Magazine Reviews (General Interest)
General interest magazines attempt to appeal to as large an audience as possible. They typically offer a mix of equipment reviews, how-to articles and portfolios or photo collections.
Popular began in 1937, which makes it the oldest running photo magazine of which I'm aware. I don't even have to qualify it--there are no big gaps in publication, it didn't change names (not much anyway), and so forth. For most of that time it had the largest-circulation as well, justifying the name.
In odd ways, it really is the same magazine it was in the late 1930s (being a half-assed amateur archivist and historian, I find this stuff interesting). It originally touted articles to show you "how the pros do it" and that's still a staple product.
What's changed (besides layout) is the inclusion of equipment previews, reviews, and such. If you look back at old issues, that's been an ever-growing phenomenon, and not necessarily for the better in my opinion. On the one hand, it would have been nice to see a product review in a 1940 issue of the new Speed Graphic, but the articles of that era discussed using equipment in a more generic sense. When they discussed lighting techniques, they discussed guns in general which were sold by various manufacturers, using bulbs that were sold by various manufacturers. A current article on lighting is apt to be written toward users of a specific flash (e.g. a Nikon SB-24).
There are two problems with this. One is that it's easy to read these things and become convinced that you can't accomplish anything with the equipment you've got—you need the latest and greatest (and there's always something new that blows the doors off whatever you've got).
The other is that while Popular used to be great for equipment reviews in the film era, space limitations and resources can't keep pace with what's out there. The fact is that websites like dpreview and photozone and fredmiranda do a much better job. They review more equipment, they often do it more thoroughly, and they're much more up-to-date than the magazines can ever be. Popular's website has a searchable database of reviews but (IMO) leaves a lot to be desired.
That leaves the regular articles and columns, the how-to's and such, which are not bad. It's aimed at beginners and mid-level users; advanced level photographers probably won't find much here to justify the cost.
Beginning in 2017, they are now a bi-monthly publication.
This one began life back in 1971, folded sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and was resurrected in its current form as Petersen's Photographic Digital Photography Guide. Whereas the original was a general interest magazine very much like Popular and Modern Photography, the current issues try to be more of a self-contained teaching guide.
Really what it appears to be is a group of feature articles with none of the filler. Also no equipment reviews, which is just as well as websites like dpreview do that better anyway.
I'd call it a beginner-to-middling level magazine. Advanced users are already likely to know the subjects they cover (what white-balance is, for example).
A tale of two magazines. Around 1979 two magazines debuted to fill the very obvious niche of darkroom and fine-art printing that Popular and most of the other magazines ignored. One was called Darkroom and the other Darkroom Techniques.
Even though they went after the same audience and both had easily confused titles, they had distinct personalities. In the early days, Darkroom Techniques read like a journal— very serious, weighty articles written by photographers. Darkrooms articles and tone looked more like a mainstream magazine—articles written by photographers who could write well.
Over time they tended to meet in the middle. Darkrooms articles got beefier and Darkroom Techniques became more readable by the laity. Darkroom had Ctein, Darkroom Techniques had Fred Picker.
Then something comical happened. Both magazines realized that they were fighting it out over a niche market that was not big enough for the both of them. Darkroom changed its name to Camera & Darkroom and widened its coverage and to help distinguish itself from Darkroom Techniques on the newsstand; Darkroom Techniques changed its name to Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques for much the same reason. They both benefitted by widening their horizons, as they applied their intelligence and depth of coverage to subjects that were glossed over by Popular and Modern. But the changes in names did not make them any easier to tell apart on the newsstand.
Then the next round—Darkroom & Creative Camera Techniques changed its name again to Photo Techniques. Sadly, Camera & Darkroom could not come up with a new name and ceased publishing instead.
Photo Techniques did it right—they gleaned off much of the best from the late lamented Camera & Darkroom (such as Ctein) and solidified their spot on the newsstand, but still held on to the best they had to offer before—substantive articles for advanced photographers. Occasionally there is something fantastic, such an article on bokeh. Don't know what bokeh is? Find a copy of Volume 18, No 3 (May/June 1997).
In 2010 they dropped the s and officially became Photo Technique, for reasons I never understood.
They ceased publication with the November/December 2014 issue. One of the truly great magazines has ended.
There's a new magazine called Photo Technique, but it's a different magazine altogether.
Like most people, I grumble about the large number of advertisements in magazines. Most magazines, Popular in particular, always seemed to have more ads than content. Yet I spent far more time than I want to think about reading those pages and pages and pages of ads in tiny little print from places like Spiratone and Olden and Cambridge Camera and B&H and Executive and Wall Street and Olympic and Freestyle. And then I found Shutterbug Ads.
Now in my day (illustrated by shaking my cane), Shutterbug Ads was a folio-sized monster and it was full of those ads, except that the shear physical size of the beast allowed them to print the ads bigger so that I didn't need a magnifying glass to see the dreaded "CALL" next to whatever it was I was dreaming about. And not just bigger—more of them. An advertiser who ran four pages in Popular might run a dozen in Shutterbug Ads. And then there was a world more—All Seasons Camera, Bill Cameta, Eddie and Richard Tillis, Midwest Photo Exchange.
But Shutterbug Ads was printed on paper roughly equivalent to the stuff they make grocery bags out of, which was fine for advertising but terrible for the fodder they threw in front. I always felt sorry for the people who were trying to illustrate a column on, say, highlight control because the before and after examples were printed so badly they were virtually indistinguishable. I never knew anyone who read those articles. People bought it for the ads.
Of course this is the sort of thing that the internet killed. As a lot of these guys developed their websites, where they could have example photos, smart browsing and searching, and up-to-the-minute inventory lists and pricing, advertising in Shutterbug Ads lost a lot of its lustre. And for people like me—why should I buy Shutterbug Ads if I can visit the websites directly for free?
So Shutterbug dropped the "Ads" and became a general-interest magazine, very much like Popular, but they focus a bit more on equipment—maybe.
This is one of those magazines where personal taste makes all the difference. Is it better or worse than Popular, its closest competitor? I can't tell. I'm not in love with either one of them. If you're interested in a general interest magazine, give it a try.