Excerpt: 'The LIFE Guide to Photography'

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Photography used to be not for the faint of heart. Its rigors would weed out the not-so- committed pretty quickly. You had to crank the f-stop ring yourself! And you often had to focus lenses that were so slow and dark, it was like peering down a side alley through a dirty window. Then you needed a basement or a bathtub, plumbing, tubes, clamps, drainage, pans, reels, chemicals, red lights, clothespins, special paper and drying racks—just to see what you thought you just shot. Many times, you were wrong about what you thought you'd just shot.

You also needed a good-sized chunk of that amazing thing we always seemed to run out of: time.

There was a tremendous gulf between the pro and the enthusiast. Ansel Adams rattled around the Southwest with his battered truck and his view camera, which looked like a giant accordion with a lens attached to it. Richard Avedon shot legendary beauties in Manhattan lofts and was therefore worshipped by fashionistas and attended to by legions of assistants. There were these luminaries, these magicians, and then there was pretty much everybody else, punting along with Brownies or Instamatics, making hopeful trips to the drugstore and generally picking up packages filled with disappointment a week or so later.

It all seemed pretty hard, right? And unfair.

Now we live in a place and age I refer to as the Democracy of Digital. Technology has eliminated the basement darkroom and the whole notion of photography as an intense labor of love for obsessives and replaced them with a sense of immediacy and instant gratification. Shoot the picture; look at the picture. Shoot and look, shoot and look. If it doesn't look good, shoot again. And again . . . and again. It's just reusable ones and zeroes now, not frames of film winding around in a cassette, each cassette with a processing price tag.

The result has been like turning a two-lane country road traveled by just a hardy few into a multilane superhighway, with lots and lots of folks driving fancy machines real, real fast—even if they don't have a clue where they're going. Digital technology has thrown a closed shop wide open, and there are more people out there snapping away than ever before. Some of the pictures are bad, some of them are good and many of them need some seasoning and direction. But the point is, a lot of people are doing photography—there are record numbers of shooters everywhere.

Presumably, if you have this book in your hands, you're one of them. Perhaps you've been at it a while but feel you could take better pictures. Maybe you just got the camera. You found it under the tree or you received it for your birthday or you bought it yourself after much agonizing about which of the myriad models out there might suit your fancy, your visual ambition and your budget.

You found during your research that digital photography is a fast-moving river; you just have to jump in at some point and start swimming. No more waiting to see if a new model is coming out next month. You already know it is, and it will have 20 or 30 million more pixels than the model you bought today. No matter. You now have a camera, which is this miracle device you've been longing for, a tool designed to catch, record and interpret light. To freeze a moment and a memory. And this magical instrument can go with you everywhere.

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