Book Review: Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography

Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography
Review info: 

Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography. By Stephen Johnson, O'Reilly Media, 2006, ISBN 978-0596523701, 320 pages.

Nigel Goldsmith reviews a new book on digital photography by the accomplished American landscape photographer Stephen Johnson.

Although there are some hints on the cover, it isn't until you scan the contents page that you can fully appreciate the scope of this book. Over the course of seven sections Stephen Johnson's book leads the reader on a journey: from the invention of the early electronic fax and cathode ray tube in the 1800s; through his own encounters as a pioneering digital photographer; and ending with his personal digital imaging manifesto.

After a general introduction to human vision and the digital image, the author identifies and explains historic technical landmarks, which have contributed to contemporary digital imaging. This section is an accessible introduction to a complex subject, which other authors often overlook. The chapter entitled 'On Photography's Bleeding Edge', which anecdotally highlights the author's early adoption and active contribution to the world of digital imaging, follows this. Much of the commentary draws on the author's own experience and is illustrated with Johnson's dramatically beautiful landscape photographs.

In addition to working as a photographer, the author has also taught digital photography for some time. This experience becomes very apparent in the sections on image optimisation. All features are clearly explained and supported with examples; there are also some useful tips and workarounds. The author's intention is to enable the reader to edit an image honestly as there is an emphasis on: careful tone and colour adjustment sharpening, and retouching whilst avoiding the more extreme adjustments found in some other titles on the subject.

Colour management is a subject that baffles many users new and old. Johnson explains the topic in a clear and accessible way though occasionally the reader's level of understanding, skill and access to equipment is taken for granted. An example of this is in the section on printer profiling: the author writes 'Measure printed target with spectrophotometer' followed by the next point 'Create profile using profile creation software'. The hardware and software required to undertake this process could cost up to £1000 and the process can be quite complex. The reviewer would have found a reference to options such as remote profiling useful here.

On the whole this is an entertaining first-hand account of the author's central role in the developments of digital imaging over the last 20 years. Many of the sections are based on the author's personal experience; complex subjects are clearly explained and supported with attractive illustrations and photographs. However, the one drawback for me the reviewer, was that I was unsure as to whether the book was aimed at the novice or the advanced user. My confusion was triggered by extensive references to the large-format scanning camera (which the author used to capture his detailed landscape images), which would not reflect the novice user's experience of digital photography. The more advanced reader would also potentially find sections such as colour management and image optimisation informative and accessible but perhaps lacking the in-depth detail likely to further their knowledge. Overall, this title would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf but it is unlikely to be the only book on the subject.

Author Details

Nigel Goldsmith
Technical Research Officer
TASI-Technical Advisory Service for Images
University of Bristol

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Date published: 
Tuesday, 30 January 2007
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