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Book Review

Scott Kelby's Digital Photography Boxed Set
by Gisle Hannemyr
Published: 2010-09-05.
Scott Kelby's Digital Photography; Peachpit Press, 2009; USD 42.53; (23 x 16 cm, 720 pages).

(Buy this boxed set at: - US, - UK.)

All three volumes of Scott Kelby's best-selling series introducing digital photography to novice photographers have now been assembled into Scott Kelby's Digital Photography Boxed Set. How do they stack up?

This reviewer found all three books to be badly organised, poorly researched, and sometimes confusing. To borrow a phrase from Dorothy Parker: These are not books to be tossed aside lightly. They should be thrown with great force.

The user level indicated on the back of the box is “Beginner”. There are very few books about digital photography written for beginners. Since I teach courses about digital photography for beginners, and given the many good reports I've heard about Mr. Kelby's photography courses and seminars, I bought this boxed set hoping that I should be able to recommend it to my students.

The back cover blurb explains the premise of Mr. Kelby's three books like this:

These aren't books of theory, full of confusing jargon and detailed concepts. These are books on which button to push, which setting to use, and when to use it. Each page covers a single concept that makes your photography better. Every time you turn the page, you'll learn another pro setting, tool, or trick to transform your work from snapshots into gallery prints.

The single concept per page-format reminds me of a blog. And like a blog, there is a lot of disjointed observations about miscellaneous things, but no core narrative. You can start reading at any page because it is self-contained, and it very seldom refers to any other page. In between the pro settings, tools and tricks, Kelby injects jokes, musings about his own personal life, and for good measure, some thoughts about the world in general. This format makes for easy reading and may have a lot of appeal to people with short attention spans. It may even account for the books' huge popularity. However, this approach is not without problems.

Settings Galore

My main objection to Kelby's style of presentation is that he does not aspire to teach the reader anything about digital photography. His three books, to be generous, is just a disorganised collection of “pro settings, tools and tricks”.

However, compiling and presenting a useful collection of “pro settings, tools and tricks” about digital photography is hard. There are so many different brands and digital camera models out there. A setting that do one thing with one camera model, may do something completely different if you apply it to a different model. I wondered how he planned to manage the complexity of the many brands and models his readership is bound to use.

This is what he has to say about this problem of brands and models (volume 1, page 6):

Now, once you turn the page you'll notice lots of photos of Nikon and Canon cameras, and it might make you think I'm partial to these two brands. It's not just me. Apparently most of the world is partial to these two brands, so you'll see lots of shots of them. [Shameless Canikon advertorial skipped.] Now, what if you don't shoot with a Nikon or Canon camera? No sweat – most of the techniques in the book apply to any digital SLR camera, and many of the point-or-shoot digital cameras as well.

As it turns out, the “no sweat” remark must have been a self-reference, because Mr. Kelby does not even try.

For instance, in the chapter with the somewhat ambiguous title Shooting People Like a Pro, (volume 1, p. 115-127) tells you use “any zoom focal length between 85mm and 100mm” for portraits.

If you use a film SLR, or a professional DSLR with a sensor measuring 36 x 24 mm (e.g. Canon EOS 5D mark II), a lens with a focal length equal to 85 mm or a 100 mm lens may indeed work well for portraits. However, if you are using a different type of camera, such as an Olympus DSLR with a FourThirds-type sensor, you will also need a different lens with a much shorter focal length to get the same perspective and working distance as a 85 mm or a 100 mm lens gives you on Canon EOS 5D mark II.

Thoughout the book, Kelby simply ignores the fact that unlike film SLRs, DSLR comes with many different types of sensor. Ignoring this basic fact about digital cameras is a strange approach to take in a series of books that are supposedly written about digital photography.

After nailing 85-100 mm as the focal lengths to use for portraits, Kelby continues:

So now that you know which lens to use, believe it or not (and this is very rare), there is a special aperture (f-stop) that seems to work best for portrait photograhy. When it comes to portraits, f/11 is the ticket because it provides great sharpness and depth on the face.

This is stupid. On a compact digital camera or a DSLR with a small sensor f/11 is an aperture where a nasty thing known as diffraction will reduce sharpness. Kelby's statement about f/11 providing “great sharpness“ is only true if you shoot with a film SLR or a professional DSLR with a large sensor – which I doubt that many of the people that buy Scott Kelby's books do.

Another thing is that an aperture of f/11 provides you with a huge depth of field, which means that everything in the background will be just as sharp as the face of the person you are making a portrait of. Most photographer will therefore prefer to use wider aperture for portraits, to separate the person from the background. Scott Kelby actually knows this. In a different segment (volume 2, p. 99), he tells the reader to use f/2.8 for portraits. So much for f/11 being “the ticket”.

Not Suitable for Learning

Very often, Kelby's explantions of basic principles of photograhy comes out convoluted and confused. For exemple, he writes (volume 3, p. 19):

By the way, adding another flash doesn't double your light output, it just adds about an extra stop of light.

This is only partly correct. Adding another flash does double your light output, which is equivalent to adding an extra stop of light. For experienced photographers, this statement is just a blooper. But for beginners, the statement may confuse because it contradicts one of the fundamental principles of exposure: That doubling the light equals one stop.

Very often, the explanations in these books is phrased in such a convoluted manner that they make little sense unless you already are an expert in photography (in which case you don't need these books). As an example, I shall examine in some detail how Kelby teaches beginners about flash photography.

One of the settings you may use for flash photography is known as Rear Sync (Nikon, Sony), 2nd Curtain Sync (Canon, Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung), or Trailing Curtain Sync (Pentax). Kelby introduces this in a segment titled Rear Sync Rocks (& Why You Should Use It) (volume 2, page 21). Here, Kelby tells you that he is going to explain to you how you balance the ambient and the flash in dim surroundings. Here's the technique described in Mr. Kelby's own words:

Usually the flash fires the moment you press the shutter button, right? So it does freeze any action in the scene, but it also generally makes everything solid black behind your subject (like you see in most snapshots). Changing to Rear Sync makes the flash fire at the end of the exposure (rather than beginning), which lets the camera expose for the natural background in the room first, and then at the very last second, it fires the flash to freeze your subject. Now your background isn't black – instead it has color, depth and detail.

He doesn't bother telling his readers what camera or exposure mode he uses here. However, I happen to know that he uses a Nikon DSLR set to either aperture priority mode or program mode. I know this because a Nikon is the only digital camera with a Rear Sync setting that works this way. If you are a Sony or a Canon user and don't understand what the quote above is all about, don't worry, this particular “pro setting” apply to Nikon users alone.

While this peculiar technique for getting a slow shutter speed on a Nikon is not unheard off among old Nikon pros that still cling to the techniques they learnt when they used film, it is outdated and it is bad advice. On a Nikon DSLR, setting Rear Sync does two things. It selects a slow shutter speed that exposes for the ambient, and it delays the firing of the flash until the end of the exposure. What we really want is the slow shutter, but not the delay. Here's why: Unlike a Nikon film SLR ca. 1980, a Nikon DSLR uses something called a pre-flash to figure out what power level to use for flash. When you're not using Rear Sync, the main flash happens immediately after pre-flash, so there's no time for a human subject to react to the pre-flash. If you set Rear Sync, a delay is introduced between the pre-flash and the main flash. This delay gives humans time to react to the pre-flash. They may start to blink or squint, and then the main flash goes off just in time to capture that blink or squint. If you use Rear Sync, it is more likely that you'll capture an unflattering portrait of a stationary human subject.

Every Nikon DSLR since the D1 back in 1999 has come with a setting for flash called Slow Sync that picks a slow shutter speed without introducing the unwanted delay. This is the flash setting you should pick in this type of shooting situation if you are a Nikon user. But in the 64 pages devoted to using in flash in the boxed set, there is no mention whatsoever of the Slow Sync setting and when and why you should use it.

However, what really bugs me about Mr. Kelby's presentation of the the Rear Sync setting, is the strange emphasis he puts on whether the flash fires at the beginning, or at the end. As we've already seen, if we set Slow Sync, the flash will fire at the beginning, and we will still get a picture where the background has colour, depth and detail. Clearly, setting Rear Sync is not at all necessary to get the desired result. But an inexperienced photographer, reading Kelby's weirdly phrased Rear Sync recommendation, may very well get the idea that the delay imposed by Rear Sync is necessary to get the desired effect. Which, of course, is the wrong idea.

Now, what really happens if you are using a Nikon DSLR and select Slow Sync or Rear Sync in dim light in aperture priority or program mode, is that the camera will pick a slow shutter speed. Shooting with a slow shutter speed is known among photographers as “dragging the shutter”. And in one of Kelby's books, there is indeed a segment titled “Drag the Shutter” too See More Background (volume 2, page 13). Here he tells the reader (sort off) how to do this. But Mr. Kelby seems oblivious to the fact that his Rear Sync segment is also all about dragging the shutter.

As for his segment about dragging the shutter, I find his prose confused, awkward and the proposed technique a lot more complicated than necessary. For some reason, he completely ignores the fact that the photographer has direct access to the camera's built-in light meter. What he proposes is that photographer first meters the light by selecting the programmed auto mode, make a note of the settings picked by the camera in this mode, and then transfers those settings by hand to manual mode. (Why does he not tell the reader to go directly to the manual mode, and just set the camera's shutter to whatever speed indicated by the camera's built-in light meter? The settings would be the same, but the latter method is more direct and more intuitive.)

Towards the end of the third volume, Kelby returns to the subject of Rear Sync (volume 3, page 181). This time, he describes the effect of Rear Sync as follows:

I leave my camera's flash setting at Rear-Curtain Sync (2nd Curtain for Canon Users) all the time (that way, I get some movement around my subject, but then the flash fires to freeze them and make them sharp).

What he probably tries to tell the reader here, is that it is better to freeze the movement at the end of exposure, instead of the beginning, as this will make the blur from moving subjects appear behind the object, as illustrated below.

Left: Normal (front curtain) sync. Right: Rear curtain sync.

But his prose sloppy and this meaning is far from clear. A beginner reading the above paragraph may very well think that using Rear Sync will actually remove blur caused by a slow shutter speed.

Missing Material, Myths and Misinformation

Beginners that pick up this book hoping to learn the fundamentals of digital photography will probably be disappointed, since a lot of the basic knowledge that one should expect to find in any book about photography for beginners is missing. In the 720 pages, there is no introduction to the fundamentals of exposure, nothing about how digital sensor sizes impact upon depth of field and noise levels, no real discussion about how focal length influences perspective in photography. It is obvious that the books are written without any prior plan about what material should be covered. In other words: The selection of what to include and what to leave out, is pretty random.

While there are some useful information in these books, there is unfortunately also some segments where Kelby just gets his facts twisted, or where his explanations are wrong or misleading. I do not have the space to list them all, but a typical example is his segment about memory cards (volume 1, page 152), where he writes:

A word of warning: If you're shooting in RAW format, don't use up every shot on your memory card … because you could potentially corrupt the entire card and lose all your shots.

He says this, it seems, because he believes that memory card can only hold a fixed number of RAW “shots” and since RAW files vary in size, using all these “shots” may cram more RAW data on the card than there is room for, leading to corruption. However, this is not how the camera operates when storing data on memory cards, so this warning is nonsense.

The reader is treated to a similar bogus explanation in his segment about batteries (volume 3, page 14). Kelby claims that NiMH-type batteries (1.2 volts) recycle flashes much faster than regular alkaline AA batteries (1.5 volts) “because of their lower voltage”.

It is true that NiMHs recycle faster, but that is despite their lower voltage. The “lower voltage” explanation looks like it is made up on the spot, because Mr. Kelby could not be bothered with learning the facts. For the record: NiMHs batteries happen to have a lower internal resistance than alkalines, so they are able to supply a higher current. This results in shorter recycle times. Nickel-zinc (NiZn) batteries have a higher voltage than alkalines (1.7 volts), and a low internal resistance, and they recycle even faster than NiMH.


If you already know the subject of digital photography well, it is very likely that the only new material you will find in these books is the fiction that Mr. Kelby makes up because he does not know the correct explanation.

If, on the other hand, you are beginner and want to learn about photography, you will probably be able to pick up a few settings and ideas that will be useful for you. Unfortunately, many beginners will not be able to separate the truthful explanations in the book from Mr. Kelby's fiction. There is even a risk that a photography student that consults these books to learn, ends up more confused after she has finished, than before she started.

For myself, I found some genuinely helpful information on some of the 720 pages that make up these three books. But not very much – your mileage may vary. In the end, my irritation over the drivel, advertorials and bad jokes won over my appreciation of the helpful pages. I cannot recommend this boxed set.


A big thank you to Joseph S Wisniewski, for some fascinating insight into how Nikon's modern flash system evolved, and for explaining why Rear Sync should be considered harmful.

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7 responses:

Well Said

I find Mr. Kelby's books, with their 'sound bite' approach, appropriate for those with very short attention spans.


I admire you actually reading the full three volumes. I receieved the first two for review, and got so tired of the "funny guy" attitude towards the whole subject that I decided not to read No. 3, nor writing my review. If the third book is just as the first two, I recognize my own experiences during reading. I read the Norwegian translation, which seems to be decent (poor Toralv Østvang who had to translate Scott Kelby's jokes).

Photography can be real fun, but I think Kelby's books is a detour to understanding photography. Apart from the many misunderstandings and too-easy-to-discover mistakes, Scott Kelby stands in the way himself.

A bit too serious here, maybe?

I think you take a too hard approach at this. These books are immensely popular - is it because people love to read all the errors made? Or, maybe it's because people just need to read to believe all the mistakes and out-lets of the books? No, I think you've got it all wrong here. OK there are some "not so detailed" contents. OK there are some wrongs here and there. But don't you think this is the whole secret of the success. The books swipes through many areas that newcomers strike upon, and in these "inaccurate", "misleading books", the find an explanation to help them further - they get a strive to move on and search further info. Lighten up and take the books for what they are - even seasoned photgs find inspiration and ideas by redaing them.

As for accuracy and "all inclusive". When you describe Rear Sync vs. Slow Sync, I really cannot see that you discuss the disadvantage of having "leading trails" on moving subjects. The Rear Sync will put the trails after the moving subject (as a natural oservation will be), where the slow sync puts the trails in front of the moving subject.

See - a book covering EVERY detail and ALL situations, will only be started to write - never ended...

Kelby is Right and You are Wrong!

You simply have a mental roadblock that for whatever reason, you are having difficulty hurdling. No one else has this problem with Kelby's books.

You simply do not understand the purpose of using 2nd Curtain or Rear Sync. As Scott Kerby correctly writes, it is used to “freeze” the action in an image just before the shutter closes, thereby making the subject sharp. Why is that important? Because when you are using a slow shutter speed, say at dusk, to properly expose the background, and you don't set your flash to 2nd Curtain or Rear Sync, any movement by your subject or any camera shake will cause a “ghosting” to happen. Using a shutter speed of 1/30 second or slower allows for a lot of movement by both the subject and the camera. This causes the subject to appear blurred and out of focus.

To avoid that problem you use 2nd Curtain or Rear Sync. Having the flash fire just before the shutter closes will prevent this ghosting or blurring of the subject. When using 2nd Curtain or Rear Sync, the blur created prior to the flash firing does not bleed into the subject. The subject is frozen, so to speak, and isolated from the blur, which occurred before the flash fired. Once the flash fires when using Rear Sync, the shutter immediately closes and no more blurring or ghosting is able to affect the subject.

This is the simple concept explained by Scott Kelby that you do not understand.

Correction to previous comment

Unfortunately the previous poster has it wrong. Rear Sync does not magically remove ghosting- it just changes whether ghosting/blurring happens before or after the flash is fired. Ghosting before the flash fires (i.e. in rear sync/2nd curtain mode) can look prettier than the ghosting after flash fires (i.e. front sync/1st curtain), but it's there in either case as a quick test with any digital camera will show.

Either way this is not even what Kelby claims. His sample pictures show a non-moving person in a large room. The before pic shows a bright person and a black background. The after picture shows a bright person and a bright background. Kelby claims that changing the flash sync mode causes the brightness change which is clearly incorrect. The second picture is brighter because the shutter speed was lowered- now this MAY be a feature that also happens on Nikon cameras, but it's definitely not about Rear Sync and enabling it on Canon or Sonys would not change the background brightness. The before and after shots in that scenario would look exactly identical from those cameras.

Missing the point

One of the "fundamentals" of Kelbys' books that I have read so far is not to blind with science but to present information and techniques in laymens terms. I think he mentions in at least one of the books that he doesn't cover the basics or "fundamentals" of photography like aperture,shutter speed and exposure because almost every other digital (or film) photography book covers these subjects thoroughly and his book I think is designed to let you just go out and shoot while getting to grips with your camera and settings, while giving you the ability to reference certain situations as they arise by the way the book is laid out. If there is something which you find misleading or confusing then referencing technical photography books or user manuals should provide answers.

Love Kelby...

I have to write something here, hope it wont's disturb anybody. I've read these four books almost twice and they're not boring. I've read many other books on photography, and most just repeat the same concepts everyone knows, in a more or less simple or involuted way. What I learnt on Feiniger it's enough for me, for the rest I use my Ph Degree. I don't need (and don't want) a book to explain me what is manual, aperture, shutter, the meaning of stop focal distance focal nodes, diffraction and whatsoever. I already know very well that stuff.

I want to know how to use my gear to take out great pictures, and that's what Kelby is trying to tell me...

These book are NOT for beginners: are intended for more or less experienced NIKON users (and Kelby tried a little to involve Canon users too, just to sell more copies of the book). Anyway is a truth that most information can apply to every brand cameras!

Indeed there's a big confusion everywhere about sensor size, I must agree, and is quite disturbing all the time! But most times you can guess easily wich sensor Kelby's speaking of (DX or FX, remember: Kelby's a Nikon user) UNLESS you're really a beginner.

Peace ad Love

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