The Good: Easy-to-read, Generally interesting articles (what there are of them), Decent photography (of course!)
The Bad: Very high in advertisements, Sometimes overly simple
The Basics: A generally decent magazine about photography, photographic equipment and technique is brought down by the repetitive nature and sheer ad volume.
As I continue to read magazines for review and my wife gets more into photography, I feel likeI have been learning quite a bit of late. In the case of the photography, I am learning a lot about techniques and the sheer luck that comes from being the right person in the right place with the right equipment at the right time. As far as magazines go, a good friend clued me in to looking at advertising volume and considering what that means for the overall magazine's quality and bias. So, when I sat down to read Popular Photography, I was entirely prepared for exceptional pictures and detailed accounts of how to achieve them. Instead, I found myself more frequently disappointed by the sheer volume of advertisements.
Popular Photography is a monthly magazine that is glossy, full-sized and boasts being the "World's Largest Imaging Magazine." While my wife has several copied about the house, I used the September 2009 issue for my review. The magazine - which degenerates into a catalog for a distributor over the last six pages - is a one hundred page full color magazine focused on photographic technique. At least, that is what the magazine is supposed to be.
What Popular Photography actually is is a series of small, simple-to-read advertisements squeezed in between advertisements for photographic equipment and events. Out of the one hundred pages of magazine, forty-one are full-page advertisements with an additional three pages (at least) occupied by column or half-page advertisements. This is an obscene amount of press taken up with paid advertisements, especially for a magazine with a $4.99 cover price. Readers are paying for almost half the pages to be filled with advertisements. This is utterly ridiculous and a pain to trudge through with the reading. In fact, early in the magazine Popular Photography includes the same advertisement as I found in American Photo where the ad was formatted to look like an article. Problematically, Popular Photography includes three such advertisements where the ads mimic the content of the magazine.
As far as the substance of the magazine goes - what there is of it - Popular Photography is surprisingly light, though the writers are clearly knowledgeable. The magazine is a very regular collection of articles (columns and how-to bits are very consistent issue to issue). The articles are remarkably simple and are written in a professional manner and the staff of Popular Photography is very consistent and they write with a knack for ease of comprehension. The magazine has three features as well as three groupings of columns: "How-To," "Tests," and regular "Departments."
As the name suggests, "How-To" are a series of regular guides on improving one's photographic technique. Each month, the magazine provides detailed guides on shooting in nature, creating stylish or effective lighting, as well as new columns for helping digital photographers make the most out of their digital photography software. They also deal with similar problems in the "Tips From A Pro," "You Can Do It" and "Photo Doctor" columns. Each of these columns include vibrant color pictures and issues that deal with software also include the screen shots of control panels to help the topic become that much more comprehensible. So, for example, the Digital Toolbox column includes the before and after images of the picture being modified as well as the console shots of the specific controls used to make the changes to the picture. The writing in these columns is very detailed, but assumes some measure of competence and comprehension with photographic and computer techniques. There is also an innate assumption that there is a common sense of taste among photographers, which is an obvious fallacy. So, for example, with the September 2009 Digital Toolbox column, the differences between the "before" and "after" are negligible and seem much more the result of people with finicky tastes as opposed to an initial failure on the part of the photographer. Even so, the writing that accompanies the article is clear with the intent and the process of creating the altered image. Even some of the more vague columns, like "Picture Doctor" are informative and direct in the same way as the more technical columns. As expected, the photography in Popular Photography is stunning.
The "Tests" Columns are a series of reviews, written by professional photographers who know the picayune differences between the various forms of photographic equipment. In addition to the "Hands On" section which simply details how to get the best out of equipment, there are tests of multiple cameras and multiple lenses for different cameras in each issue. So, after the "Hands On" section explores real-world testing of two types of cameras, there are more standard and analytical reviews of two cameras and two additional lenses. These reviews are tightly-written, precise and quite professional. They are not, however, intended for amateurs. As one who is not overly familiar with photographic equipment or jargon, I was fairly well taken aback by the sheer quantity of jargon and the precise language used by the writers of the camera reviews. These are reviews for those who know what all of the specific terms are, not those trying to figure it out. As such, this is an incredible resource for those who are professional-grade photographers or those looking for equipment to match their shooting style.
Then the magazine is populated by the usual Departments. Popular Photography opens with letters from readers, which involve everything from the usual praise of the magazine to readers helping to solve other photographers' problems with specific issues. "The Goods" column is a regular series of recommendations by the editors for photographic equipment (both for taking and displaying photos) which are thumbnail sketches of the products and why they are worth buying. Similarly, the "High 5" are five specific products (like flashes) prioritized from the best down for the month. Famous and staff photographers write about how they managed to get specific memorable photographs and often include alternate shots and why they did not select them for the impact they were looking for. These columns become a bit repetitive (and interchangeable with some of the "How-To" columns when they get into things like "Software Problem Solver," which helps readers correct issues with using alteration software for their digital images.
The departments are not all droll or repetitive, though; each month a reader's work is featured in the "Your Best Shot" and many of those photographs are innovative and different from anything else within the magazine's pages.
Then there are the magazine's feature articles. The articles are a little more in depth (4 - 6 pages each as opposed to a single page each) and feature methods of getting great photographs (themes this month included children and animals) as well as yet another equipment guide. The equipment in the feature section, though, tends to be less of a review and more of a user's guide with more of a bent toward arguing why the specific type of uses of the equipment is best. So, for example, this month's was generally biased toward affordable equipment and why the items were the best of the cheap. So, for example, an aluminum case was recommended for those who travel a lot because of the additional protection metal affords one's equipment. Unlike the other two features, the "Cheap Shots" article was written in digest form with an eye to space and brevity. This is somewhat unfortunate as it blends in with the magazine's many advertisements. The tips in the other two features on how to get the best out of photographing animals and children (someone at the magazine has a sense of humor, I suspect!) are useful and easy to understand, even for non-photographers.
Ultimately, though, I could not get by the magazine's high cover price in relation to the sheer volume of advertisements. Popular Photography is entirely average and compared to other photography magazines offers a lower overall value. Instead, one must mine through the ads to find anything remotely substantial. And while it is present, others in the field are doing it better with fewer advertisements or for less overall cost. That drives this otherwise average magazine down.
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Madison County Eagle
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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.