Exploring Color Photography

This is a review of Exploring Color Photography by Robert Hirsch, fifth edition, Focal Press, 2011. I read the book while studying the TAOP chapter on colour, thinking that it would be a great way to learn more about colour. That was partly right.

Exploring Color Photography

Exploring Color Photography

The book is large, thick, heavy and very thorough. At first glance it’s an excellent resource that covers everything you would want to know about colour photography, and while that might be its strength, it is also its major downfall. There is too much of everything. Too much detail, too many subjects, too many words to describe simple things, and too many points being made within the available number of words.

Robert Hirsch starts with two introductory chapters. In the first of these, “Color Photography Concepts” he covers theoretical concepts like Newton’s discovery of light being coloured, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, How the Brain Sees Color, how colour film is made, the colours of the visible spectrum, colour description, contrasts, harmony, and after images. It’s a very good foundation, and the many different subjects are like little nibbles at a cocktail party ought to be: Interesting enough to keep you fascinated, small enough to leave you wanting more, numerous enough to satisfy you.

In the second chapter, “A Concise History of Color Photography” Hirsch goes into detail about about photographic processes discussed, invented, used and eventually phased out, covering everything from hand-coloured daguerrotypes in 1839 to NASA’s use of synthetic colours in space imaging. In the process, he covers additive colour theory, colour screening processes, enlargers, subtractive colour theory, chromogenic development, Kodachrome as well as various more or less obscure processes. There is a brief discussion of the public perception of colour photography, from advertisement to fine art. The chapter ends with a discussion about computers – and here Robert Hirsch again decides to be thorough, so he covers everything (at a high level) from the World War 2 code breaking machines to the financial collapse of Kodak after digital became mainstream. The chapter is a bit like your favourite science teacher from high school: Very thorough, very precise, accurate and correct, but sadly also boring and sometimes lacking in applicability.

The third chapter is 20 pages on exposure. I’ll save the long descriptions and just mention that Hirsch is thorough and  detailed while covering a wide variety of subjects. The two pages on reciprocity failure is of limited interest to readers who have discovered digital cameras.

Chapter 4, “Filtering the light” is an interesting description of light. It covers subjects like colour temperature, filters,polarized light, special effects, flourescent light and difficulties in achieving faithful colour reproduction. The subjects are relevant, and the chapter gave me back my confidence in the book.

In the fifth chapter, “Seeing the light”, Hirsch covers visual literacy, haptic-expressionist photographers (no, I’m still not clear on that one either), visual transformation and composition. He continues with a set of very relevant sections on how the (colour of) light changes during the day, during the seasons and due to the weather.

The final advice in the chapter is a good example of Hirsch’s typical writing style: “Mechanical shutters in film cameras also slow down in the cold because of the viscosity of the lubricants thickens as the temperature drops. Such a camera can be re-lubricated with a special cold weather lubricant if you are doing a great deal of work in extremely cold conditions. These lubricants must be replaced when the camera is used again in normal conditions. Most cameras perform well in cold weather when they are not kept out in the elements longer than necessary”.

I take his words for it, and believe it to be accurate. It just doesn’t help me understand colour any better.

From chapter six onwards it’s all downhill, I’m afraid, if you’re looking to learn about colour (which would not be unreasonable, given the title of the book). You’ve got focus, perspective, compositing, copyright issues, E-6 film processing, sizing digital files, the World Wide Web as a Virtual Gallery, pinhole cameras, postcards, writing an artist’s statement, frames, self-publishing and an appendix about darkroom safety. All worthwhile subjects. All discussed in quite some detail with good explanations by someone who appears to know his stuff. It’s just not very relevant for someone looking for information about colour. And maybe that’s my mistake, for thinking the book would be about colour rather than about photography in general.

In a way the book reminds me of those “digital” books that became very popular in the early noughties. Titles like “digital landscape photography”, “digital wildlife photography”, “how to create stunning digital photographs”, “digital exposure handbook”, “mastering digital photography” (by our very own Michael Freeman), “digital food photography”, etc, etc, etc. Titles where (and I’m going out on a limb here) the author have added the word “digital” to yet-another-book-about-photography, hoping that it will sell better than its pre-digital edition did.

There is nothing wrong with Exploring Color Photography, and there is a lot of things right about it. It just feels like Robert Hirsch has taken a general photography manual and added the word color [sic] to every other heading, just like a house-owner looking to make a quick sale will get the decorator in to give all the walls a quick lick of magnolia. On the plus side, the book is lavishly illustrated with a large selection of beautiful (color) photographs.

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