Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography – A review

People who have become involved in digital photography during the past 5-10 years may not realize that there has been a generation of dedicated photographers whose efforts have helped make the industry what it is today. One of the most prominent among these isStephen Johnson, a fine-art landscape photographer and educator with more than 30 years experience.

Steve has just published a new book titledStephen Johnson On Digital Photography. It is a book quite unlike any that you may have seen before. But, before my brief review, a few words of disclaimer.

Steve is a friend and colleague. I interviewed him inIssue #10 of the Video Journal, and he was one of the instructors on my2005 Antarctic Expedition, and will be again on our upcoming2007 expedition. Clearly, I would not be interested in slagging a colleague’s book, and would rather have written nothing if I’d not considered the work worthwhile. But there’s no chance of that since I have foundOn Digital Photographyto be a compelling read and a valuable addition to my library.

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Within the book’s more than 300 large-format pages is a chronicle of Steve’s involvement in digital imaging. But the book is more than a personal reminisce. Woven into the story is a detailed look at how digital imaging has evolved from its beginnings though till today. This is seen though the eyes of someone who has been a consultant to a number of companies over the years including Adobe, Eastman Kodak, Apple and HP. Through his experiences Steve chronicles the development not just of the various hardware systems used to create digital images, but also the software products, such as Photoshop, which have had a seminal influence on our current craft.

There is also a considerable how-to component to the book, looking at contemporary tools and techniques. This is to my mind the book’s weakest area. Not that the tutorials aren’t worthwhile. They are. It’s just that in an attempt to provide an omnibus approach to the topic each tutorial chapter is of necessity brief. They whet the appetite, and answer some basic questions, but for the reader wanting depth they leave one hungry for more.

It should be noted that the book itself was designed and laid-out by Steve, and the colour reproduction was supervised by him as well.On Digital Photographyis therefore much like a movie where the writing, direction, editing and sound track are all done by oneauteur. It will succeed or fail based largely on the efforts of a single individual. And succeed it does, with an overall design and quality of reproduction that is uncommon in most mass-market books.


© Stephen Johnson. Used with permission.

It also needs to be mentioned that the book is liberally illustrated with Steve’s landscape photography, much of it taken with aBetterlightscanning back on a large format camera. These images are beautiful to see because of the high quality of reproduction. Only viewing Steve’s large original prints at his California gallery provides an opportunity to better appreciate both the technical as well as aesthetic quality of his work.

In addition to Steve’s photography I should mention the illustrations by Bert Monroy. They are first-rate, and help make Steve’s technical chapters both easy to read and understandable.

Stephen Johnson On Digital Photography, published byO’Reilly(ISBN 0-596-52370-X) will appeal to a wide range of photographers, from beginners to old timers looking for a history of what is still a very much evolving craft and science. If you buy one photography book this season, this should be high on your list to consider.

September, 2006