Category: Books


Digital Wildlife Photography

John & Barbara Gerlach

© 2013 Focal Press

$34.95 hardcover unjacketed

John and Barbara Gerlach have cooked up a conversational, even folksy, introduction to the many issues photographers face when shooting wildlife.

In many ways, animal photography creates more challenges than any other specialty. Like street photography, it depends on decisive moments, but most photographers have a better idea of how people behave than how wild animals behave. Finding and approaching animals in the wild can prove difficult, and capturing the best shots requires immense patience. Like landscape photography, expense and access can mean that being able to anticipate light and position oneself for optimal composition can save you money and determine whether you will get any usable shots at all in the limited time you have in a location.

The Gerlachs bring their experience to bear on the subject with strong opinions and a thoroughness that belies the book’s brief 200 page length. They move from equipment choice to technique to artistic issues in a logical progression that reinforces with repetition all its lessons. A few people might quibble with their Canikoncentricity (he shoots Canon, she Nikon) but they base their preference solely on numbers of users, citing the ease of finding the right lenses and accessories, and most importantly, advice. They have taken over a million exposures, but they still value sharing with other photographers.

The most effective aspect of their approach lies in their advising photographers to abandon the habits of “walking around” photography in favor of a pragmatic, subject based approach. Too many shooters have become lazy, having found settings that provide decent results in a lot of situations. They are one step above “program” mode photographers, adjusting only one parameter, such as aperture or shutter speed or exposure compensation. The Gerlachs challenge the reader to expose manually, focus using the back button, adjust the ISO up when necessary, read the histogram, and, yes, use a flash sometimes.

They also spend a good bit of time in the middle of the book talking about image quality, not in the manner of gear heads who attribute IQ to shooting the most up to date camera, but as a function of proper technique. I took a seminar from Jeff Schewe in the early days of digital cameras, when 6 megapixel cameras crossed the threshold and were considered usable for photojournalism and web use. His message: if you don’t shoot on a tripod, don’t choose proper light, and don’t shoot raw, you might as well have a 3 megapixel camera. The Gerlachs show that sharpness depends more on a steady camera, intelligent focusing,  and fast shutter than on sensor resolution, and good dynamic range relies more on proper exposure than having the latest and greatest camera. Bad habits that inhibit IQ, like using a UV protection filter, not using a lens hood, or letting your lenses and sensor collect schmutz, are visited in depth.

The chapters on flash and composition are the icing on this many layered cake. They follow the general principles of photography, but focus on the particular issues that face wildlife photographers, who must frame their images for different purposes than say, street, still life, or landscape photographers. Wildlife photography is about behavior, and has more in common with cinema than painting in terms of composition. Flash not only illuminates but freezes action. And as always, they emphasize the welfare of the animals and delicate balance between their being used to humans and dependent on them or controlled by them.

For a book that was written in 2012, it remains fresh. The Gerlachs’ emphasis on technique and general principles keeps it current. They wrote the book to introduce readers to the new possibilities opened up by digital cameras, but they carefully left the nature of the improvements open ended. Photography instruction books should have top notch photographs, and the ones they include illustrate wonderfully both the best and worst outcomes of wildlife photography.

Some readers may find a lot of the material basic, and some of it out of their primary area of interest (hummingbirds? safaris?) but on the whole the book contains a treasure trove of information, at least for beginning and intermediate shooters.

I have attended a lot of seminars, and my test for books and talks consists of these questions: Did I learn something new? Was I reminded of something I had forgotten? Did I have something I always do validated? This book provided lots of yeses for all three questions, so I recommend it to anyone looking to master this difficult craft.


© 2010 Rocky Nook

240 pages

ISBN: 978-1-933952-56-7

Price: $39.95 (French flapped paperback)

I obtained this book in advance of a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Having never shot wildlife before, I was looking for some guidance.

The author is clear in his foreword that this book emerges from his experiences as a professional photographer and workshop guide in the Serengeti region of East Africa. The book is obviously of greatest utility to those who are planning a trip to that region, as much of the text details the natural features and wildlife there, but nearly a quarter of the book deals with general concepts of wildlife photography that apply to a wide variety of situations outside of East Africa. The part of the book that deals specifically with the Serengeti is useful as well. By following the author’s careful planning and execution of a successful safari shoot, one can develop one’s own method of researching the venue and local wildlife, as well as the practical matters, such as transportation, permissions, time of day, and applicable regulations.

The section on equipment, as with all books of this sort, is the weakest. With quickly advancing camera technology, the specific gear cited is soon outdated. Skrzypczak usefully ties specific recommendations to general principles (range of focal lengths, dynamic range, speed, depth of field, noise), but he often indulges in unsubstantiated generalities – was the 2007 generation of APS-C digital cameras really considered by anyone to be equivalent to 4.5×6 cm roll film? – and sometimes is downright wrong, as when he says that vibration reduction in lenses “increases the brightness of the lens by up to four additional f-stops.” On the plus side, he does alert the potential wildlife shooter that the enterprise costs big money, and that a lower budget means making hard choices, as does the need to travel light.

The sections on technique and composition are where the book really shines. Skrzypczak’s explanation of the use of the various autofocus options is the best I have ever encountered, and he includes a helpful graphic with each photograph in the book indicating which AF choice is best for each situation.  Similarly, each of his excellent technical and composition suggestions is put into practice in the chapters of the book which narrate his photography during each of the seasons of the year. The importance of learning the behavior of the wildlife also moves into the foreground, as that knowledge contributes both to the opportunities afforded to get the best shots and the safety of the photographer and the animals themselves. Also, as I always say, photography is problem solving, and seeing how he copes with tricky situations makes the reader a nimbler shooter. Protect highlights or let them go? Subject close up or in context? Background sharp or blurred? Preserve textures or edges? Shoot fast or wait?  One learns how to make all these choices instinctively, which becomes valuable when opportunities are fleeting and time tight.

The prose is clumsy and wooden in spots, but generally serviceable. The book was originally published in Germany, so I suspect that either the author or an editor translated it. The excellent photographs and the marvelous balance of informative text and images make the safari chapters the sort of narrative that one can dip into for a page or just an image at a time, if one likes, or read all the way through for a thorough idea of how an expert shoots wildlife.

I would warn the casual wildlife photographer away, but there is no such thing. This sort of shooting requires serious preparation and substantial financial investment in travel, guides, and gear, either through purchases or rentals. Anyone ready to take on a serious wildlife excursion would definitely benefit from this resource.



© 2012 Rocky Nook

240 pages

ISBN: 978-1-937538-07-1

Price: $59.95 Hardover (laminated paper over boards)

Those of us who did not attend photography school or spend our twenties assisting in studios often have gaps in our shooting repertoire. Photography is problem-solving, and we have more than adequate analytical skills, but education still counts. I have seen too many cocky photographers get tied in knots when they take on a shoot that requires special skills. Also, many part time photographers lack the organizational and legal smarts to make their operations efficient and profitable.

Most educators know that learning a trade requires three elements: being told what to do, watching someone do it, and doing it yourself. To that end, photographers have sought out webinars and DVDs, where one can watch someone plan, shoot, and process, live seminars and classes, which allow one to perform the tasks and ask questions, and books, which lay out all the details and act as a reference.

Someone recently said that revenue from photography education now exceeds that from the sale of images. Whether or not that is true, there is certainly a lot of instruction going on, and anywhere there is money, there are problems. Many webinars and seminars are thinly disguised advertisements for products at their worst, and even when the class is useful, it is often limited by the sponsorships and allegiances of the instructor. Others have the faults of the worst sort of inspirational presentations – lots of teary stories and self-help nonsense. There are fantastic offerings available from creativelive and others, but they are habit-forming, time-consuming, tough to retain, and still are no substitute for hands on training.

Dennis Savini’s Masterclass is a nice counterpoint to the blizzard of instruction that targets rising professional photographers. A typical Rocky Nook production, it combines an attractive layout with well thought out, organized text. Gorgeously printed on substantial paper, it is bound to lay flat, as instructional books should.  Copiously illustrated with wonderful examples of studio work, it shows the best work possible in a variety of situations.

While this is a great book for studio photographers who want to broaden their skills, it is not for neophytes. The first quarter of the book, an introduction to general issues in studio photography, is much more suggestive than directive. Rather than give copious detail about issues like the physical plant, gear, legal issues, and marketing, it simply outlines the issues and choices you have to make. If you want detailed information on modifiers, cameras, lights, decoration, advertising, social media, etc., look elsewhere.

The meat of the book consists of a comprehensive catalog of product and corporate shots. Each shot is accompanied by technical details, and throughout the presentation, short articles with general lighting principles and shooting tips supplement the pieces covering the individual set ups. Post production and shooting steps are illustrated on those shots that rely heavily on special effects.

One weakness of the book is the short shrift given to portrait shooting, which seems like an afterthought at the end of the book.

The photos in the book were shot largely with medium and large format cameras, and the photographs produced, will in most cases be out the reach of most photographers. However, I learned how to be a better landscape photographer from studying Ansel Adams, even though I will never haul a view camera into the wilderness. The techniques and principles are clearly laid out in this volume and many of the set ups within the capabilities of most shooters. If one seriously wants to expand studio skills, the book could be useful.

That being said, it’s definitely a masterclass – amateurs or new studio photographers will likely find this volume intimidating, if inspiring, but in the end not as useful as other books aimed squarely at them by authors like Kelby and Evening. The introductory material lacks cohesion. For this group, the book does not justify the price.

For established or master photographers, however, it serves as an excellent reference book on handling tricky or specialized shooting situations. The setups show great variety, and the photography great craft and finesse, well explained and illustrated. This book would have been best presented with an expanded number of case studies and a less dismissive approach to portraiture.

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