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Review: Photo Nuts and Bolts (Digital Photography School

Photo Nuts and Bolts is a downloadable e-book written by photorapher Neil Creek, and sold through the Digital Photography School (DPS) website. The book's subtitle, "Know your camera and take better photos" pretty much sums up its purpose: to teach beginner photographers how to use their cameras well, and to enable more experienced photographers to brush up on some basics.

The first thing that struck me about Photo Nuts and Bolts was how short it is, at just 64 pages. It doesn't set out to provide an exhaustive introduction to the subject of photography, but this did just seem a little bit brief. I was initially disappointed by this fact, and thought it seemed a little bit stingy.

As I worked my way through the guide, though, I realized that it had actually been very carefully thought through. This book selects the most important information, presents it succinctly and doesn't waffle. On reflection, that is actually exactly what I wanted from it. I didn't want to have to wade through loads of verbiage just to reach 2 or 3 take-away points. Luckily, I didn't have to.

So Photo Nuts and Bolts is 64 pages of selectively chosen, concisely explained info that all photographers need in order to understand their cameras. Plus, each one of those 64 pages doesn't actually have that much written content on it! I know, it sounds more like a booklet, and you might be thinking you want more of a reference manual.

But this guide is only available on DPS and it's pretty unique. How many photography guides have you seen that explain everything you need to know to understand the 'nuts and bolts' of your camera in a non-techy, concise way? It's basically a grouping together of some of the very best, most well received, clearest blog posts - with additional graphics and photos for illustration - that have appeared on DPS.


The 10 Sections

The book is divided into 10 sections as follows:

1. Light and The Pinhole Camera

A crystal clear introduction to the nature as light. This is a good starting point, as photography is basically playing with light. I have to admit I was slightly muddled about the basics of photography and pinhole cameras before reading this. It put me straight and I'm very grateful, because once these basics are clear, it sorts out any confusion that falls further down the line on issues like lenses, focal length and sharpness. It's amazing how much of the world of modern digital photography is directly linked with the processes of the earliest cameras that existed.

2. Lenses and Focus

This little section (and like all these sections it's really just a few short paragraphs) sums up the nature of refraction, which is the way lenses focus light on to an image. It explains how lenses solve the problem that the pinhole camera had of either creating a big, blurry image or a small, sharp one. Refraction enables lenses to take in lots of light (brightness) and bend it onto a small focus point (sharpness). There are some really useful illustrations that explain this.

3. Lenses Light and Magnification

This section delves into the crucial area of f ratios, or f numbers. If you only think about f numbers in terms of aperture this will clear up much of the background theory. The f ratio is actually the relationship between lens entry pupil diameter and focal length. This area is really nicely explained with useful illustrations.

4. Expsore and Stops

On to exposure, and the book starts to get more practical, which might be a relief to some of you! Neil Creek describes how exposure is measured in Exposure Value, which can be changed by 3 key variables (aperture, shutter speed and ISO).

5. Aperture

This sections explains the key facts about the aperture. Even of you think you know all about the aperture, it will make more sense to you against the background of the previous chapters. The author is really good at tying together themes and concepts throughout the book. We learn, here about how the aperture changes the entry pupil diameter, which in turn alters the f ratio.

6. Shutter

The second point on the exposure triangle is also explained clearly and succinctly, with lots of questions you might want answered given clear answers. The twin-gate system is really well explained and illustrated, plus a link to an amazing online video of a shutter in slow motion is provided.

7. ISO

This section explains all the key points about ISO in a very few words. It's not a simple subject by any means, but the author makes it seem so. I never thought I could have such a clear grasp of a subject like signal to noise ratio in about 6 minutes of reading!

8. Light Meter

Next the light meter is explained, the thing that makes photography possible for most of us. The basics are well summarized, and there are some good practical tips on how to avoid getting an innaccurate reading.

9. White Balance

White balance can be confusing for beginners, but I'm pretty sure that even the totally uninitiated would not be thrown by this section of the book. The author explains how cameras cannot judge colour in the way our eyes/brain can, and so certain systems have to be used to compensate for errors in judging colour 'temperature'.

10. Metering Modes and Exposure Compensation

Finally, some specific controls for using light meters and exposure modes are explained. There's a succint summary of the different metering modes, and description of when to use them. Plus exposure compensation is given an extremely clear and simple explanation. I'm not quite sure why these 2 subjects are dealt with together at the end, but it rounds off the book nicely!


Homework and resources

At the end of each of the above 10 sections the author provides some well thought through 'homework'/project ideas. This is really important, because photography is about taking pictures, not reading theoretical explanations. It helps all the information come to life.

There is also a list of further resources at the end of each section, typically featuring links to several excellent website. Sometimes these are just Wikipedia articles, but sometimes there are some amazing blog posts that I hadn't discovered before on leading sites like Strobist and Cambridge in Colour.


Why get this book?

I think Photo Nuts and Bolts is a really solid introduction to cameras and how to use them for a 2 key reasons:

1. It understands that the distinction between 'theoretical' and 'practical' information is artificial. You have to understand the basics of how your camera works otherwise you'll constantly be asking "why, why why...?". Everything seems clearer after reading this book.

2. It understands people are busy and just want to enjoy their cameras without having to read a huge book. It's short, to the point and tells you what you need to get started, nothing more and nothing less. It is very nicely designed, with a great layout and clear illustration photos and graphics to make for an easy read.

Sidenote: A useful pocket reference print-out comes free, which is handy to stash in your camera bag:

So Photo Nuts and Bolts isn't for anyone who is pretty well versed in the workings of digital cameras and the basic practical controls. If that's you, I recommend either a lengthier, more in-depth guide, or the second book in the DPS series Photo Nuts and Shots (which I've also read and can recommend).

But this book is for people who feel they might not be using their camera to its full potential. Do you feel like you're a bit stuck in the same mode the whole time? A little bit afraid to push the boundaries and explore the technical/creative abilities of your camera? I think you will probably love Photo Nuts and Bolts because it will make you realize there's nothing to be afraid of, and that photography is incredibly fun with just a tiny bit of techncial knowledge.

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