Stephen Johnson On Digital Photography
Book Review

Stephen Johnson On Digital Photography
by Stephen Johnson

O’Reilly Media
ISBN 0-596-52370-X, 305 pages
US $39.99, CAN $55.99

If there was ever required reading for students of digital photography, Stephen Johnson’s On Digital Photography would be it. I have read other wonderful books on the subject, but none has the breadth and scope of Johnson’s work. He was there, at the beginning of the age of digital photography. By the late 1970s Johnson had already decided on photography as his career. He was guided, in part, by Ansel Adams, among others. Johnson is a true pioneer of digital photography, winning numerous awards including a Congressional Special Recognition Award for his work on behalf of Mono Lake. He teaches at the college level in his own workshop programs, and in various forums from Stanford University to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

By now we all know that digital photography is not only here to stay, but has become the medium of choice among most photographers. Johnson offers a cogent argument for digital doing a better job than film when it comes to documenting what the eye actually sees. His convincing photographs attest to his vision, and I believe that vision should be ours. He does not bash film here. He simply shows how we’ve all come to embrace those “silver” prints and accompanying characteristics as “true,” when in fact the images are altered by the very medium itself. Film is still, and will always be, a valuable photographic medium. But Stephen Johnson shows us how much more accurate silicon is, and it’s going to get even better.

Johnson assumes nothing of his reader. Both amateurs and professionals can glean practical and informative knowledge from this book. He starts with the basics: What is digital? What are pixels? Then step by step he explains how an image is created. We learn how eyes see color, and how the digital sensor sees / creates color. He also includes a comprehensive guide to digital cameras and goes on to teach us about qualities like resolution, color balance, and image processing.

Throughout the entire book Johnson displays beautiful example photographs. They are worth the price of the book in and of themselves. He is a master photographer. You may think me derelict by not including some samples of his pictures in this review. I thought about it. There is no way I could bring the beauty of his photos to this page by scanning and editing them in. You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that they are among the finest examples of landscape photography I have ever seen. There are details in the shadows and integrity in the highlights which cause entire scenes to seem as if you’re looking out a window instead of at a piece of paper. If I ever have an opportunity to view his work in a gallery I will be among the first in line.

The author emphasizes the historical significance of the tools that led up to the digital revolution. He shows the history and development of devices used to record / transmit electronically based images, and offers plenty of anecdotal evidence as to their importance. He explains the difference between analog and digital. Johnson was there, witnessing and contributing firsthand, to the evolution of digital photography. He was there when Adobe licensed the Barney Scan XP and it became Photoshop. And he was an iconic figure at the very first Photoshop convention.

In his exhibit for an opening at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in 1986, along with Robert Dawson, he used a Sony device called the Sony View System that integrated computer graphics with video that could be drawn from a laser video disc. With computer graphics specialist Greg MacNicol they created a series of video graphics explaining some of the key elements of California’s Central Valley. About six months after the exhibition opened some Apple Computer reps called him to learn from what Johnson, Dawson, and MacNicol had done. They were flirting with the idea of Macintosh doing multimedia. Talk about getting information from the horse’s mouth.

One of his discoveries has to do with Ultraviolet (silver sensing = film) versus Infrared (electronic sensing = silicon) sensitivity. His observance of the ability of the silicon chip and infrared photography in particular to penetrate atmospheric haze is groundbreaking. He was beginning to form his opinion that with digital “I can simply see more, print more honestly, and, I think, more beautifully in this digital age.” Johnson is convinced that digital (silicon) sees better; more like eyes, and with better contrast range.

He goes on to explain “bit depth,” ie: 8, 10, 12 bits, and well beyond. He discusses digital noise, moire, and artifacts. He shows side by side comparisons of digital versus film images. As one observes the difference between the two it becomes apparent that the digital images seem to have more “natural” light in and around the subject.

Johnson does an admirable job of explaining all of the nuances and science behind digital photography. For those who are predisposed to tables and formulas, technological jargon and minutia, the information Johnson puts forth is very clear and spot on. However, if you are more like me, one who loves art, and photography in particular, but who is inherently averse to a lot of scientific data, you can easily skim those sections in the book that go into details of sines, cosines, formulas, and the like, and then move on to the chapters which have to do with the practical techniques of taking fine photographs. Maybe I’ll go back later and see if I can learn more about these things. Maybe I won’t. I’m not sure it matters that the artist knows the scientific reasoning behind every aspect of his art, whether it be photography, painting, or playing an instrument. It is the experience one gets from creating or observing art that is most important. But if learning all the techno-science makes you a better artist, then Johnson will satiate you with his knowledge. He explains how silicon sensors “see,” and how color is made and the difference between electronic color and film (silver) color.

In the section “Techniques of the Digital Darkroom” Johnson covers the entire spectrum by explaining how to adjust images for tone and contrast. You will learn about Histogram as well as Photoshop’s Densitometer. A detailed guide about selecting colors and understanding tonal editors jump-starts the uninitiated. He goes on to explain Layers and its many features, options, and modes. Levels and Photoshop Curves are discussed in detail as well as enlarging and interpolation, sharpening, and creating black and white from color. Raw files and Adobe Camera Raw are also covered along with all the tools and controls, including workflow management.

His chapter on Color Correction and Editing is expansive, starting with the basics and becoming more immersed as the reader goes forward. One will learn about correcting color casts, editing neutrals, Adjustment Layers, and the basic principles of color editing. Hue and Saturation are here too, along with using Curves as a color editor.

His chapter on Restoration should be of interest to many photographers. We all have family photos which are either old or damaged and in need of repair. Sometimes these old images look as if they are beyond repair. Think again. Johnson shows us practical effective techniques to get the job done. And he reminds us that “caution and a deep respect for whatever ‘truth’ might be contained in the originals” are proper guides. Helpful tips such as color scanning as a tool, dust removal, and various useful components such as the Cloning Tool complement this section.

In Johnson’s chapter, “Printing—A New World,” he explains the ins and outs of printers, papers, types of inks, and various printing technologies such as inkjet, dye sublimation, laser, and electrostatic. He even talks about pre-press considerations for periodicals like newspapers, magazines, posters, books, and high end reproduction. This chapter will give the reader a greater appreciation of what it takes to faithfully reproduce images in the commercial world.

Knowing what to do with your pictures, other than stuffing them in a dusty drawer, is almost as important as creating them. Johnson talks about everything from sharing photos, to galleries, to publication, and all points in between. He may even give a photographer ideas never before thought about. He even discusses copyright laws and ethics.

Throughout Stephen Johnson’s book On Digital Photograph, integrity, above all, is examined and stressed. The author’s love and respect for art, and photography in particular, are apparent. Anyone reading this book will embrace a much greater grasp of the responsibility of the artist to his audience, himself, and to the artwork. And through that the artist will grow straighter and truer than if he had never thought about these things. If you are even just semi-serious about photography this book is a must read. rating: 5 out of 5


Leave a Reply