Photography books are the best value way to improve your photos. They are not the best way; learning one-to-one with a master is, and has always been, the most efficient way to develop yourself. But books provide a very good alternative for a lot less money.
They can be good, and they can be useless, and they can even be bad.
Are Photography Books Useless?
For some, photography books are just a form of passive entertainment to show off to visitors and browse while sitting on the loo. They serve to validate your interest in a hobby and make you feel like you’re taking steps to improve, but in reality, they don’t actually improve your pictures. Better to watch tutorials on YouTube and just carry a camera everywhere. Oh, and regularly upgrade that camera for best results…
Yes, it’s possible that, viewed incorrectly, even the best photography books ever won’t make much difference where it counts – the quality of your photos.
Bad, Bad Photography Books
And a lot of photography books can actually be bad, and make your photography worse, sometimes for years. This is because we mistake popularity and flashy marketing for quality, and fancy tricks for true expertise. For a great example of this, have a look at Ken Rockwell’s website. He has been making excellent summaries of cameras and lenses for years and is very popular because of it. But his photography and tips are often the exact opposite of what to do if you want to improve, because they are produced for a mass audience.
There are many examples like this, and they are potential traps for you. The best way to avoid these traps is to ask your favourite photographers which photography books they recommend then checking to see if you like the author’s photos and style of teaching. Amazon Reviews are useful too, though again it is worth remembering that popularity is no guarantee of quality.
The Best Way To Learn From Photography Books
To learn from the best photography books, you need to imagine yourself as both a gold miner looking for advice that will give you immediate results (in your Lamborghini garage), and as a long-term student, humble enough to believe and experiment with what might seem counter-intuitive or useless.
Because while watching photography videos on YouTube can be helpful, it is quite a passive learning experience, and psychological research suggests that we forget a lot of what we don’t apply. We may feel like we’re learning; but it doesn’t help in practice. This is also why learning post-processing with videos is a good idea; you can instantly apply what you learn.
Reading is more active than watching, so you will get better more efficiently. The more active you are in your learning, the better your results will be. Practice all of the techniques, think about the new ideas and try to teach what you’ve learned to other people too. You need to turn knowledge into understanding. Just reading is rarely enough.
Oh, and a hammock strung between two trees in a forest or by the beach doesn’t hurt the reading experience…
The Best Photography Books
It’s humbling to visit even your local library and realise that you could never read all of the books they have. Of course this list of the ‘best photography books’ is subjective. Hopefully because I’ve done and taught photography for years, have a degree in philosophy & literature, and read stacks of photography books my selection is more useful to you than the most popular, promoted books. These really are the best photography books I know and recommend, and if you apply their lessons, you will massively improve your photography.
Understanding Exposure by Brian Peterson
Read this to learn how to make the pictures look pretty, and get control of your camera. It’s very popular, and it’s also very good. Brian’s video tutorials are full of energy and are worth trying.
The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum
A more artistic book that will change your photography. There’s a lot about film that you can skip. Note his thoughts about photography as a tool for personal expression.
The Photo(graphy) Book by Phaidon
To improve your photography, you’ll want to know what a great photograph looks like, and also what you personally like. Here’s a collection of photographers to get inspiration from.
Interaction of Color by Josef Albers
It’s easy to think of colour as incidental in your photography because it’s already there. It may be better to begin with monochrome and only add colour to your photography consciously using the ideas and understandings in how colours interact with a book such as this classic.
The Elements of Color by Itten
So if you’re going to do colour photography, and you invariably are, understanding colour will make a massive difference to your pictures. This is actually a simplified version of one of the best books about color, ‘The Art of Color’ by Itten of Bauhaus fame. But that book is ludicrously expensive, so read this one first.
50 Portraits by Gregory Heisler
Photography is a mix of craft and art. Here you will learn that photography is not just about the subject and it’s not just about the gear/technique either; the photographer uses both.
Light: Science and Magic by Biver, Fuqua and Hunter
The best book I’ve read on lighting for photography. Whatever your favoured genre, this will help you. There are lots of exercises; I recommend you take the time to do them.
And that’s it! You can get all of these photography books for less than the price of a cheap lens and you will be surprised by how much you improve. Do share your notes with others in the comments below. And of course there are many photography books I haven’t read yet; so please do let me know which book has helped you the most and I’ll review it for this list.