I’ve recently been reading a slew of books on the subject of landscape photography. Probably I’m dreaming too much about being published one day on the pages of National Geographic, Audubon Magazine or Outdoor Photographer. Tim Fitzharris’ National Audubon Society Guide to Landscape Photography (Firefly Books) is the last one in the series, so it’s fresh in my memory, and it’s one of the best, so I thought I’d write a review of it.
This book, of course, is for aspiring landscape photographer, but it assumes you have a good knowledge of the bases of the photography craft. You won’t find here explanations of the exposure triangle, what ISO means, or other trivial stuff that you can find in any introductory text about photography, or for free on the Web. To be honest, you won’t find a great deal of deeply technical stuff in this book, like for instance formulas to compute the hyperfocal distance (you can look that up on the Web too).
You will find here, however, a good discussion of optimal lens aperture, exposure time, and how to meter in difficult situations. So it’s not like the book is only full of fluffy, artistic advice about pleasing composition. On the contrary, most of the advice revolves around quite practical, down-to-earth matters, like finding the best time of the day and the best lighting conditions for the kind of shoots you have in mind (or, even better, how to find the right subjects for a given lighting condition). It contains invaluable information on how to best pack your gear, how to select the best tripod, how to use filters. It even provides suggestions for how to dress for shooting in the desert, near the water, on the mountains.
Someone might think that all of this is of marginal importance, compared to the actual act of shooting, but I have a hunch it’s fundamental instead. Being in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment, warm and dry, is as important to getting a beautiful picture as carrying along the right lens. I have even earmarked some of the pages, like the one where using a photo vest with pouches instead of a traditional backpack is recommended, or the one about dressing with zippers instead of layers, for future reference.
Another recommendation that I think could be extremely useful is the one about getting familiar with a set of typical, recurring design templates. They embody eternal principles of composition that are common to all visual arts and can be invaluable in helping photographers to pre-visualize a shot and to recognize compositions that can often lead to a successful picture. As always, the advice to avoid stereotypes and occasionally think out of the box applies.
Any good photography book would not be complete without a selection of gorgeous pictures and this one is no exception. Tim Fitzharris’ photographs are indeed among the finest. They’re the kind of pictures that typically end up being published on the pages of the above-mentioned magazines, or on fancy calendars and posters. They are all colorful pictures of striking, natural, unspoiled landscapes, taken around sunrise or sunset and perfectly focused and exposed… well, now that I think of it, there are maybe too many colorful, striking, natural, unspoiled landscapes here. They were all taken in the American West, too. And the colors scream “Velvia” with a loud voice: Even the digital captures have that warm Velvia look. What I mean is that, just maybe, they smack just a tiny bit of manierism. I would have liked to see an occasional black&white shot, a rule-breaking, unusual composition, some human element, maybe even a blurry picture. Something artsy-fartsy that would surprise me, I don’t know. Anyway, I guess most buyers of this book will have no problem with that, it’s just a minor peeve on my part.
I’ve read some reviews complaining that all of the pictures in the book were taken with medium format cameras, and that’s true. The 645 format is almost exclusively represented, with a near 50/50 split between analog and digital. Does that mean that us poor mortals with a 35mm DSLR, or even one with an APS-C sensor, cannot get any valuable information from this book? I don’t think so. Aside from every gem contained here and which applies to what you should do before you even start shooting, even the technical shooting information can be applied, as long as you know how to convert focal lengths according to the size of your sensor or film.
In the end, my opinion is that Tim Fitzharris’ book is a very good resource. It does not certainly cover every aspect of landscape photography, but what it covers, it does so from the perspective of a long career on the field and in a very clear and concise style. Other books (and I hope to review them here shortly) might cover different aspects, and their authors might disagree with some things that Fitzharris writes, so you should probably own more than one, but starting with National Audubon Society Guide to Landscape Photography is not the worst thing that you could do.