Rick Sammon’s Digital Photography Secrets
by Rick Sammon
Wiley Publishing, Inc.
US $39.99, CDN $43.99
This book is so poorly written I felt embarrassed for the author and his editor. While here and there it contains snippets of useful information, I suspect many adults will feel like they’re reading a script for an infomercial targeted at adolescents. Sammon undoubtedly understands cameras and photography. What he and his editors fail to understand is that some readers will grow weary of a book filled with so many plugs for one camera manufacturer (Canon) and gushing commercials for dozens of other name brand products from vests to tripods. I sure hope the profuse endorsements helped finance the cost of producing this glossy, well-illustrated book because it’s hard to believe it will compete well against a dozen similar books that readers can see for free at a public library.
The hype begins with the title. There are no “secrets” in this book that you won’t find in any other digital photography book by individuals like David Pogue, Bryan F. Peterson, or John Shaw, to name just a few. The major difference is that Pogue, Peterson, and Shaw write professional quality prose. Here are a few examples of Sammon’s writing style:
A page dealing with tripods begins this way: “Wowzie Zowie! Here you see a picture of two tripods and a picture of a tripod head.” Presumably somebody worried that a reader might not be able to figure that out from the two photos that take up half the page.
On a section dealing with depth of field: “Hey, I know I could have added tips on creating depth in our photographs on the previous page, but it’s so important I wanted to give it its own topic. So let’s go!” Why, I wondered, didn’t someone tell Sammon that his motivational speaker-style preface added nothing to the reader’s understanding of the topic? Give us the information and let’s move on.
It’d be easy to provide a dozen more examples of anemic writing filled with hackneyed cliches and cartoonish exclamations, but I suspect most readers would overlook those elements if the book actually communicated practical information in a format that was clearer or more useful than it is in other digital photography books. I liked the format but not the content.
The format dedicates a single page to a single topic. Because each topic begins and ends on the same page, you would think precise information would hit you like bullets. Unfortunately, a lot of this valuable space is wasted by motivational gushes or information that will be plain useless to many readers.
For example, the author begins a discussion of an important topic labeled “F-stop info” by leaning on the shopworn advice he heard as a beginning photographer. The secret to good pictures is, “set your lens at f22 and have a good subject.” You may have heard it, as I did, as “f22 and be there.” Rather than follow that preface with some clear and concise information about exposure, Sammon tells us f22 is not always a good idea and then he steps out of the frame and provides us with an explanation from “my friend Rick Winston of Canon.” And here’s what Rick has to say:
“What happens is this: The aperture blades have the potential to deflect and bend light as it passes by them and scatter it as it heads toward the digital image sensor. At fairly wide aperture settings, the vast majority of the light rays entering through the aperture are unaffected — only those on the outermost peripheries are impacted by the aperture blades. The wide opening means that nearly all the transmitted light continues on its way, sharply focused by the lens.”
I immediately wondered how many ordinary photography buffs would find this a useful and interesting digital photography secret. This is Sammon’s book. Couldn’t he have said it better himself without falling back on an expert who will explain it in a style that will connect to few if any amateur photographers?
Quotes like the one above made me wonder what niche this book hoped to fill. Was it aimed at the beginning, the intermediate, or the advanced amateur? If the intended audience was the more sophisticated amateur photographer, would he or she need to told to avoid shooting in the harsh light of midday, that you get better photos at sunrise and sunset when the sun is low? That’s one of the secrets you’ll find in this book. Also, salt water is hard on cameras. Also, keep your equipment clean and dry. The truth is that there are as many “secrets” in this book as you will find in any other photography book, which is to say there are no secrets.
Learning to use your camera is a fundamental necessity. One of the best tips I found in an older digital photography book suggested that any time you buy a new camera, sit down and make up your own cheat sheet containing information about the features you may change most often. Start with a few, changing ISO, using exposure compensation, changing the metering method, how to use the self-timer. Most user manuals are close to useless. Write your own simple instructions, press this button to do this, that button to do that. Add to the cheat sheet as you become more familiar with the initial instructions.
Instant gratification is addictive, and most of us have heard that digital photography is a joy because we get to see our pictures as soon we’ve pressed that shutter button. But this is instantly gratifying only if you’re happy looking at a lot of bad pictures. Learning to take good pictures, to become sensitive to the interplay of light and shadow, cannot be learned overnight. Like any other skill, you learn the basics and then proceed to improve through trial and error. Eventually, the way your photos look and feel becomes an extension of who you are. True gratification comes from seeing the results of your journey through the learning process.
Part of that process requires that you sort through “How To” books. There are thousands on the market and very few worth a $40 price tag. Be very critical of these books. Make sure the author defines the terms he uses (rarely done in Sammon’s book) and that information is clearly presented. If the information is unclear, never believe it is only unclear to you. If the information and instructions are unclear, it’s the writer’s fault, not yours.
Equally important, look at one of these instructional books and ask yourself whether it’s about the person who wrote it or about the subject you’re trying to learn. The danger in writing an instructional guide book in the first person is clearly illustrated in Rick Sammon’s Digital Photography Secrets. If the book seems to be overflowing with self-congratulatory fluff and commercial zeal, as this one is, you may find the writer’s personality an unnecessarily intrusive layer separating you from the information you’re seeking.