“Photography Essentials: Waiting for the Light” by David Noton
Publisher: David & Charles
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
I’m mellowing. It used to be that any time I saw a photographer’s portfolio disguised as an instruction manual to appeal to a larger audience, I would call foul. But lately, I’ve begun to believe that any opportunity for a good photographer to get his work in print deserves an appraisal of his work, regardless of the box that his publisher has forced the work into.
Actually this wasn’t a hard position to take with “Waiting for the Light.” The claims for instruction are minimal, and the photographs are so good that the book deserves examination strictly as a portfolio of Noton’s work. The photographer’s forte is the panoramic landscape image, shot with a 617 camera that creates the 6:17 ratio. The individual pictures are glorious with an extreme range of light that made me wonder if these pictures hadn’t been processed with High Dynamic Range in Photoshop, but Noton claims that they are the result of waiting for just the right light for the scene he visualized, even if it might mean waiting for a week for just that light (although he does acknowledge some manipulation in Photoshop). There is nothing else in the text about how he got that look, other then to occasionally use a neutral density filter to stretch out the shutter speed to minutes, or sometimes add a split neutral density filter. Perhaps it is the changing light over an eight minute exposure that creates the glow. Certainly, it would be worth trying these long exposures to see if that would yield such striking images.
The book also includes a fair share of 35mm exposures of people, city streets and the like which are also quite striking, but in an age where we are regularly exposed to images from the most remote parts of the world, these do not have the impact of the light in the panoramas.
Unfortunately the pictures are presented on almost square pages of 24 by 26 centimeters. If ever a set of pictures called for a higher ratio shaped page, these demanded it. I wanted to see the pictures larger, without two on a page, or so much space above and below a panorama. And I was certainly disappointed to see a panorama stretched across a centerfold.
Good pictures do not necessarily make a good book, and here I objected to the rhetoric of the presentation, that is, the way that the order and juxtaposition of images adds to our understanding of what is being presented. Here the pictures were presented in an order that seemed to evolve out of an organization based on instruction that added nothing to our understanding rather then a synergistic presentation. Perhaps it would be useful for the publisher’s design staff to study the books of Jack Dykinga or Art Wolfe.
When it comes to instruction, one theme resounds throughout the book. Wait for the light! There are a lot of other tips sprinkled throughout the book, but not in any fashion that would allow photographers to organize them into a coherent approach to capturing images. Still, there probably is an instructional benefit from studying Noton’s photographs carefully and analyzing what makes them so good. There is a final mandatory chapter on mechanics, but it mostly discusses Noton’s transition from film to digital and that’s a ship which has long since sailed. I almost cried when the author said that Levels and Curves are important to control light but were beyond the remit of this book.
Where does that leave one? Noton’s pictures are eye-stoppers that you shouldn’t miss. But you shouldn’t expect too much of the presentation.