Good Photographers, Bad Writers
Copyright 2007 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl

I've come to the conclusion that as a general rule, photographers are horrible writers. I haven't surveyed an overwhelming number of books on photography, but most I've seen range from “pretty bad” to, well, the most poorly-written book I've ever seen, on any subject (Bryan Peterson's “Understanding Exposure”). The only well-written book I've seen on photography is Stephen Johnson's On Digital Photography.

The reason for this, almost certainly, is that these photographers are missing one of the two wholly unrelated skills that non-fiction writing demands. They know what to present because they have knowledge of the subject matter, but they lack the other skill — good writing — so they don't know how to present it. People perhaps often think that knowledge of the subject matter is the more important skill, but except for highly advanced texts, knowing how to present what you do know is much more important.

My high-school German teacher, Doug Mori (“Mr. Mori” to me, of course), didn't speak German with native-speaker fluency, and being the football coach had a certain obnoxiousness to his presence, but he was an excellent teacher and after one year of his class I could actually converse in German far Far Far more than I could after two years of Spanish from the more linguistically advanced Mr. Speece.

Anyway, back to writing, in one sense it's not the photographer-turned-author's fault, because one normally wouldn't expect an excellent photographer to necessarily be an excellent writer, and it's surprisingly difficult for a bad writers to recognize their own work as such. However, I do expect publishers to realize when the photographer is not a good writer and either fix it, or cancel the project. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be happening.

Here's an example from Alain Briot's Mastering Landscape Photography that I've been perusing lately. There are some nice sections, and the composition exercises he suggests look to be helpful, but to find these gems one has to wade through linear inch after linear inch of abject drivel. Consider his Chapter 4, titled “How to Find the Best Light for a Specific Photograph.” This is an interesting and important subject that one could write a whole book about, but one's expectations for the chapter take a huge hit after seeing the first sentence:

Light, from the earliest time recorded in history, has played a role of great importance in human culture and existence.

Ugh.

He then goes on to talk about light with respect to the bible, Incas, King Louis XIV of France, blah blah blah. “Time and again, light has been part of the most important aspects of our lives,...” Drivel!

It only gets worse. Later, after a full page of this blather, we are treated to this:

Scott McLeay, my first photography teacher, often said that if we were to walk into a closet, close the door behind us, set up our camera on a tripod and proceed to take a time exposure, we would not get a photograph regardless of how long the exposure time is. We can expose for hours, days or months and get nothing on film or on our digital file.

The fact is that light is required to create a photographic image. We may not need much light, but we need some light. In a dark closet, even with a multi-hour exposure, we will not get a photograph because there is no light whatsoever. The first thing a photographer needs, besides a camera, film, and a lens, is light. Photographers are images made with light. Without light there can be no photographs.

Wow..... you mean light is actually required to take a photograph?

Sigh.... how can a book teach anything if the reader has to wade through crap like this?

I've only just started looking at this book, but it seems clear that the author knows photography from experience, which is perhaps the best way to know photography; his photographs are excellent. But one must understand more deeply the whys if they hope to pass along that experience in a book. For example, in talking about reflected light, he says “If the light is reflected, the light will take on the color of the reflective surface on which it bounces.”

Uh, no, it doesn't “take on the color” — it is that color. Light reflected from a purple flower doesn't take on a purplish cast, it is purple. I mean, geez, how else would our eyes see it as purple?

(Pedantically, I shouldn't say that light is a color, because electromagnetic energy doesn't become a color until sensed by something such as our eyes, but that's perhaps too pedantic to be useful here.)

His whole section on “types of light” just smacks of this kind of wishy-washiness throughout. I hold hope for the rest of the book because personally, I'm reading it for its artistic side, so I can forgive its technical failings. I just wish I didn't have to.

What publishers should do is pair up a great photographer with a great writer. When you see a book that's by such and such a person, with someone else, that's what's happening, and the result is usually excellent, combining the subject knowledge of the “by” person with the writing skills of the “with” person. A great example of this from my own bookshelf, although on a different subject, is the 1989 bestseller One up on Wall Street, which is by Peter Lynch (famous and smart mutual-fund manager) with John Rothchild (apparently, an excellent writer).

I'd love to write a book on Photography some day (once I get enough skill in the photographic department), and my dream is that the cover would look something like the image above. The most important part of it (besides the “by” with my name, of course) is the subsequent “with Bill Bryson”. That would just rock.


All 13 comments so far, oldest first...

Can’t tell you how much I share your sentiments. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the technical knowledge or artistic talent of the author, and his/her ability to convey meaningful information with the written word. Much to my chagrin this has been exceptionally true in the plethora of books on digital photography and digital post processing. Do you suppose the authors ego gets in the way of collaborative efforts?

Mike.

Of course egos are a part of it… no one likes to be told that their writing isn’t good any more than someone proud of a photograph likes being told that it’s not great. Writing a book is not usually very rewarding from a financial point of view, so there’s little financial incentive for a good photographer to take time away from their day job to write, and little financial incentive for a publisher to spend the money on a good writer to pair up with the photographer. That’s my haven’t-really-thought-about-it-much guess. —Jeffrey

— comment by Mike B. on May 12th, 2007 at 1:20pm JST (9 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

‘no one likes to be told that they’re writing isn’t good’ – well, their writing, anyway ;o)

Ouch, unthinking grammar mistakes like that are the most embarrassing type, so I fixed it so no one will ever know I wrote it. 🙂
I have a tendency toward those kinds of mistakes when adding something at the very end of a project. After I’d submitted the final copy for my first book and was exhausted, the publisher asked for one small addition, so I added a sentence. Two months later when the book was finally in print, I handed a copy to my brother and within five minutes of having it in his hands, he found an its/it’s mistake. I was mortified. It was in that last sentence inserted. —Jeffrey

I guess it’s pretty hard for most people to concentrate on getting the message across, whilst *at the same time* concentrating on avoiding the pitfalls of the English language. That doesn’t excuse the sort of nonsense you’ve quoted above, which is in a different class; the editors must take a good deal of blame, too. I’m just glad I’ve not laid out hard-earned cash to buy the books you mention! The Briot one could take prizes, so I hate to imagine what the Peterson one is like.

Peter

The kind of “good” I mean in “good writing” is more than just grammar and spelling (that’s “good proofreading” and important, but not so much as good writing, but both are very important to a good book). Good writing is knowing how to break down and present, putting yourself in your reader’s shoes, then working from the big picture down to the individual sentences. When working on my book, sometimes the prose just flows, but more often I have to hack at it over and over and over. Often, I’m left with a lingering feeling of “something’s not quite right,” and if so, I leave it and come back to fix it later, because if the tiny voice in my own head notices a problem, it’ll be screaming out to the reader who is not as blindly enamored with my writing as I am. 🙂 —Jeffrey

— comment by Peter on May 13th, 2007 at 12:44am JST (9 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I used to hire and train foreign English teachers in Osaka, and that sentence about light playing a great role reminded me of the time a resume came across my desk with this gem: “In this modern world, I strongly feel that communication is important.”

It’s a good point…. communication wasn’t nearly as important when we were all primordial ooze. (Rolls eyes…) —Jeffrey

No spelling errors, though.

— comment by Nils on May 13th, 2007 at 8:38am JST (9 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for bringing up this issue. Not having English as my native language I struggle even more with content when it’s not well presented. Most books I read are in fact English language versions (including Bill Brysons), and I really appreciate when a book is well written.

Alan Briot is an excellent photographer, his pictures and technique outstanding, but the best outcome I’ve had so far from his book is that I’m falling asleep within a minute. As a sleeping pill I can give his book my full credit. But, as I understand, Alan Briot does not have English as his native language, and that often makes it much more challenging to explore the diversity of a language during writing. So, it might not be truly fair to pick monsieur Briot as a scapegoat here. He should at least get some credit for trying to get his message out, and I will read his book through – one minute at the time. I’m actually getting more upset when reading lousy texts by native English writers.

However, to copy Bill Bryson’s laidback style when writing a book on a photographic theme could be a bit challenging, I believe. I wouldn’t expect to burst out into hilarious laughter when studying color management or sharpening. I guess such matters fall almost into the same category as regular expressions regarding how funny they can be… . Teaching how to practice photographical techniques in the field, however, could have some potential for a good laugh.

I’m currently waiting for Scott Kelby’s book on Lightroom (ordered through Yawnazon April 8th, and still not shipped). As I understand from his blog, there have been some critiques regarding his weird sense of humor, apparently only present in the first chapters (according to Kelby himself). I just can’t wait to see what this fuzz is all about. Some people, apparently, are just too serious about life’s somewhat less important matters.

— comment by Vetle Woxholt on May 14th, 2007 at 2:12am JST (9 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

Perhaps one of the only well written books I have read on art is Art and Fear by Ted Orland (master photographer) and David Bayles. It is lucid, informative, and though-provoking. Most other books aren’t worth the time to read. Especially bad are books on the business of being an artist, which are usually filled with fluff.

— comment by Daniel Sroka on October 5th, 2007 at 10:13pm JST (9 years, 5 months ago) comment permalink

The passages you quote from Mr Briot’s book are indeed awful, but for me they are examples of poor thinking rather than poor writing. The thoughts, though beyond banal, are not ill expressed. There is no ambiguity, obscurity, prolixity or other grave fault in the writing as such. You could say that the first sentence you quote is platitudinous, which suggests faults in both writing and thinking, but I would still maintain that the thinking is worse than the writing.

I realise that putting it like that oversimplifies the relationship between writing and thinking because they tend, in practice, to stand or fall together. Doing either of them well requires attention, doing either of them badly manifests inattention, and people who are capable or incapable of attention tend to be globally so. But there are exceptions which prove that rule – books which are hard going but worth the effort. Responsible publishers hire skilled editors to reduce that effort.

Coming back to Mr Briot, there are people who think better than they write, and people who write better than they think. On the evidence of the passages quoted, I would put Mr Briot in the last group, at least when he is writing about history and culture rather than landscape photography. There are also people who can think, and write, better about some things than others. Mr Briot may also be in this group. I have read an essay by him on the Luminous Landscape web site that is interesting and not badly written.

Btw, many thanks for the zenfolio lightroom plugin (what brought me to your site in the first place).

— comment by Ken Cameron on December 3rd, 2007 at 1:55pm JST (9 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

Much thanks for your useful thread here! Just to be picky, though, and a bit off topic, you can get a picture in most dark closets if you expose long enough, because there is almost always a little bit of light in there.

One of the most interesting of Edward Weston’s green pepper pictures involved wrapping the pepper in “opaque” black cloth, putting the camera lens through a hole in the cloth, sealing the gaps around the hole, and exposing for several days. After enough time, he got a picture whose most interesting aspect is the beautiful diffusion, despite a very sharp lens, caused by the slowly changing shape of the pepper!

A note for readers not recognizing Fil’s name: he’s the principal author of the most-excellent Light — Science and Magic, the de facto textbook on photographic lighting. You can see some of the pepper pictures he mentions at Yahoo! Image Search —Jeffrey

— comment by Fil Hunter on December 10th, 2007 at 12:09pm JST (9 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink

Poor Alan, I wundere eef eet ees becauoose eeenglieesh ees not hees ferste language? As to Scott Kelby, well I love his daft presentations, at least it keeps me awake! Whilst on the subject of staying awake while reading, I have to comment on Ken Cameron’s comment – I hope no one ever writes a book like that! (although Very intelligent and clever) 😉

Perhaps your point about collaboration is made by this blog with its many contributed comments though; it’s very interesting; a great read.;)

The kind of “bad writing” I talk about in this post has nothing to do with any particular language’s grammar or spelling, but about how to present ideas clearly. A good writer may have issues being 100% correct in a language, but a bad writer is bad in any language. Alain’s bad writing has nothing to do with English. —Jeffrey

— comment by Simon King on April 15th, 2009 at 7:09pm JST (7 years, 10 months ago) comment permalink

Hi Jeffrey,
This post somehow appeared in Safari when I accidently opened all tabs from NetNewsWire. Of course having now authored a Lightroom book and read most of the Alain Briot book, I think commenting is fair game. I make no claims at being a writer, but the exercise of dealing with an editor really does help one’s writing ability. As you’ve guessed, there is little financial gain in writing a photo related book, and certainly not on such a narrow subject as Lightroom. So that basically left me to my own devices. Quite a few people have said it’s easy to read, but I only have their word for it!

The Briot book does have excellent concepts, but the book is essentially a collection of the Luminous Landscapes. Reading it late at night is indeed a sophomoric experience. Often essays need quite a bit of work to get them to work as a book and I’m not sure that happened there. Anyhow. If I was doing more stuff that required regular expressions, your book would be the first port of call.

— comment by Sean McCormack on October 8th, 2009 at 9:45am JST (7 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Ouch. Typos to beat the band in that last post. Where’s the editor now? 🙂

— comment by Sean McCormack on October 8th, 2009 at 9:46am JST (7 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Agree totally, photographers should not be allowed within a yard of a keyboard to do anything other than edit photographs.

I am under no illusions about the quality, or rather lack of, of my own writing. I am a photographer.

Reading your post I would guess that you are a photographer as well. The phrase ‘glass houses’ was whirling around in my brain while I was reading this.

Quick examples:

“His whole section on “types of light” just smacks of this kind of wishy-washiness throughout. I hold hope for the rest of the book because personally, I’m reading it for its artistic side, so I can forgive its technical failings. I just wish I didn’t have to.”

Books don’t have sides people do and personally is redundant.

“(Pedantically, I shouldn’t say that light is a color, because electromagnetic energy doesn’t become a color until sensed by something such as our eyes, but that’s perhaps too pedantic to be useful here.)”

Umm…..

At the very least this post is need of a good hard edit.

I would never normally worry about the quality of writing on the web but you are guilty of that which you accuse others and that does warrant a comment.

To conclude, a thought about this phrase:

“…and it’s surprisingly difficult for a bad writers to recognize their own work as such..”

Most of us bad writers know that we suck – we have friends that are kind enough to tell us..

I don’t need to be a good writer in order to recognize and point out that someone else book is full of atrociously bad writing. But I am a good writer, and even this blog post (one of 1,500 I’ve written) is far superior to the book under discussion. —Jeffrey

— comment by Steve on October 21st, 2010 at 9:53pm JST (6 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Thought you might like this for a quickie book cover to make you smile: http://covers.dummies.com/generate.html.

Check mine out at http://tourkick.com/2011/true-video-for-real-estate-for-dummies/

— comment by Clifford P on December 24th, 2011 at 4:57am JST (5 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink

Quote: “I am a good writer”
Yes, I agree. Otherwise I wouldn’t read your blog. 🙂

— comment by Anne on September 6th, 2012 at 1:17am JST (4 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink
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