Three instructional books by Michael Frye
I had first noticed Michael Frye (see his photographs here) for his pioneering light painting nature photographs. I then greatly appreciated his excellent book The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite (2000). The only thing I wished was that it been available a decade earlier. Priced at a bargain $9.95, the book, published by the Yosemite Association, comes in a handy 5×7 pocket size. In it, Michael gives more precise, useful, and insightful information than I have seen in any other photographic location guide – not only Yosemite guides, all guides. For instance, beyond the time of day and season, he pays attention to details rarely mentioned, such as the variation of the sun angle at a given location during the course of the year. Besides describing 36 different sites in Yosemite, the book includes maps, a calendar of seasonal highlights, and a number of technical tips for photographing specific subjects such as waterfalls. That’s the work of someone who clearly understands his subject inside and out, and knows how to share it.
Given those qualities, I was delighted to have the opportunity to read his two latest instructional texts, which turned out to be quite different and complementary.
Digital Landscape Photography: In The Footsteps Of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters (2010) is a 160 page, easily transportable (9×8) paperback book published by Focal Press. It surveys the whole process of landscape photography, from capture to printing. Besides functioning as an instructional text, it provides plenty of inspiration, including many of Michael’s beautiful images, some reproduced full page, as well as a couple images from the masters.
Right from the first chapter, that addresses a number of technical topics including digital image quality, sharpness, filters, it is clear that the text is aimed at the intermediate photographer, who understands how to use the manual mode, but hasn’t mastered capture techniques yet.
This book’s “twist”, the way it distinguishes itself from the multitude of other instructional digital photography books, is trying to show what can be learned from the Ansel Adams working process and how these lessons can be used with digital photography. In the later part of the first chapter, the explanation of metering is tied to the Zone System, making a connection between the histogram and this venerable technique. While I think this has the merit of leading to a greater appreciation of the master’s works, as well as provide a new viewpoint, I am not sure the comparison would be enlightening for someone without experience in traditional photography – probably not the main target of the book.
The second chapter of the book is devoted to light and composition tips. It evokes the masters mostly by quoting their words, while looking at great selection of Michael’s images which are always relevant to the discussion. Since most of his work has been done in Yosemite, the quintessential Ansel Adams stomping grounds, those familiar with the master will recognize the clear influence on his style, even though his images are captured digitally and in color.
The third chapter deals with the digital darkroom. Again, this is not a primer, but instead those who already know how to use Photoshop will benefit from examples of how Michael uses it to apply some of the masters techniques. Without getting bogged down in technical details or tons of screen shots, he demonstrates simply the steps in solving some common problems, such as low and high contrast. I know many photographers friends who would benefit from the exposure blending explanation. Although I am a fairly sophisticated Photoshop user, I still learned one new technique for editable retouching.
The text is concise and information-dense. Michael doesn’t waste one’s time. Like Ansel Adams, he can deliver his insight with few words. While, due to its length, Digital Landscape Photography: In The Footsteps Of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters cannot go into depth about its topics, it succeeds at providing a good overview of the process of landscape photography as a whole. I liked the design and format of the book, which breaks the text in small segments, making it a quick and enjoyable read with great photographic images illustrating the text. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any student of landscape photography.
Light and Land, Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom (2010), Michael’s latest effort, is a e-book, which can be downloaded as a PDF file from the popular Craft and Vision site of editor David duChemin, for a very affordable price of $5. This e-book concentrates exclusively on the digital processing of landscape images using Lightroom 3. During my trans-Pacific flight from Asia, I found it particularly pleasant to read on the iPad. It was easy to zoom in image details which would have been more difficult to see in print. Although a relatively short 36 pages, the e-book is a principled text rather than just a collection of tips. I see it as two books intertwined into one.
Part of the e-book seeks to explain the vision and thought process behind processing decisions, how to best express the “emotional and aesthetic ideas” that motivated you to take the picture in the first place. This is taught by examples using five images that chosen to encompass a great range of typical nature imagery, both grand and intimate, color and b&w. Although the workflow remains the same, each image requires different things to “squeeze every ounce of beauty, emotion and inspiration”. I greatly enjoyed being able to watch over another professional nature photographer shoulder as he openly shares his decisions on how to process images. I think other seasoned photographers would as well.
Part of the e-book provides a useful tutorial to RAW processing with Lightroom 3. Although short, its introduction makes two interesting points which changed the way I approach Lightroom: the use of the new point curve tool instead of touching multiple adjustment sliders, and the departure from the default settings. The examples are well illustrated, with screen captures showing panel settings and reproducing images at each of the different steps in processing. Since I personally do the bulk of my processing in Photoshop, the e-book enlightened me to the range of possibilities offered by the latest version of Lightroom.
The e-book is a perfect continuation of the previous book, since it provides a complete step-by-step description of the processing (both from a aesthetic and technical point of view) for specific images, while the book showed techniques separately. The fact that it illustrates its point with a different software (Lightroom instead of Photoshop) is an added plus.
In Light and Land, Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Michael has achieved a tour de force, writing a no-nonsense, information-packed text that provides a perfect mix of vision and technique, inspiration and instruction, and should provide something for landscape photographers of all levels.