Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Photography Field Guide

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I have a bit of a confession to make, when I was first introduced to the instructional photography books written by Bryan Peterson, I was a skeptic.  I didn’t like his writing style which seemed a little too brief, and his way of discussing the setup of a shot in the subtext of each photo seemed to me – at the time – to be a bit ego stroking.  After reading a number of his books, I now consider myself a convert.  I have grown to appreciate Peterson’s writing style, especially the captions for included photos.  I really believe – now – that the telling of his experiences and the sharing of his thoughts have helped to make me a better photographer.  So when Amphoto offered a copy of his latest book – Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Photography Field Guide – for review, I had to take them up on the offer.

Overview

If you’re familiar with many of the photography books available on the market today, you’ll notice some similarities in their format.  They are mostly moderately sized books, about the size of a letter sized pad of paper.  The purpose of this is to allow you to see the included photos at a larger size.  For many books, this is the purpose.  The Field Guide, however, is much smaller:  About 5 1/2″ by 8 1/2″ – or about the size of a folded sheet of letter sized paper.  At the cost of adding more pages – this book is about 400 pages, nearly twice that of the average photo book – the book is much easier to carry around than normal.  It’s cover is also reinforced and much more durable than the typical paperback.  These elements are the reason it’s considered a field guide – though I will get into my feelings a little bit later on.

As an Educational Guide

Peterson is a writer who likes to write by example.  When discussing each topic, he is short and to the point.  He will only tell you what you need to know to get started.  He will not discuss theory, he will not discuss physics and he will rarely discuss why or how a specific technique works – unless it’s important to understanding the concept.  The aspect of Peterson’s writing that many people have trouble getting used to (myself included) is that the bulk of his wisdom is contained within the captions of the photos and illustrations.  Such wisdom might include how he set up for a photo, what was going through his mind or even interesting quips about events leading up to a particular photo.

One thing that I really like about Peterson’s style is the way in which he helps you to remember some of the more important information.  For example, he uses specific names for the different lens types.  A wide angle lens is referred to as a “story telling lens”.  Simply calling it a “wide angle” will only help you to distinguish one lens from another.  But with a name like a “story telling lens”, you also know its purpose:  To tell a story.  Many people have trouble with wide angle lenses, and Peterson’s point is that you are intended to get up close to a subject while also being able to provide context – to tell a story, as it were.  This is just one example of the many cases where Peterson uses creative naming to help you remember such specific details.

If you have read many of his books, much that is contained within the Field Guide has been said before.  Certainly, he imparts several bits of new wisdom that I haven’t seen in any of his books.  But the bulk of the information is likely pulled from his older books – or he’s simply being redundant as any teacher would.  If it works, why fix it?  I’m not pointing this fact out because I think it’s a flaw.  Quite the contrary.  Despite it’s size, this book is packed full of all of his previous books – and then some.  If you reference more than one of his other books, you can replace them with the Field Guide.  However, don’t expect to learn much of the specialized aspects of photography – such as close-up photography.  You will scratch the surface in the Field Guide.  But if you really want to learn every aspect of close-up photography, Peterson’s book, Understanding Close-Up Photography, is a much greater resource.

For the beginning to intermediate photographer, this book is an incredible starting point.  You will learn quite a bit about many aspects of photography.  And after reading this book cover to cover, you would be well on your way to determining where you would like to focus your efforts next.  I would like to carefully point out that Peterson spends a great deal of time early on with some very technical discussions on exposure, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  I am personally not a fan of that approach with absolute beginners – I think some time experimenting without such knowledge is a healthy.  So if you are an absolute beginner, I’d recommend starting on Chapter 5, “Learning to See”.  No one ever says you need to read a book in order.

As a Field Guide

In my opinion, the size and durability of a book does not automatically make it a “field guide”.  Ease of use and the speed at which you can gather information while in the field are very important factors to me.  While I was able to successfully reference the book at least a few times during my travels, I do not feel that this book is organized in a manner that I would consider worthy of the title “field guide”.  I also feel that it contains a lot of extra information that isn’t so important in the field – such as the section about 16-bit color mode and color space, or the section about determining the correct exposure.

I feel that a field guide is a quick reference book – a tool for data, calculations and techniques you may be familiar with, but don’t use often enough in order to be able to remember them.  I use such books regularly in my field: A species identification book for the many trees I’ll come across but rarely see; a soil manual to help me identify soil types by physical characteristics or a materials guide to give me rough ideas about the strength of specific building materials.  Understanding Photography Field Guide, however, is still an instructional book by my consideration – not a true field guide.

I personally lugged this book everywhere my camera went, and while I did reference it a few times – the bulk of the book will likely go unused in the field.  After reading the book cover-to-cover, there is a ton of great information in there.  Some of it overlaps the content of his previous books, but in this book, Peterson really does try to capture everything in one book.  And I think he does that part well.  But it’s not perfect as a reference manual, which is what I envision when I think of the term “field guide”.

But this is all semantics, and the title of the book has little effect on its use.  And in the defense of the publisher, I don’t believe they’ve mislead anyone in its marketing.  Putting aside this guise – the smaller format, the sturdy cover – this is a great instructional book and should be treated as such.

Final Thoughts

I would certainly recommend this book to any beginner or intermediate photographer.  Especially if you’ve never read any of Peterson’s guides.  He has a great way of helping you to remember essential information, which is wisdom that nearly any photographer could benefit.  As a reference guide, I think it is certainly usable – but perhaps not in the way you might expect.  Beginner and intermediate photographers would be able to reference this book to refresh their minds on techniques they are trying to learn.  But experienced photographers who know such techniques very well may not be interested in the bulk of this book – at least not as a reference manual.

If you would like to acquire your own copy, it is available at Amazon.com

Things We Liked

  • An appropriate size for carrying with you
  • Durable cover
  • Tons of photos and illustrations
  • Great wisdom-filled captions for each illustration

Thinks We Didn’t Like

  • Not ideal as a reference manual
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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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