Top 20 Best Photography Books
by Jeff McLain
In the late 1990s, I was all-consumed by the dream to get out of my day job and somehow, some way, become a professional photographer. This was pre-internet, so, of course, we didn’t have Amazon at our fingertips! Instead, I’d hit the library and check out a lot of nature and wildlife photography titles; I was drawn to the eye candy in these pages. I spent many of my lunch breaks with my nose in photo books, drooling over the idea of somehow getting paid to create these colorful images. It became a burning desire.
But, as I dove further into the deeper end of the pool, I began to realize that many books helped my photographic career other than just those on “how-to” achieve certain photos.
In this list, I’ve broken these titles down to 5 categories in order to offer up a multi-disciplinary approach to learning the art, craft, and business of photography. Some of these titles are “How-To” in nature, and some are more conceptual “Self-Help” that will help you become a more productive person.
I asked the rest of the RMSP staff for their favorites and indicated below who the recommendations come from.
Beginner and Intermediate Photography
The Digital Photography Book series by Scott Kelby
Jeff: "Scott Kelby was the former President of the Association of Photoshop Professionals, and he has a very approachable style to teaching the basics of photography. For anyone dipping their toe in the water, this is great starting place, or a great reference to support in-person learning.”
Jeff: “Joe is a master of studio table-top lighting and he breaks down his process in easy-to-understand concepts. For those interested in the tabletop product or food photography genres, this is a must-read.”
Shooting in Sh*tty Light: The Top Ten Worst Photography Lighting Situations and How to Conquer Them by Lindsay Adler and Erik Valind
Jeff: “If there is one thing that beginner photographers do a lot of, it is shooting in less-than-perfect conditions. This book is an excellent look into how to take lousy lighting situations and come away with excellent photographs.”
Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots by Gabriel Biderman and Tim Cooper
Jeff: “This book will get you thinking out-of-the-box when it comes to exposure and times of day that you can be actually getting quality images. These guys show you that shooting at night is doable, fun, and will get some amazing results! This one can equally sit here in the Photo section as much as it can sit in the Inspiration section.”
Forest: “One of my personal favorites, this book is over 400 pages long and offers an intermediate astrophotographer everything they need to take their images to the next level. If someone is looking for a book that is truly at an intermediate/advanced level, this is it.”
The Business of Photography
ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography by American Society of Media Photographers
Jeff: “I’d say this is the definitive first stop for any photographer looking to start a business in photography. It is the complete tome — especially for photographers looking to shoot editorial work or evolve into a commercial photographer.”
How to Succeed in Commercial Photography: Insights from a Leading Consultant by Selina Maitreya
from Jeff: “To begin to land projects in the upper echelons of commercial and advertising takes more than just being good with a camera — it' s about specialization and the ‘look’ you apply – the way you see, your vision. Maitreya laser-focuses this concept and lays out the foundation for how to rebuild your portfolio to attract clients who want and need YOUR particular way of seeing.”
The Photographer's Guide to Marketing and Self-Promotion by Maria Piscopo
Jeff: “There is no better manual for how to take your unique vision and figure out how to get it in front of buyers who would be interested in what you do. This is THE guide for navigating a process of marketing that can land you work.”
The Photographer's Guide To Negotiating by Richard Weisgrau
Jeff: “By and large, the greatest hurdle photographers face is how to price themselves. But, once they have figured that part out, the next hurdle is how to negotiate once they are in the room with the buyer. This book is solid advice for those who want to gain more confidence to stand up for their pricing, calmly negotiating terms, and learning how to be cool, calm and collected throughout the process. It’s filled with the invaluable experiences of other photographers in the field.”
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
Jeff: “Both Sarah Chaput de Saintonge and I have read this book, and it is excellent. Nowadays, we have too many tasks to juggle — this book helps to dispel the myth that you need to be juggling so much and helps you identify what things are truly important and worthy of your time. It shows you that by identifying these things, you'll be able to focus more on the most important tasks.”
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Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
Jeff: “If you feel like you are generally a disorganized person on some level, or lackadaisical when it comes to paperwork and digital assets and you can’t figure out a good system to employ to organize your life, this book will help you get organized. I’d consider reading it in tandem with Essentialism.”
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
Sarah: “I love this book because it challenges the perceptions by which we see our capabilities and the world as a whole. It presents the idea that we have to change our perceptions in order to change ourselves, a notion that can change the way you live your life. Among other helpful tips, it challenges readers to build character instead of crafting a personality, because solid character is what leads to true effectiveness.”
It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden
Sarah: “This book is not only beautifully designed with an artistic layout, but a super easy-to-read reminder that we need to stop making excuses and just do the work. It brings up important topics that hinder our productivity and creativity, like insecurity OR pride, artistic trends, originality, and more. It also touches on some business tips like developing a thick skin and taking success into your own hands. It was primarily written for advertisers, but the lessons within apply to any creative businessperson who wants to excel in their craft. I recommend this small book as often as I can.”
Inspiration and Art
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Sarah: " I think that every photographer, and really every artist, should read this book. Not only does it help inspire creativity, but it also walks the reader through overcoming silly barriers to creating, such as fear, money, and time. It's a fun and relatable read, too."
Photography and the Creative Life by Nancy Rotenberg
Bob: “This book has had a huge personal impact on me and my photography. Nancy taught week-long workshops with RMSP for years in various beautiful places in the world including here in Missoula. I was fortunate enough to be one of her students in 2007. This book embodies her joyous spirit that leads and encourages the reader to not only discover their own sense of curiosity and creativity with a camera, but how to actually live in an inspired way to help spark this within them. It talks about building a home environment around you that inspires you with beauty, dance, music, flowers, poetry, etc. She suggests keeping daily journals about curious observations, ideas and projects that truly give you pause for inspiration. She believed creativity isn't something you do; it's something you are and live. She believed this wholeheartedly and shared it with everyone around her. I count myself as one of the fortunate souls who was graced by her impact on my art and my life. I fully recommend Photography and the Creative Life to help ignite the creative spirit in any photographer.”
Jeff: “Living a life as an artist can have its ups and downs. And fear is the engine that haunts our creative spirit. This book tackles these fears and shows you how to grapple with them and continue to create. It’s one of the most-inspiring books I’ve read on the subject.”
Jeff: “This was one of the first books I read about photography, along with various titles by John Shaw. It stands as an important book to me only because of its power to fuel my burning desire to become a photographer. It’s some major inspiration. Although I don’t specialize in the nature and wildlife field at all — it's where the desire to become a photographer was sparked.”
Inspiration in Photography: Training Your Mind to Make Great Art by Brooke Shaden
Jeff: “Brooke and her photography truly are inspiring. She shows you that you don’t need a fancy camera or a huge studio to create compelling imagery. Her style is rooted in fine art, but her concepts and techniques transcend to other genres.”
Jeff: “The Adobe Classroom in a Book series are by far among the best beginner manuals for the various software applications that photographers utilize. When you are learning new software, it’s critical that you engaged with in-person training, but also extremely helpful to have a guide to reference. These books are that perfect reference while also being excellent stand-alone step-by-step guides to learning the programs.”
Jeff: “If there are two books I reference the most regarding Photoshop, it is these two titles by Katrin Eismann. These books have many methods, tips, and tricks in them that have become part of my own retouching arsenal. The images themselves and practice examples aren’t especially inspiring, but they are a means to an end: learning the program and the techniques. You can then move forward to employing those techniques on your own imagery.”
The DAM Book 3.0 by Peter Krogh
Jeff: “As you shoot more, you begin to acquire vast amounts of digital assets —and you need a system to organize, edit, and backup these assets — and most important — to find them later. This title is an excellent resource into understanding the workflow to ensure you don’t lose your precious photographs, and can also find them upon request without trouble. Worth the read.”