Brian Stoppee and Janet Stoppee,
Stoppee's Guide to Photography and Light:
What Digital Photographers, Illustrators, and Creative Professionals Must Know

(Burlington: Focal Press, 2009)

book photo Does your photography bring you joy? Among the first words of this book is a statement that photography is a way of communicating light. The authors then tell us that, through the images which it transmits, "light brings us great joy" (p. 13). If your photography is frustrating, or for some other reason does not bring you any joy, working through this book should lead you to regain that sense. If your photography already brings you joy, this book will certainly guide you to understand it better, and open your mind to new possibilities.

From the opening pages, this is a guide to digital photography. The book covers the details of digital work flow from first idea to finished print. Have you wondered how to handle memory cards, how to keep those that are ready for use separated from those that are full, how to be sure that you don't confuse them or accidentally format a full card, how to back up files, how to deal with Photoshop, how to print your results—or any of a few hundred other questions? This is a good place to look. To make it easier, there are copious cross references in the text and an excellent index.

Although the book is billed as a digital guide, anyone using a film camera can benefit from much of what is in here as well. Of course, some of the details will be different — but keep in mind that underlying principles of science still stand! For one example, properly viewing slides or prints requires the correct light source, just as viewing digital requires a calibrated monitor.

The first six chapters deal with foundations: the technical knowledge and principles of using light in photography, and carrying them through to an effective photo session. It starts with how light works, leading to how use that knowledge. This sequence is typical of all the sections, so that you learn the why and how, and then use that to plan and develop your own path.

Chapter 7, "Ambient Light," the first to take up putting the principles into practice, should be of special interest to rail photographers. When you're out photographing trains or large scenic areas, you cannot, as the writers tell us, change what's there. But rather than complain about it, you need to learn to make the most of what is available. Mastering (or struggling with) this aspect will change your approach to rail photography and vastly improve your results. This is also an important chapter for any photographers who are interested in studio work: as the Stoppees note, before you can understand how to use artificial light well, you must understand natural light and "find the visual dynamic in it all" (p. 235). For outdoor photographers, it's especially important to understand the weather and what causes various phenomena—not only to anticipate what will happen, but for your own safety. Getting struck by lightning or carried away by a tornado is not fun. In other weather, understanding what is different about morning, mid-day, afternoon, and late-day light will help you with planning a trip or dealing with situations as they crop up. Don't overlook the section on gender-specific light: of course it is about people, but look at how they are portrayed and see where you can use these portrayals to inspire your own thoughts about a different subject. Photography is about getting beyond the literal view to tell a story, and this is a good place to start reaching.

For many rail photographers, the parts about artificial light and its related equipment may seem like something you'll never use. Think again—do you ever take photos of models? Of the interiors of stations? At night? Use your camera to make a copy of some paper or old photo? Want to learn how to take good photos of a builder's plate for research, or some close-up detail for modeling? You may find a new field to explore — some of those details could make a visually grabbing photo. A new direction, even if it's just a bit of exploration, could renew your views of the whole.

Near the end of the book, in a discussion of battery-powered flash units, the Stoppees write "for us, it's always a matter of what works for the situation" (p. 360). This is typical of the pragmatic approach of this book. From the opening discussion of color theory to the concluding words about printing and exhibition, this book is all about what works.

The results of that approach may be a bit disconcerting to some readers. One of the back-cover blurbs refers to a "conversational tone," but it seems to this writer that the tone is more like rapid-fire bullet note points. It's not so much a two-way conversation as it is a feeling of watching as the author works. You're the observing student, expertly guided as to what is going on as it unfolds. From time to time, as a summary, the lecture breaks off and you are peppered with questions that make you think about how the procedure relates to everything you've learned so far, and how to integrate all of it into your own style. Art has a foundation in science, and a photographer who wishes to create art must understand this. Thus one section starts with Newton's discovery of the rainbow, and reminds us that photographers must have a "lifelong fascination with light and color" (p. 24). That we must understand the science behind it points to a need to be well-rounded. An artist expresses the world to others, and if an artist is to succeed at that, he must be a citizen of the world. (Note to my students: this is why you are required to take classes such as mine that may seem to have little to do with your ability to use a camera.) Through it all, you are challenged to break out of the mold of conformity and mediocrity, or as is stated at one point, "stretch your comfort zone . . . . just because others don't understand . . . don't join them" (p. 44).

Because you are, in effect, watching as the Stoppees work, much of the content of this book is specific to certain equipment, such as Nikon, Photoshop, Westcott, and Wacom. However, if you are not a user of one of these, or many of the other products mentioned, you need not fear. The "whys" are explained well enough that you can readily transfer the principles to whatever equipment you have. And if you're not getting the results you want, the book may help you realize that sometimes you just can't cut corners to get the results you're looking for.

The book abounds with pithy statements that I've quoted off and on, and I'd like to conclude with another one. "It's your job as an accomplished photographer to find new ways to showcase what has yet to be seen" (p. 110). Enough said — except that this book, unlike some others, will challenge you to advance and lead you in that direction. Go for it!


First posted: 4 December 2008