The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression

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This is a newly revised edition of the classic book The Art of Photography (first published in 1994), which has often been described as the most readable, understandable, and comprehensive textbook on photography. In his accessible style, Barnbaum presents how-to techniques for both traditional and digital approaches. Yet he goes well beyond the technical as he delves deeply into the philosophical, expressive, and creative aspects of photography. This book is geared toward every level of photographer who seeks to make a personal statement through their chosen medium.

Bruce Barnbaum is recognized as one of the world’s finest photographers as well as an elite instructor. This newest incarnation of his book, which has evolved over the past 35 years, will prove to be an invaluable photographic reference for years to come. This is truly the resource of choice for the thinking photographer.

Filled with over 100 beautiful photographs, as well as numerous charts, graphs, and tables.

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CHAPTER 1 Communication Through Photography


Communication Through Photography

PHOTOGRAPHY IS A FORM of non-verbal communication. At its best, a photograph conveys a thought from one person, the photographer, to another, the viewer. In this respect, photography is similar to other forms of artistic, nonverbal communication such as painting, sculpture, and music. A Beethoven symphony says something to its listeners; a Rembrandt painting speaks to its viewers; a Michelangelo statue communicates with its admirers. Beethoven, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo are no longer available to explain the meaning behind their works, but their presence is unnecessary. Communication is achieved without them.

Photography can be equally communicative. To me, the word photograph has a far deeper meaning than it has in everyday usage. A true photograph possesses a universal quality that transcends immediate involvement with the subject or events of the photograph. I can look at portraits by Arnold Newman or Diane Arbus and feel as if I know the people photographed, even though I never met them. I can see landscapes by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, or Paul Caponigro and feel the awesomeness of the mountain wall, the delicacy of the tiny flowers, or the mystery of the foggy forest, though I never stood where the tripods were placed. I can see a street photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson and feel the elation of his “decisive moment”, captured forever, though I was not beside him when it occurred. I can even see a tree by Jerry Uelsmann floating in space and feel the surrealistic tingle that surrounds the image. I can do this because the artist has successfully conveyed a message to me. The photograph says it all. Nothing else is needed.


CHAPTER 2 What is Composition?



CHAPTER 3 Elements of Composition


Elements of Composition

IF COMPOSITION IS THE MEANS OF LEADING VIEWERS through your photograph and holding them there until they see your message, there must be methods of composing to achieve maximum strength in your imagery. There are indeed such methods, and they can be put to use by identifying and understanding the elements of composition.

The following is a list of the many elements of composition. We will discuss them and consider how they can be used to enhance a photograph.



Contrast and Tone






Positive/Negative Space


Camera Position

Focal Length

Depth of Field

Shutter Speed

Figure 3–1: Lay Brothers’ Refectory, Fountains Abbey
This subject presented a perplexing dilemma: do I lower contrast to retain interior detail, or maintain contrast and lose outside detail? I chose the latter, eliminating the manicured bushes outside. The center of interest is this 100+ yard long refectory used by the nonecclesiastical workers (the lay brothers) who worked there. Although your eye goes directly to the blank white opening in the distance due to the draw of perspective, it is surely not the center of interest.


CHAPTER 4 Visualization



THE CONCEPT OF PHOTOGRAPHY as a form of nonverbal communication is a philosophical one. But it’s a very important truth, based on the fact that we all show our pictures to others and we all want to get a response. That alone proves it is indeed a form of communication.

The meaning of composition and its specific elements are theoretical. Both are forerunners of actual photography. They form the foundation for fine photography—and for all visual art—and they must be understood by all creative photographers.

The actual making of a photograph starts with visualization, which is comprised of four steps:

Let’s look at each of these steps in turn and then we’ll look at some alternative approaches.

Figure 4–1: Machu Picchu in the Mist
The Inca understood spectacular landscapes, locating major centers in awesome settings, but none comparable to Machu Picchu. My intent was to highlight the mystical scenery with little more than a reference to the structural remains for context.

Visualization starts with looking and seeing—in-depth looking and seeing, rather than the casual perusal that we all do in our everyday lives. We go about our daily tasks in a routine manner, allowing visual input to slide in and out of our eyes and brain. It is not important to note every detail about a doorway in order to walk through it without smashing your shoulder on the doorjamb. If we stopped to analyze our visual input at all times, we would never accomplish anything. But when we turn to the effort required of photography, our seeing must be much more thorough and intense. In photography, we accomplish nothing unless we analyze everything. We must search for those elements that can be put together to form a photograph.





THE IMPORTANCE OF LIGHT IN PHOTOGRAPHY cannot be overemphasized. Light, in fact, is the central issue. The word photography was coined by William Henry Fox Talbot when he made the first negative/positive image in 1839. It was an amalgam of two Greek words, photo (light) and graphy (to draw). Fox Talbot saw photography as a means of “drawing with light”.

The only thing recorded by film and sensors is light. They have no understanding of subject matter. Film and sensors do not recognize faces, trees, buildings, sunsets, etc. They only recognize levels of light. A sharp lens focuses those levels of light on specific areas of the film plane or sensor. Neither film nor sensors recognize lines, forms, relationships among them, or any of the other elements of composition. You have to recognize those things, select them in the viewfinder, and make your exposure to maximize them. The film or sensor then records the light levels it is exposed to for the length of time the shutter is open.

Light is the essence of photography. Knowledgeable photographers realize that they are not photographing objects, but rather light and the way it delineates objects or is emitted by them. Photography is the study of light, the perception of light, and the interpretation of light. Lines, forms, and shapes appear because of the way light reveals those various compositional elements, not solely because of the forms themselves.





THE FIRST FIVE CHAPTERS DISCUSS a variety of practical and philosophical topics, all applicable to both black-and-white and color. In chapter 3, I specifically delayed a discussion of color as an element of composition due to its exceptional importance. This chapter deals with the profound compositional considerations that color brings to photography, and also with some specific considerations of color as applied to both traditional and digital approaches.

I feel that color photographs and black-and-white photographs are essentially two different media. I approach them differently, I see them differently, and my goals are different in each. To me, the emotional connotations as well as some of the compositional elements involved with color have no analogy in black-and-white. Rarely can I photograph the same scene successfully in both media—so rarely, in fact, that I now choose between color and black-and-white before making an exposure. In past years I often shot a scene both ways, but since I was never equally satisfied with the results, I have discarded the dual approach. I consider this a form of discipline that requires me to be fully in tune with my feelings about the scene and my thoughts about expressing those feelings (figure 6–1).


CHAPTER 7 Filters



THE TWO PREVIOUS CHAPTERS ON LIGHT AND COLOR lay the groundwork for this chapter. More must be added before a complete understanding of filters can be achieved.

First, let’s look at light from a technical point of view without getting overly technical or mathematical about it. Visible light is a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (EM for short). The entire EM spectrum includes other forms of invisible radiation, such as infrared light, ultraviolet light, X-rays, gamma rays, and radio waves. Within the small portion of the EM spectrum that is visible to our eyes, there is also a spectrum (or range) of radiation levels, and we see that spectrum as colors of the visible spectrum—the colors of the rainbow, if you will. Most people are aware of Newton’s experiment of refracting light through a prism and breaking white light into its component parts, the visible spectrum.

All visible objects are visible only because they radiate light from their surfaces. The reflected or emitted light is made up of some, or all, parts of the visible spectrum. Few natural or manmade objects emit or reflect light from only one portion of the spectrum to the exclusion of other portions. The spectrum of light from a red rose, for example, includes small contributions from blue, orange, violet, and even green and yellow, as well as the dominant contribution of red. Yet the rose appears to be pure red. The blue sky is not highly saturated with blue; the percentage of blue in its spectrum is lower than the percentage of red in the rose. Though the sky’s dominant contribution is from the blue portion of the spectrum, other colors are present in surprisingly high amounts.


CHAPTER 8 The Zone System of Exposure for Film


The Zone System of Exposure for Film

THE NEXT FOUR CHAPTERS deal with the practical aspects of making a photograph. Chapters 8 through 10 deal with traditional film exposure and printing. Chapter 8 explains exposure of the film negative or transparency for optimum effect. Chapter 9 explains development of the black-and-white negative for creative, personal interpretative purposes. Chapters 8 and 9 are so closely tied together that it is difficult to separate them effectively without leaving a temporary gap. The gap is tied together early in chapter 9, so please read on until the explanation is complete.

(Note: development of color negatives and transparencies is not explored because there is so little leeway in the process. Information about doing your own color processing can be obtained from the manufacturers.)

Chapter 10 discusses methods of printing both black-and-white and color film in the traditional darkroom to express your vision in the most personal manner. Chapter 11 concentrates on the digital workflow from image capture to printing. I recommend that everyone read all four chapters, even if your approach is strictly film or digital, because they provide important insights into how the photographic process unfolds. Such knowledge is never useless.


CHAPTER 9 The Black-and-White Negative and Contrast Control—The Extended Zone System


The Black-and-White Negative and Contrast Control—The Extended Zone System

ANSEL ADAMS ONCE LIKENED PHOTOGRAPHY TO MUSIC with his famous analogy, “The negative is the score; the print is the performance.” The composer creates the score, including everything he or she wants; then a performer interprets the score as he or she sees fit. In photography, you are both the composer and performer. This chapter gives you the tools to make the score far richer than you may have imagined possible. Chapter 10 extends that thinking into the realm of the performance.

Chapter 8 deals with proper exposure of the negative; this chapter deals with developing it to the level of contrast you want, thus giving you immense control over your imagery.

The zone system can be used not only for placing an object into any desired tonality, but also for changing contrast between objects. Since there is more than one object (or tonality) in any photograph, the moment you place one of them at the density you desire, the others automatically land as far away in density as the light meter shows. That may be either too close in density to the first object or too far away. There is no assurance that exposing one object at the appropriate density places the others at a desirable density for printing purposes. You may wish to have the other objects brighter or darker. In other words, you may wish to alter the level of contrast between the objects.


CHAPTER 10 The Print


The Print

ASIDE FROM YOUR CHOICE OF SUBJECT MATTER, printing a negative in the darkroom is possibly the most personal aspect of photography. Every photographer has his or her own special way of approaching darkroom work, and few photographers avail themselves of the opportunity to watch others work in the darkroom. For this reason, I shall approach this chapter in a very personal manner, detailing the materials and methods I use in making a print. I don’t suggest that my approach is the only way to go about darkroom work, nor is it necessarily the best way—but it is surely my way, and it has proven successful for me. I suggest that you consider each of my methods for possible inclusion in your own approach, with your own personal modifications.

Many of the techniques that I regularly employ in the field and in the darkroom started as suggestions from other photographers. I often modified their procedures to suit me. I’ve even invented new techniques. I try to maintain an open, flexible approach, trying new procedures or materials whenever they seem to have merit for my purposes. If you can adopt an open approach, this chapter will prove more meaningful to you, whether you’re at the beginner or advanced level.


CHAPTER 11 The Digital Zone System


The Digital Zone System

THE INFORMATION ON FILM AND DARKROOM PROCEDURES in the preceding chapters is directed at giving you, the photographer, control and predictability over the final image. Although digital logic differs from that of classical (i.e., traditional) photography, the goal is the same in the digital realm: predictable, controlled results.

The discussion that follows begins with a summary of how the photosites and related filters (collectively, the sensor) inside the camera work; turns to digital exposure, referred to as “capture”, and how to optimize it; and then discusses techniques to use multiple captures when the brightness range of the scene exceeds that of the sensor. This will explain how to work with virtually any brightness range to produce the best possible print quality. The digital sensor’s range falls far short of that of negative film (both color and black-and-white), but with multiple captures can equal, or perhaps even exceed, that range under ideal conditions when the light remains fixed and nothing in the scene is moving. So, just as the making of a silver print cannot be separated from the properties of light-sensitive materials and their related developers, digital photography cannot be separated from the processing of the information produced by the camera’s sensor and the refinement of the image in the software.


CHAPTER 12 Presentation



A FINE PHOTOGRAPH deserves an appropriate presentation. The presentation should enhance the photograph without overwhelming or detracting from it. The frame or method of displaying the photograph should not draw attention to itself. The best presentation is understated, simple, and conservative. Showy presentations detract from the image and are needed only if the photograph is inherently weak. I feel that a fine photograph looks best when dry mounted. A dry mounted print has the structural support of the mount board, it lies perfectly flat, and it appears to have been given greater care than an unmounted print.

Corner mounted, overmatted prints have always enjoyed a degree of popularity, but I am somewhat ambivalent to them. Such prints can be made to lay reasonably flat with only a small bow or ripple; and if the mount board is damaged, the print can be easily removed and remounted on a new board. This has obvious advantages, yet I still prefer the look of a smooth, dry mounted print.


CHAPTER 13 Exploding Photographic Myths


Exploding Photographic Myths

DESPITE ALL THE PHOTOGRAPHY INSTRUCTION OUT THERE—and too often because of it—a number of patently incorrect ideas persist. These photographic myths must be laid to rest. They push photographers in the wrong direction. Let’s reveal the invalidity of these commonly held beliefs.

Some myths have already been dealt with in this book. By approaching them in a somewhat different manner, and perhaps by imparting a different emphasis to them, this chapter may serve as worthwhile reinforcement. Several of the myth-breakers I will discuss are primarily geared toward traditional black-and-white photography, yet many of the concepts are extremely valuable to both traditional and digital photographers.

Figure 13–1: Raspberry and Corn Lily
The fascinating relationships between the wild raspberry leaves amidst the surrounding corn lily leaves caught my eye on the Iceberg Lake trail in Glacier National Park. Using my 4 × 5 camera with a 210mm lens, I aimed almost straight down, placing the raspberry leaves directly in the center of the image, making sure the edges were clean, with nothing distracting jutting in or leading the eye out. Does center placement break a well-known rule about composition? You bet it does! This chapter deals with several well-known photographic rules that deserve to be avoided, or better yet, discarded entirely.


CHAPTER 14 Photographic Techniques and Artistic Integrity


Photographic Techniques and Artistic Integrity

BECAUSE THE CAMERA, DARKROOM, OR COMPUTER can be used to achieve such remarkable transformations of the scene that was in front of the camera, a real philosophical question is raised: When do you step over the line from legitimacy to illegitimacy in the use of photographic manipulation? How far can you go before you’ve gone too far?

Up to now, the question has been raised in this book only as it applies to the extent of darkroom and computer manipulations that become apparent, such as too much burning, dodging, flashing, bleaching, sharpening, cloning, etc. But are there legal, moral, ethical, or philosophical boundaries limiting the degree or extent of manipulation?

Surely there are. An obvious example would be the manipulation of photographs for blackmail or nefarious political ends. Time magazine once published an article showing how simple it would be to produce a realistic print of a fictional meeting between the U.S. Secretary of State and a terrorist leader. Such a photograph could be accompanied by a story about the alleged meeting and secret deals made with known enemies. In a similar way, it would be equally simple (and equally immoral) to produce a photograph of a political candidate engaging in sex with a call girl when no such encounter ever occurred, and to distribute the phony image just before an election. These would surely be gross abuses of the photographic process. Short of such obvious examples of intentional fraud and deception, there is a gray area of possibilities that warrants some serious discussion.


CHAPTER 15 Photographic Realism, Abstraction, and Art


Photographic Realism, Abstraction, and Art

IN THE LATE 1870S, BODIE WAS A MINING TOWN of considerable importance, producing millions of dollars in gold and silver ore at the prices of its day. It was infamous for its bitter weather, brawls, and shootings. Its fortunes declined during the early 1880s as the mines were depleted. The last occupants moved away in 1940, eight years after a devastating fire destroyed most of the town. Today Bodie is a California State Historical Monument with a cluster of remaining buildings spread over a square mile area.

I first visited Bodie in 1975 on a field trip during a photography workshop. I was immediately drawn to the weathered wood, decaying interiors with peeling, stained cloth wallpaper, and warped windows. I returned often, each time photographing details of wood and windows, portions of interiors, and other bits of the formerly occupied houses. The photographs were well composed and nicely printed. They had wonderful textures, strong lines and forms, good balance and contrast, and rich tonalities (figure 15–1).


CHAPTER 16 Thoughts on Creativity


Thoughts on Creativity

CREATIVITY. What is it? Where does it come from? How can I become more creative? These questions are asked constantly. They are important and worthy of discussion.

In Western art, creativity is almost synonymous with originality. I specify Western art, because in Eastern art—as well as in primitive art—originality is relatively less important. Most Eastern and primitive art adheres to traditional methods, motifs, imagery, styles, and messages. An Eastern or primitive artist first strives for the quality of the ancient masters. The best artists are recognized for their superior work, and then they have the status that allows them to delve into innovation. Subsequently their innovative work is much acclaimed, producing a new standard for future artists.

Not so in Western art. Attempts to emulate the work of past masters are regarded as redundant, hollow, and meaningless. Efforts that are reminiscent of past masters are often frowned upon as “copies”. At best, an attempt to copy the work of a past master—or even the appearance of copying—might be looked upon as a good learning experience, but certainly not as an attempt to produce a significant artistic statement. The connotations of copying are decidedly negative.


CHAPTER 17 Approaching Creativity Intuitively


Approaching Creativity Intuitively

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS TO ME that photographers are the most hesitant, intensely careful people on earth. So many are unwilling to proceed with anything new or different unless and until they can identify every step along the way. They seem almost terrified to try something new for fear that it may fail. I have seen this syndrome for years among workshop students, hidden within questions I’m asked at lectures or gallery openings, or in casual discussions with both amateur and professional photographers. We can all get caught in such hang-ups, myself included, although I consciously try to avoid that type of hesitancy.

All of us want to be successful. All of us want to avoid failure. (These are two different things, so the previous sentences are not redundant.) But I suggest that if you want to know every result before you plunge ahead, you can’t achieve an “aha!” moment that lifts you from the banality of everyday plodding (i.e., neither success nor failure, but just getting by) to something much more exciting, enlivening, and satisfying. The possibility of abject failure is the price you must be willing to pay for trying something new, something different, something removed from your normal procedures. (Initially this may appear to be contradictory to thoughts on previsualization in the early chapters, but it isn’t. Read on.)


CHAPTER 18 Toward A Personal Philosophy


Toward A Personal Philosophy

THIS CLOSING CHAPTER BRINGS THE BOOK FULL CIRCLE. We started by inquiring into ourselves—our own personal interests—and asking what we wanted to say about them and how we wanted to say it. Then we delved into the techniques and considerations that translate those desires into visual statements, and not mere “pictures”. Then we engaged in some philosophical thoughts about art and creativity. In this chapter I hope to suggest avenues for improving your vision in areas that already interest you, and for drawing inspiration and insight from areas you may have never previously considered.

To my way of thinking, maintaining flexibility in every aspect of photography is the best gift you can give yourself. Avoid limits; avoid boxing yourself in. Try to avoid saying, “I won’t do this” or “I won’t do that”. We all tend to place limits on ourselves unintentionally; let’s not do it intentionally. Of course, whenever you choose the things you’ll do, inevitably you also choose what you won’t do. You can’t photograph everything; you can’t print everything; you can’t experiment with every approach. But you can keep an open mind and you can periodically delve into areas that didn’t attract you previously. Allow that flexibility.


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