Take Your Photography to the Next Level, by George Barr, ISBN: 978-1-933952-21-5

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, October 2008
Published by: Rocky Nook
Requires: A definite interest in photography
MSRP: US$39.95, CAN$43.95

The surging tide of digital cameras is being borne on the shoulders of ever-increasing numbers of amateur photographers apparently intent on capturing every square centimeter of the planet and its inhabitants. That's not necessarily a bad thing unless they all happen to show up at the same time in your front yard one day. As well, and unfortunately, the ratio of bad photographers to good photographers is increasing at an alarming rate in direct proportion to the number of cameras being sold. Unfortunately again, Flickr, Photo.net, RedBubble, SmugMug and other photo sites are rife with users who seem to think that digital photos, once saved, should never be deleted no matter how terrible, ridiculous, redundant or pointless (accidental shots of the floor anyone?). The free photo sites are being used for storage of literally billions of garbage photos shot by millions of people just as the sites are being used by more sensible people (and professional photographers - not necessarily the same thing!) to store their best, carefully selected photos. The goal of Take Your Photography to the Next Level seems to be to enforce the idea, as suggested in the Foreword, that great photography is directly related to the degree to which the creative eye and technical skill with camera equipment are thoroughly blended. It's a theory — and a good one: Almost any camera gear will do just fine because only the photographer can make a great photo.


There are some very good things in Take Your Photography to the Next Level. Barr's repetition of the advice to repeatedly visit a site at different times and seasons, as needed to get the right shot, is well established throughout the book. Few authors emphasize this as clearly as Barr and it's refreshing. Barr's clearly expressed description of each Aesthetic Level (divided into six levels - A to F) and each Technical Level (labeled 1 through 5) to which people can aspire may be found moot, but they stand among only a small handful of such descriptions ever published and can be used as quality and personal photographic development guides for many aspiring photographers and photography hobbyists. The nature photographs Barr has chosen to illustrate his interests in pure texture and pattern are stellar in many cases. Barr's B&W work — I can't emphasize it enough — is very good, and should have been used more often throughout the book, especially to illustrate the manner in which emotion and visceral response to photographic subjects is so often tied to strong contrast provided by different kinds of available and artificial light. Barr's easygoing writing style, with its urgings and occasional redundancies, is at once affable and earnest. It's easy to accept his advice because the impression of the man himself is very positive and friendly. I'd bet real money that Barr would be a treat to meet and talk with at a photography show or camera club meeting.

Chapter 2 contains, among other things, four fundamentally useful sections titled: Rules for Looking, Seeing Fatigue, There's Nothing Here to Photograph, and Where Should You Point the Camera. All four sections should have been give chapters of their own and explored in greater depth. That Barr wrote them and included them in the book in the first place however, is worthwhile and may constitute the greatest value in the book.

Take Your Photography to the Next Level (subtitled "From Inspiration to Image") contains an effusive Foreword by well-known professional landscape photographer Michael Reichmann. While the Foreword sets up great expectations, Barr's aforementioned easygoing and affable writing style does not help him get quickly to the point. While the book is well organized, offering general coverage of all the fundamentals which dedicated photographers, avid amateurs and enthusiastic hobbyists must address, each description of approach or methodology requires an excess of narrative text from Barr in order to get to the point. That's the sign of a competent but inexperienced writer.

The book is loaded with photographs that are very nicely printed — no problem there. The issue is that Barr's best work may clearly be Black & White rather than color. His color work is certainly competent, but perfectly balanced color, perfect exposure, perfect composition and low-to-medium contrast don't make great photos if the subject matter is boring, repetitive or unoriginal. Barr's photographic style seems to eschew contrast which defines shapes, instead favoring almost complete removal of any sharp contrast in order to emphasize texture and pattern. Frankly, it's a rather narrow approach to photography. For example, Barr's perfectly balanced, perfectly exposed, perfectly focused, perfectly lit and perfectly rendered photo of pipe benders arrayed on a table is more a demonstration of technical craft than it is an illustration of anything visually interesting, although it might make a good piece of stock for some photo library. Unfortunately, that photo, like the photo of sheared & punched steel plates, was used to make a point about shapes and abstraction that may be lost on most readers principally because the photos are uninteresting. Of course every single photo in any photography book can't be marvelously interesting to every single reader. The problem with the text and photos in Take Your Photography to the Next Level is simply that the writer/photographer is insufficiently authoritative in his approach, not particularly well known as a photographer, and to my eye a truly wonderful Black & White photographer who insists on doing far more work in color than he should. Simply put, Barr's favored style limits his ability to provide the best photographic illustrations of the points in his book.

A word to aspiring authors: unless you're truly famous and can stand the expressions of surprise, do not use photos of your underwear or pants crumpled on the floor, or your wet wrinkled feet in the bathtub to illustrate your book. Mercifully, there are only a few such photos in Take Your Photography to the Next Level, but their inclusion is likely an example of inattention on the part of the book's editor. Barr attempts to illustrate the idea that complex shapes and soft textures can be found in common objects all around us. Barr is not wrong. Whether or not such objects can be the subjects of interesting photos is another matter altogether.

Cons: The book lacks detailed instructions or tutorials, so the book title promises much that remains undelivered. For example, a summary of chapter 2-4 is sorely needed consisting of a step-by-step process for selecting a specific location for a shoot, scouting the location for the best shooting time of day, deciding on which camera and lenses to use, getting permission to enter the location in the case of privately owned property, the process of shooting, post-processing image workflow, and so on. All the elements of such a step-by-step guide exist in chapters 2-4, but a separate summary chapter would have taken this book to the next level and provided tremendous foundational value to aspiring photographers of all kinds who are struggling to organize their varied interests. There are some glaring omissions which stand in stark contrast to many more robust and better founded books. The most significant omission is the complete absence of an Index. While the Table of Contents is clearly laid out, with logically and descriptively named chapters, the complete absence of an Index will leave many readers struggling to use the book as a reference of any kind. Even though the book contains a photo print order form, there's no list of photo illustrations anywhere in the book — a serious omission which, like the absence of an Index, prevents the book from being easily used as a reference guide. Rules for Looking, Seeing Fatigue, There's Nothing Here to Photograph, and the Where Should You Point the Camera sections in chapter 2, and two sections in chapter 5 titled Statistics & the Odds of Success and Looking for Perfection, should have received more attention from Barr to more fully explore the subjects and to emphasize their immense value in a book of this type. By contrast, two of the sections in chapter 1, Elements of a Great Photograph and What Photographs Well, could have been left out because they deal with ideas that are exceedingly difficult to quantify, qualify or describe — ideas which even the most experienced photography writers avoid. For all of this, Barr needs a co-writer and the book is worthwhile enough that I'd do the co-writing and editing free of charge.

Pros: Author and photographer George Barr offers an easy and persistent writing style that is at once homey and approachable. If you're a novice photographer, or a capable intermediate level photographer who lacks technical knowledge or worse, is not confident about creative decisions, Barr's tendency to repeat a description using different approaches will likely be quite welcome. Most of the photos chosen to illustrate the book work quite well to support Barr's descriptions of photography technique and philosophy. And that's the main theme and foundation of the book — encouraging improvements in your photography through an insistence on the most positive attitude and the gradual refinement of the photographer's eye. The Rules for Looking, Seeing Fatigue, There's Nothing Here to Photograph, and Where Should You Point the Camera sections in chapter 2, albeit too brief, may alone be worth the price of the book. Take Your Photography to the Next Level emphasizes that even the most expensive cameras and lenses in the world won't produce great photos if the photographers operating the equipment have not taken at least a bit of time to refine their interests and to appreciate the basic value inherent in learning about composition, color, light and shadow. Recommended for beginners with some technical knowledge, intermediate level photographers struggling with creative decisions and for photography hobbyists and enthusiasts interested in expanding their creative reach.

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