If you search Amazon for photography books, you’ll currently get 103,631 results. Some are gems and some aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. How do you know which ones are worth spending your money on? Here I’ll list some of the ones I believe are useful, and I welcome you to add the gems you’ve found in the comments below. Sharing the good ones is a simple way we can all help each other be better and more informed photographers.
Technique and Theory
Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting
If I could convince you to buy one single photography book it would be Light: Science and Magic. This book is amazing and is responsible for most of what I know about lighting – and in my opinion that means it’s behind most of what I know about photography. This book is my bible, and any time I have difficulty hitting my mark this is where I turn. The Third edition is current, with the Fourth edition available for preorder.
Magic Lantern Guides
In the glove box of most cars you’ll find a manual. It tells you how to use the turn signals and pop the trunk. But if you really want to understand how your car works and be able to take full advantage of that expensive machine you get a Chilton’s. The Magic Lantern Guides are a Chilton for your camera.
Business and Legal
There’s no way around it. If you want to make your living – or even part of it – from your photography you’re going to have to run it as a business. Here are a few suggestions for dealing with the less pleasant parts of the job.
Photography: Focus on profit
This book, written by Tom Zimberoff, is the most comprehensive book I’ve found about the business of photography. It is designed to be used along with the free software program PhotoByte but each is useful in their own right.
My one word of warning would be that they are both very out of date. Designed in the film days a lot of information hasn’t been updated to the business model that was forced on us with the coming of digital – so you’ll have to update things in your head as you go along. Furthermore, since PhotoByte hasn’t been updated, it’s also buggy – for example it will crash if you insert a CF card or attach a camera to download images – so you’ll want to make sure to quit the program before doing that, and have a backup of the data files. That said they’re still the best option out there and I use it on every job for everything from estimates and invoices to Model Release forms.
The Law (in Plain English) for Photographers
I’m not a lawyer. I don’t want to be a lawyer. And most of the time I can’t afford a lawyer. However I do need to have some understanding of how the laws work for us and how they can at times work against us. This book does just that for photographers. It will explain that under no circumstance can a police officer, security guard or individual demand your film or CF card – not even if you were trespassing, and why that’s the case. It doesn’t mean you won’t be charged with trespassing or other crimes you commit, but they can’t demand your images. Have a question about model release forms, when they’re necessary and what you can’t do with your images if you don’t have one? Yep, it’s all in here. Read up before you mess up.
Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images (Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights & Liabilities of)
This book has a similar subject matter to the last one. You’ll probably be fine as long as you have one of them, but I own both because sometimes it’s good to read different opinions on a complex subject to really understand it. You might want to take a look through some of the writing on both of these on Amazon before deciding which one makes the most sense to you before choosing between them, or you might want to go the route I did and have both on your shelf – but do yourself a favor and get one of these before you get into trouble – don’t wait until you know you need the information, and don’t trust the internet for things this important as there is a lot of misinformation out there on the subject.
Sometimes we need to be inspired by what other photographers have done, sometimes we need to know what we don’t want to do, and sometimes it’s just nice to look at some beautiful images. This is one of the most subjective sections, but here are a few of my personal favorites.
In Focus: National Geographic Greatest Portraits
It’s a dream of many photographers to be published – or even better hired – by National Geographic. This book is a collection of some of the greatest portraits they’ve published in their history. It’s a beautifully made large-format hard cover book. If you photograph people it can give you a wealth of ideas and help you figure out what you like and don’t like. Even if you don’t work primarily with people it makes a great coffee table book.
The Photography Book
I have the small version of this book but I wish I had gotten the large version. The Photo Book is a more open forum than National Geographic Portraits but useful and interesting in the same way with 500 photos from all different genres and time periods of photography. The strangest thing about this book is its arrangement – it’s organized alphabetically rather than by genre or date. But you get over that when you see how many beautiful and interesting photos are captured in its pages.
A World History of Photography
One day I woke up and realized I didn’t actually know that much about the history of my field and decided that just isn’t right. I took art history in college but it barely dealt with photography (or modern art much at all – for that you had to take modern art history). I got this book to solve that problem. I still haven’t read it cover to cover but I pick it up here and there and read a section. I’ve learned a lot, including that a whole lot of things we think of as new or modern were actually done by some of the earliest photographers. Another thing is that we’ve actually come a long way in having photography considered an art – it was much worse in the beginning.
Fiction and Essays
Let’s face it, we don’t always want to learn about our trade. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit down and relax to a good book. I like to blend these a bit though and read books that are still related to photography. A few of them I’ve gotten a lot out of are:
That is half of the image… Light. The rest is shape and shadow. Intent.”
This is the best fictional story about a photographer I’ve ever read. Written by Helen Humphreys and loosely based on the photographer Juliet Margaret Cameron, Afterimage is full of beautiful explanations of the creation of the photographic image. Quite impressive coming from someone that as far as I know is not herself a photographer. I wrote a full review on this book back in March.
Susan Sontag wrote essays on many subjects. Although she was not a photographer herself she was no foreigner to the field – her lifelong partner was Annie Leibovitz. This can be a bit of a dry read because, well, it’s an essay. That said it’s also very interesting and worth reading.
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
Roland Barthes was one of the world’s most respected phenomenologists, and this book is an incredibly beautiful read. It tackles the subject of photography not from the perspective of the photographer but from the perspectives of both the subjcet and the viewer. He really opened my eyes to a better understanding of how non-photographers look at and think about the medium and how whether we intend to or not, photography affects everyone all the time. At some point I would like to do a more complete review of this book that touched me so deeply, but I would have to read it again before I could do that well.
Letters to a Young Poet
This is the only book on the list that’s not specifically about photography, but in my opinion this is required reading for any artist of any discipline. The poignant advice on these pages is a veritable guide to how to deal with the frustrations of being an artist, finding inspiration, thinking (or not thinking) about life and love. It deals specifically with sensitivities that most people bury as they grow up. If you haven’t read these letters, please do. You won’t regret it.
This list could never be complete and you will add to your library books that are particular to your discipline (for example I have a large collection of fashion related books and magazines), but hopefully this gives you some ideas of where your library could be beefed up. If you have a book you think should be on this list, please post it in the comments.
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