by Paul Robinson
Issue 5 Summer 1995
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"Making a double exposure against a black background is a piece of cake and it guarantees oohs and aahs from your viewers."
Is this what you want from photography? Then go out and buy Popular Photography, the "World's Largest Imaging Magazine". But if the latest report on the new Mitsubishi S3600A4 300 dpi dye-sub (£3995.00) is more your style, you don't have to go far. On the shelves of Belfast's larger newsagents is a selection of magazines aimed at a wide variety of photographic tastes and interests. Unfortunately, however, few hit the mark.
There are common threads amongst the July issues of the five titles I looked at - the info-bites about what's new in photoland, reader's letters, equipment comparisons, etc. The differences lie in the subjects of these articles, obviously, but more fundamentally in the assumptions each magazine has about its readers and about photography. Some assume no fear of the darkroom, while others assume that prints are what you get back from your local Snappy Clik. Some advise on studio lighting systems, while others don't, "All you need is good old daylight, a decent camera and lens, and a willing model. Oh, and a bit of know-how - which we're about to give you" - PHOTOanswers. Some assume photography is the framework for a career; others see it as a hobby, "When picking winning shots, you can't ignore the all-important 'cuuuuute' factor" - Popular Photography. Others just haven't a clue, "You can't turn a bad photograph into a good photograph - but you can turn a good one into a work of art. How? Frames is how" - PHOTON.
Those magazines aimed at the amateur hobbyist tend to be identifiable by the contests and cleavage emblazoned on their covers. PHOTOgraphic (cover: "Spectacular SEXY SWIMSUIT Shots") is a U.S. publication with particularly voyeuristic characteristics. Pages invite the (male) reader to admire and ogle a hefty load of other people's photographs, while also allowing the reader to peer into the lives of real photographers - people who live glamourous adventures travelling to East Africa, snorkelling in tropical lagoons, and, best of all, taking pictures of chicks. Through PHOTOgraphic the reader vicariously lives the life of a pro. There are snippets of advice (e.g. how to avoid East Africa's ubiquitous fine dust from getting into your equipment) that, while practical enough, are somewhat peripheral to the actual photography. The magazine compensates for some of its deficiencies by closing with a 16 page "Supercourse" on lighting and flash. It's the sort of comprehensive introduction that is informative, practical, and engaging enough to prompt the hobbyist to learn more about lighting. The article concludes by recommending certain books; some will find the books inadequate, but this extensive feature is far better than a previous article: "How to Take Great Pictures of Flowers" in 500 words.
PHOTOanswers' characteristic trait is (to quote one of its own reader's letters) to "deliberately degrade it(self) with suggestive banalities and innuendoes". Similar to PHOTO-graphic in its assumption that the "secret" to "great photos" lies in tricks of composition and avoiding those unflattering facial shadows, PHOTOanswers is packed with photographs captioned to explain what makes them such successes. In another section readers' photos are captioned to explain what makes them such failures.
Popular Photography's cover shows an arrangement of ten zoom lenses, revealing this U.S. mag's obsession with cameras and gadgetry as objects in themselves (like the article "VANTASTIC!!!", about the guy who encrusted his van - licence plate "CAMRA VN" - with over 1000 cameras). It's ideal for train-spotter photographers, with articles like "256 Zoom Lenses Compared!" and a test of the Ricoh XR-X 3PF No. EK108789 w/ 50mm f/1.7 No. 698502 that offers all sorts of charts and tables, including those 3D graphs of metering patterns. Unfortunately, equipment available in the U.S. is not always available (or is available only under different names) over here, thus devaluing the practicality of some of P.P.'s gadget guides. Away from the gadgets P.P. is shocking in its conservatism, with a feature on portraiture, for example, illustrated by pictures last seen in 1980 on the wall of a cheap barber.
While firmly planted in the same tacky mire as the above three titles, PHOTON differs by addressing itself to the professional. Its interesting cover (low-key blurbs, provision of World Wide Web address, the pretentious sub-title of "The Art and Science of Light", and a simple but effective photomontage for the main image) implies some interesting contents, as does the editorial - a well-written piece addressing opportunities for the freelance over the summer months when many of the regular contributors to newspapers and magazines are off on holidays. Alas, PHOTON's articles generally aspire to little beyond the ultra-conservative wedding and pet genres. Despite the editorial the rest of PHOTON tends to be poorly written with lots of typographical errors. Unlike the previous magazines its emphasis is on the darkroom (including articles like how to dupe 35mm transparencies up to 4x5 inches, articles that seem incongruous to the tone of some of the more trite pieces), with many pages also devoted to peripheral technology like computers and printers.
For the professional photographer, however, Professional Photographer (funnily enough), is far better. A well written magazine (with a worthwhile editorial dealing with copyright issues), its numerous "Field Trials" (tripods, wide angle large format lenses, and bulk film systems for 4x5) are comprehensive and informative. Perhaps most valuable of all are its many articles tackling the concerns crucial to the freelance and aspiring professional : its current affairs "Comment", its "Careers and Training" section, its "Business Matters" section (sound advice on how to deal with slow-paying clients), plus the aforementioned copyright advice. Professional Photographer's technical advice is specific and pragmatic, and the magazine also devotes space to images and practitioners usually aligned within a gallery context. Unlike the other magazines it also provides (free) listings of current photographic exhibitions.
Professional Photographer offers sound, no frills (and little colour) advice aimed at pros and aspiring pros seeking discussion and advice regarding studio (and to a lesser extent darkroom) technique and equipment and embracing photography as both a vocation and a business. Ultimately it is interested in quality photography, both for sale and for the gallery. Of the five titles reviewed it is by far the best publication for those who perceive photography from a similar viewpoint. For the amateur hobbyist Professional Photographer perhaps offers nothing. Titles like PHOTOanswers, on the other hand, aid the pursuit of oohs and aahs through tips about composition, subjects, and lighting; some of these tips might be useless, but they are also harmless to the hobbyist who ultimately puts his or her faith in practice.
Other articles by Paul Robinson:
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