Understanding Close-Up Photography (A Book by Bryan Peterson)

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Photography, like many art forms, is a broad field filled with specific disciplines and focuses.  Mature photographers may dabble between a few different disciplines, but there is usually one or two specific disciplines in which they have chosen to focus their body of work.  So as you develop as a photographer and you have learned and mastered the basics, you will find yourself looking to focus on a specific aspect of photography.  You will find yourself looking for resources to help you learn.  If you don’t have a mentor, the next best thing is a book on that specific discipline.  For me, one aspect that appeals to me is close-up photography.  So in my quest, I stumbled upon Bryan Peterson’s new book, Understanding Close-Up Photography.  I was fortunate to acquire a copy of this fine instructional book from Watson-Guptill, the publisher, for review.

Overview

Peterson’s writing style is unique in that he actually has two different writing styles.  The first, which he uses for the main body of the text, is more matter-of-fact (though he’s still refreshingly informal compared to some instructional writers).  The purpose of this tone is to get the information stated quickly, but effectively.  But his style changes when he writes captions for any of the illustrations.  Instead of stating facts, he somewhat explains his thought process as he set up for each of the photographs.  At first, I was slightly annoyed by his tone within the captions as I felt a lot of his dialog was just meaningless chatter – information that didn’t really help me to understand the shot.  But I grew to appreciate his tone once I noticed his dry sense of humor (like his meanderings about his car’s anti-lock break performance as he pulled off the road for a photo opportunity).  If you get yourself a copy of this book, make sure you read all of the photo captions.  Easily half of the information that can be garnered from this book is within those captions.  I believe I learned the most from his captions.

The book’s 200 (or more) full-color illustrations exhibit some excellent close-up photography, all from Peterson’s own portfolio.  Many of the photos are finished works, but Peterson is not afraid to share his “rejects” – his first or second attempts at a shot which he uses to explain how to make a shot better.  Additionally, Peterson has also included many on-site photos illustrating his exact set-up used to achieve a specific image, including the exact equipment and the exact setting.  For example, in illustration, he shows a box around the subject matter, shows the camera location, he even shows a box around the dark grasses he is using in the blurry background of the finished photo.  To me, this is probably one of the best aspects of Peterson’s teachings within this book:  Diagrams just don’t compare to the documentation of his process.

One of the best aspects of this book is Peterson’s knowledge of products available on the market.  In fact, he has dedicated nearly half the book to the equipment itself, certainly a major aspect of close-up photography.  Before reading this book, my biggest questions were about the equipment.  I thoroughly believe that the book has answered most of my questions.  Peterson surprised me a few times as well, like how I don’t need to buy an expensive lens to do close-up photography.  He discusses shooting with a standard prime lens using a reversing ring, a close-up filter or extension tubes.  There is even a page dedicated to shooting with a cheap point-and-shoot camera.  It is very apparent that he has played with a lot of the equipment that is available.  It is also very apparent that he is willing to evolve his own techniques as he is exposed to new products.  A Ring Flash, for example, is a piece of equipment he admits not using until late 2007, but has since considered it an essential tool within his camera bag.  He explains exactly why he now likes Ring Flashes, discredits his own misconceptions about the flashes, and he also explains some caveats as to why they aren’t always the best light source.  Peterson cites many products throughout the book, including his Phoenix Ring Flash, with some consideration to the budget minded.  I feel as though he is making economical recommendations where possible.  But he’s also not afraid to say when you really should be spending the money, like in the case of the Canon 500D, a close-up lens (more like a filter that can be used with any lens), which can be relatively expensive but well worth the cost.

Final Thoughts

Understanding Close-Up Photography is more of an introduction to close-up photography.  In reading the book, you will certainly get a good, broad understanding of the discipline, but you will be left with a few questions.  Don’t take that as a criticism – I believe that books like this are important to point you int he right direction.  After all, I’m sure that Peterson could write a tome about the topic.  But don’t treat this as an introductory book, because Peterson really does push you deep into the topic.  You see what he’s done, you read how he did it, and suddenly you find yourself really excited about the topic.  Personally, I have found myself experimenting more with close-up photography.  I haven’t bought any new equipment yet, but I am seriously considering a few items.

So who is this book for?  To answer that question, let me first state that this book isn’t for beginners.  There are many points throughout the book that Peterson is explaining his set-ups with the assumption that you understand the basics of photography.  His writing style won’t alienate beginners, but many of the illustrations are paired comparisons with subtle differences that would get missed by a beginner.  I feel that an experienced photographer would better understand why a specific shot is more favorable, and they would be able to get more from Peterson’s teachings.  And while this is a book that can be read front-to-back, it can serve as a reference guide, thanks to the index and the well organized nature of the book.  So if you’re considering close-up photography, and if you have some experience outside of “Auto” mode, this is a book that I would certainly recommend.

At a Glance

The Desirable

  • Beautiful full-page examples of Peterson’s own works complete with a list of equipment and camera settings for each.
  • Some great equipment recommendations and suggestions.
  • Full description of a shot’s setup, including photographs of the setup with equipment in-place.

The Undesirable

  • A large portion (maybe too much) of the information is only available within the photo captions.
  • 160 pages doesn’t allow enough space to get into detail on some topics, especially considering how many full-page photographs are taking up space.

[Rating:4/5]

Availability: Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Borders

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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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