And, there’s also just the matter of satisfying basic curiosity. This is a fascinating technology, and it’s very interesting to understand more about it. A lot of people have, directly and indirectly, had their hands in the development of modern digital cameras, from the great shooters of the 19th and 20th centuries to Albert Einstein, so it’s an interesting story.

We live in a world that is driven by — and at the mercy of — massive levels of technology. We NEED more people to understand technology, and we need people to not be afraid of it, and we need them to learn to work with it, because we are now dependent on it. So I don’t ever think it’s a bad idea to make people more technically knowledgeable and proficient.

Q. Tell us the truth (#1): Which camera do you personally use most? Do you really back up your image files to a secure, offsite, redundant, rotating series of external hard drives?

A. Deep under the mountains of Wyoming, there’s a secure vault — temperature controlled, with managed humidity and multiple redundant power supplies. None of my images are there.

I keep my images backed up onto multiple DVD-Rs and I need to be more diligent. I actually recently lost some images because, surprisingly, BOTH disks failed! So, I’m going to look into a more robust system — either more backups, or a combination of recordable disks and hard drives. And yes, I should have some offsite backup.

There are images that I’d hate to lose, but at the same time, our species lived for millennia without photographs. If I lose my stuff, I’ll still have memories, and there are still plenty of other things to go out and shoot. I hope I never lose more images, but it’s a good way to remember that you can’t actually perfectly preserve a moment. I would hope that as I learn that more, I’ll pay more attention to the moments as I’m actually experiencing them.

Obviously, for images that you’re trying to make a living off of, you need to be very diligent about serious, redundant, reliable backup, and there are many solutions available for that. With storage as cheap as it is today, there’s no reason to end up losing images.

Personally, I’m most often shooting with a Canon 5D nowadays, with either the 24-105L or the 16-35L. I have some point-and-shoots that I like, the Panasonic Lumix LX-1 and the new Canon G9. I currently have my hands on a Leica M8, but have been very disappointed with the image quality.

I really love the idea of a high-quality point-and-shoot, but the viewfinders are so lousy, and the images are noisier than what I’m used to out of my SLR, so in the end I almost always choose to carry the SLR rather than any other type of camera.

Q. Tell us the truth (#2): Can’t most people get along just fine using iPhoto and/or Adobe Photoshop Elements software? And by making copies of their photo libraries on CDs that they keep in the back of a sock drawer?

A. Absolutely. Couldn’t have put it better myself.

That said, a skilled user of those programs will fare better than someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, and they’re both deep applications. The fact that most people can get along with them is a testament to the sophistication of both applications. The amount of imaging power that most people have on their desktops means that we should be seeing much better photography around — and we are! I’m really impressed by the general level of quality that I see trolling around Flickr. Digital photography has been a very democratizing force that has brought what used to be a very exclusive technology to lots of people. Photography is becoming a folk art, which I think is very cool.

Q. If people aren’t currently using RAW image files, how will they know when and how to take the plunge? Does this book make that clear?

A. I hope it makes all aspects of raw easy to understand. Raw does not necessarily allow you to shoot a final product that’s any better than what you can shoot with JPEG. What raw gives you is more editability, the option to recover clipped highlights, and a larger color gamut that will allow you to make more extreme edits before you run into artifacts and tone breaks.

If you’re finding yourself plagued by JPEG artifacts, continually fighting bad white balance, suffering from regularly overblown highlights, or making edits that are fairly broad, then you should consider raw.

I shoot exclusively in raw mode. Because all of the major applications now provide such great raw support, switching to raw is not the difficult decision it used to be. Similarly, cheap storage makes raw shooting much more reasonable than it was a few years ago.

Q. Why didn’t you make this book shorter and cheaper by sticking exclusively with camera operation, and leaving digital imaging software to one of the other thousand authors who writes about it in detail?

A. Good photography has never been only about the shooting or only about post-production. All of the great photographers have always had one eye (foot? set of tongs?) in the darkroom, and so have made specific exposure decisions because of particular processing ideas that they knew they would employ later. Digital photography is no different, so it’s impossible to speak about shooting without covering some post-production. Very often, it’s not possible to capture the scene you want without additional processing, and to perform the processing you want, you must expose in a particular way. So, I have to cover the whole process.

Also, “image editing” covers a wide range of disciplines and applications from web design to color prepress to Hollywood special effects. So, while a lot of detailed image editing books cover topics that are relevant to everyone from photographers to graphic designers, I stick with only the issues that are relevant to photographers — tone and color correction, localized editing, retouching, sharpening and noise reduction, simple compositing, output, and a few other details.

Photoshop can be an intimidating program because there are so many ways to do things. A lot of people think they have to learn all of those methods and theories, and so the program quickly becomes overwhelming. I hope that my coverage is more focused, and so allows the average photographer to gain entry to the program with less stress and more confidence.

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Thank you, Ben Long!

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