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.
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.