Photography is limitless and there is no right or wrong way to approach it. Freedom of choice and endless exploration are the reasons many of us were drawn into photography. However, freedom in every direction can also feel the same as free-falling. To get started, I like to have traction under my feet and a map of the known territories. That’s where reading saves me. We are lucky in that photography is the pastime of thinkers and writers. You don’t have to start from zero. You can learn from other’s mistakes, avoid the dead-end streets, get directions to the expressway, or find the road less traveled. Through reading, you stand on the shoulders of giants.
Over the years, my hunger for inspiration has turned me into a gluttonous photo literature omnivore. I gobble up everything from high-brow art texts to PetaPixel.com. My imagination needs vegetables as well as high calorie snacks. I’ve been reading about photography since buying my first camera fifteen years ago. Below is a list of my favorite photography books — the books that either taught me the most, or the books that I return to again and again for inspiration. I start with my favorite beginner’s texts. Down a little further you’ll find books on composition and theory. After that, I list my favorite photo books — books of prints by my favorite photographers. Then, at the very bottom, I include the non-photography books that have most shaped my thoughts and impacted my work as a photographer.
For the Beginners
Photography is different from other art forms in that it involves mastering a technology. You must learn to use a camera. These books are the gold standard when it comes to learning photography basics — stuff like exposure and f-stops. I read both of them when I was starting out. These books formed the foundation of my technical understanding of photography.
If you have ever watched any of his YouTube tutorials, you might think Brian Peterson is a tad eccentric, like Gary Busey with a camera, but don’t be mistaken, Brian is a master of teaching exposure to beginning photographers. “Understanding Exposure” is in its third edition and it is still the best, easiest way to learn exposure. Every new camera should come with a copy of this book in the box.
Ok, this book is getting pretty dated, but John Shaw’s “Nature Photography Field Guide “is a classic. “Field Guide” covers everything a beginner needs to know: lenses, focal length, exposure, and composition. The reason I recommend this book (even though it’s nature based and so old that it never uses the word “digital”) is that “Field Guide” is simply the best written photography book for beginners. Shaw presents all subjects in an easy to understand voice and he doesn’t skimp. You’ll feel like you really know something about photography by the time you finish reading this book. UPDATE: It looks like there’s an updated, digital version of Field Guide now available. I haven’t read it, but I’m guessing John Shaw wouldn’t put his name on it unless it was a great book.
Photography Concepts and Composition
Anyone can learn how to take technically proficient photos, but learning to express your ideas through photography is much more difficult. These books will start you down the road.
The Photographer’s Eye is a gem. The author, John Szarkowski, was the curator of MOMA’s photography collection from 1962-1991. He was was also an accomplished photographer. In this book Szarkowski distils his understanding of photography down to 20 pages of potent text. It’s short, but “The Photographer’s Eye” will light up your mind. The short treatise on photography is bolstered by fantastic images pulled from all phases of photography’s history. You could spend a lifetime trying to understand photography and not top the knowledge provided by this small book. Buy it and learn the secrets of the masters!
How would you like to earn a master’s degree in Photography for just $32? “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art” is my all time favorite photography book. Simply presented as a page of text accompanying a full page print, “Looking at Photographs” teaches you who the masters of photography are and how they made their most loved photographs. Put this book next to your toilet and in two months you’ll be a better photographer. And, after you’ve read “Looking at Photographs” you’ll be able to hold your own in conversations with any art snob. I’ve owned this book for two years and I’ve read it at at least three times. Get it! “Looking at Photographs” is a fountain of inspiration!
I’ve read a stack of photographic composition books (5 at least). Michael Freeman’s “The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos” is clearly the best. He does it all here — rule of thirds to Gestalt theory. Freeman’s photo examples are beautiful. This book is that rare type that is valuable to both beginners and experts. If you’re new to photography and graphic arts, you’ll learn just about everything that can be taught about the dark art of composition here. For those of you with more experience, “The Photographer’s Eye” will give you some fresh insights. Get it! This book will not disappoint.
Here’s another great book by Michael Freeman. “The Photographer’s Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos” is hard to describe. In this book Freeman explains his thought process and how he approaches photography. This book provided a lot of value to me. Before reading this book, I felt like I had learned photography in a bubble. I am completely self taught and I don’t really have any photography friends. I always wondered if I was doing things right — if maybe my lack of formal training left me flawed in some way. Well, Freeman helped clear me of all that self-consciousness. It turns out we both approach photography in the same way. This book made me see that in their quest to create original images other photographers face the same struggles as me. Get this book if you’re feeling isolated. “Photographer’s Mind” could also be helpful to beginners by jump starting your thought process. Like the previous two Szarkowski books I recommended, “Photographer’s Mind” gives you a lifetime of photographic insights distilled into one easy to read book.
Wouldn’t it be great to have a couple successful photography pals, some older, more experienced friends to show you the ropes, to teach you the tricks of the trade? On Being a Photographer is like sitting down for a cup of coffee with your two wisest uncles and they tell you everything important that they’ve learned after a lifetime in photography. This book is simply a text of a conversation between photographers David Hurn and Bill Jay. Surprisingly, it’s very readable. David and Bill are deep thinkers but they are able to communicate their experiences and photographic philosophy in a plain spoken manner. If you’re deep into photography, this book is a fun read and you’ll also learn a lot.
I’m a stingy guy and my semi-nomadic lifestyle means I don’t like collecting bulky objects. For those reasons, I resisted buying photo books for many years. Don’t be like me. Start collecting photo books now. There’s something almost magical about photo books. Even in the digital age, book format remains the best way for a photographer to communicate.
Joel Sternfeld: American Prospects influences my photography more than any other work. I love Sternfeld’s photography because his photos are both documentary and stand alone works of art. These photos won’t hit you up side the head — they draw you because they are interesting. After you wake up from the sentimental coma that Sternfeld’s photos can induce, you’ll notice that his pictures all have strong compositions and the colors work together like in a painting, but at the same time, these photos look like they could have come out of anyone’s camera. Sternfeld makes fantastic photography look easy. In this age when over-filtered images fight for our attention on tiny cellphone screens, I love “America Prospects” for it’s huge prints and subtle beauty. And, there’s also a possibility that I like it because it reminds me of my childhood.
Alex Webb’s photography is so good it will make you want to throw your camera in the trash. There’s no hope for you. You’ll never be as quick thinking as he is, you’ll never have his eye for color, you’ll never get this lucky over and over and over again. I ordered “The Suffering of Light” because I wanted to train my eye for color. I wanted to study from the master. Webb’s photos have both amazing color combinations and perfect compositions. Get this book and see how the quickest thinking photographer finds order in chaos and makes art in an instant.
If you travel long enough, you begin to feel that the earth is your home. It’s not an untethered feeling like you might imagine. Instead, a deep calm sets in as you realize you live on a plentiful planet that’s filled with life. Our human constructions are part of the landscape, but nature is always visible in the frame, waiting to reclaim it all. And maybe we humans are as much a part of the natural course of things as everything else? Maybe it all fits together? Here Far Away takes you on that long trip. This book is travel photography at its finest. Pentti Sammallahti takes you all the way back to the beginning of time, back before people, before animals, when it was just the ocean. He then introduces you to the Earth’s creatures, and finally we meet civilized man. When you’ve traveled far enough you’ll know that we don’t just live on this planet but rather we are of this planet.
Non-photography Books that Will Help Your Photography
Photography is a thinking person’s game. The “what” and “why” of photography is more important than the “how”. The following books are not about photography but they will definitely inform your picture making process.
I went to a state school and earned a bachelor of science degree. Unfortunately, there was no room in my formal education for art history. Therefore, Gombrich’s “The Story of Art” feels like a gift from Heaven. This is a beautiful book on many levels. “The Story of Art” teaches the broad sweep of art history from prehistoric times to modern art in a way that is both easy to read and entertaining. Believe it or not, this book is kind of a page turner. It really moves along. In a marvel of editing and layout design, the text almost always appears on the page beside the work of art that’s under discussion. This book is printed and high quality paper and the artwork looks fantastic. There are many pullouts too. “The Story of Art” is like your own personal museum resting on your bookshelf. This is a very popular book and you can find a near perfect condition used copy for half price. It’s an amazing bargain.
Most artists have a guiding life philosophy, or at least a dim idea of a direction they are headed. Do you know why you make photographs? “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” is the book that might help explain what photography is all about. “Zen” is a difficult book to read, but is well worth the effort. Don’t dismiss this one because the title sounds new age. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is a serious philosophic book. Pirsig combines the best of eastern and western philosophy to come up with a new world view. Even if you don’t agree with his ideas, this book makes for a great intro to philosophy.
Do you have a dim view of humanity? Are you slightly depressed about the direction our species is headed? Well, this book is for you! “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny” is my absolute favorite nonfiction book. Robert Wright gives you the whole sweep of human history — the good, bad, and ugly. He then shows you how the entire history of man (and life on earth) has been on a slow march towards more interconnected, mutually beneficial relationships. Wright is a serious intellect and it’s hard to find any holes in his arguments. This book is so good that Bill Clinton required everyone on his staff to read it. Get this one. You be happy you did.
Story of Philosophy made me feel small. In this towering work, Durant not only tells the story of philosophy from the beginning of recorded history, but he also does a great job explaining the ideas of our greatest thinkers. Durant’s writing is beautiful. It’s exciting to know that we live in a world that from time to time gifts us such wonderful minds.
I’m a little embarrassed to recommend a Malcolm Gladwell book here. Doesn’t he have enough book sales already? No matter, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” is a great read for photographers. I had to put it on the list. “Blink” describes how the brain makes decisions unconsciously faster than your conscious mind becomes aware of these decisions. This book is perfect for photographer’s because it explains how humans make snap decisions — decisions like, “when is the perfect time to press the shutter button?”. Gladwell takes you on a tour of modern brain science and makes his case in an entertaining way.
*David is a California Photographer
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