Author: Michael E. Stern

Publisher: Rocky Nook

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

Michael Stern probably has a lot to tell us about making photographs, both with a camera and with Photoshop. Unfortunately, he doesn’t convey much of this knowledge in this book, and what he does convey is ill organized.

Build a Better Photograph: A Disciplined Approach to Creativity is divided into four almost unrelated parts. The first shows how the author constructs environmental portraits by building up layers within Photoshop; the second shows how he created a photographic Christmas card for a client; the third shows how he made images from scanned objects, including dead things; and the final chapter shows how he develops product photography. The common thread throughout seems to be the use of compositing to create images.

Unfortunately, he almost explains how he composites images in Photoshop but never quite gives enough information so that the less-experienced reader can actually apply his techniques. In most cases he provides screen shots of the Photoshop layers panels for his composites but he often doesn’t explain in enough detail how to use the tools with which he created the layers. He sometimes promises that he will reveal things, and doesn’t. Typically, Stern tells you the lighting effects filter is important, but rather than explain it, he tells you to keep practicing with it until you understand it.

Apparently Stern was trying to use images he had created to show the reader the decision processes he used to achieve the final product, but even when ordered in time sequence, the processes are not explained clearly enough to be of use to most people.

On the too much information side, I didn’t find it useful to hear about how he preps himself for problem solving by having a conversation with himself before going to sleep, so that he can set a goal for the problems that he plans to resolve in his dreams; or the fact that an early partner did him dirty; or that a procurement officer gave him a hard time. The space he occupies with these meanderings might better have been used providing more detailed information. I also didn’t need the continual reminders that he was a professional, as if there were no poor professionals or excellent hobbyists.

A DVD is included with the book but this isn’t very useful either. I really don’t need to see how Stern does the dishes in the Christmas card studio or how Santa danced when not posing. Quick time spherical panoramas, mostly of his studio, are included on the DVD but there is no mention of them in the book or explanation of how they were created. The most useful things on the DVDs might be the check lists and written instructions on the use of Photoshop tools, but these are written instructions that don’t capitalize on the capabilities of DVDs. In fact if this material had been included in the book itself, it might have been integrated into the presentation in a useful manner.

People interested in doing compositing and familiar with Photoshop’s tools may benefit from seeing how one photographer uses those tools. Other readers are not likely to find this book useful.
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