21 Best Photography Books To Help You Become a Better Photographer (2021 Update)
Do people still read books these days? In the age of digital bombardment and brief attention spans brought on by image and video-centric media, reading may be a lost art. Our brains, which once devoured the written word, have been rewired to be satisfied with 140-character text and anything longer is proving to be more and more difficult to digest. Reading for enjoyment is now a luxury and one that less and less are partaking in. Reading forces us to slow down, contemplate, and put forth effort – a process that seems too complex for our speedy culture.
But reading is still vitally important. Some of the most influential and successful leaders dedicate time to read daily. Billionaire Warren Buffet reportedly spends 80% of his day reading. Elon Musk, current (as of 2021) wealthiest man in the world and founder/CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and more, reads voraciously. When asked how he learned to build rockets, Musk said, “I read books.”
We want to encourage you to take some time to check out these best photography book recommendations to help you become a better photographer.
1. Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson
There’s a reason Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson ranks highly on Amazon’s photography references bestsellers list and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It was the first photography book I read and it helped me understand exposure, composition, aperture, depth of field, etc. The book is full of pictures that illustrate the concepts and is sprinkled with many nuggets of wisdom. There are exercises in the book to help you practice. This book is great for beginners and it will get you out of ‘P’ mode in no time.
2, 3, 4. Picture Perfect Practice, Picture Perfect Posing, and Picture Perfect Lighting By Roberto Valenzuela
A gifted educator, Roberto Valenzuela’s Picture Perfect series of books are full of amazing imagery and very useful information which is why it was listed as a favorite by a few of the staff. Roberto approaches photography from an artistic standpoint, not a technical one, and each chapter comes with assignments that will help you build a solid foundation as a photographer.
Writer Tanya Smith recommends Picture Perfect Practice for its easy to follow workbook format (read her book review here), while I personally really enjoy Roberto’s teaching style and work, and highly recommend Picture Perfect Posing. There is also a third book in the series, the newest Picture Perfect Lighting. You can’t go wrong with any (or all!) of the three books – they’ve all been on Amazon’s bestsellers list.
5. Film is not Dead by Jonathon Canlas
For photographers looking to shoot film, Film Is Not Dead by Jonathon Canlas is a popular book filled with tons of info, for both beginner and advanced photographers for on shooting both medium format and 35mm film. Writer Jay Cassario says, “It is filled with awesome film images and covers everything from the basics of shooting, the different cameras out there, to advice on how to get started on shooting film along side of your digital work.” It looks to be out of print, but you can rent it on Amazon here.
[Want to learn more about shooting film? Check out Christina Blanarovich’s articles on film photography here]
6. The Art of Color by Itten
The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Color System of Johannes Itten, Based upon the Book The Art of Color is the definitive study on color theory. This book isn’t only useful for photographers but for any artist. Writers Amii and Andy Kauth say, “The edited edition by Birre simplifies and condenses some heady info. But it rocks for photographers who want to grasp an understanding of the basics of color theory.”
It’s been used for many years in many art classes around the world. You can find a copy on Amazon here.
7. What They Didn’t Teach You In Photo School by Demetrius Fordham
Demetrius Fordham’s What They Didn’t Teach You In Photo School: The Secrets Of The Trade That Will Make You A Success In The Industry touches on paying your dues as a photographer and gives a glimpse of what it is like to be a working photographer
Recommended by writer Justin Hayes, he says that the book “doesn’t focus on the photography but the nature of business. It teaches about internships, what assistants do, how to develop a good relationship with clients and other photographers, touches on portfolio making and online presence.” It’s perfect for those who want to turn their hobby into a profession. Get it here.
8. Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting by Fil Hunter and Steven Biver
Without light, there can be no photographs, so understanding light is paramount to becoming a photographer. Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting is “great for building a fundamental understanding of lighting,” according to writer Lauchlan Toal. The book covers the basic principles of lighting in an easy-to-read manner.
Udi Tirosh from DIY Photography, read it twice and calls it the “best book ever,” in his review. He says, “this book is for any one who wants to photograph better, regardless of available equipment.” The reviewers over on Amazon loved it, too; its current and previous editions all earned 4.5 stars across the board.
9. Avedon Fashion 1944-2000
Kish, our former Editor-In-Chief, would have you believe that applying the lessons of fashion photography would serve you well in any genre that requires photographing people. From posing and expression, to framing and lines, good fashion photography can encompass it all, and that few people were as novel and striking as Richard Avedon. Keeping in line with that Kish’s recommendation is Avedon Fashion 1944-2000, and of it he says,
“Richard Avedon took fashion from a Byzantine stone statue, into curves made of flesh. Kate Moss said he taught her how to have ‘thought’ behind her eyes, and that depth and emotion is somewhat of a signature dish of his. Avedon’s work was a masterclass in detail, and as a very visually oriented kid it drew me in – just take a look at his work in the 80s and up and you’ll see line work like you’ve never seen before, often, I’ve heard, much to the model’s chagrin.
While this book, or any of his, has little or no typed instruction, you can school yourself with the visuals, and as photographers, we would do well to do that more. If you’re looking for set-ups and breakdowns, and ‘how to’s then look elsewhere. This teaches you how to think of an image rather than how to execute one.”
10. The Photographers Eye: A graphic Guide: Instantly Understand Composition & Design for Better Photography by Michael Freeman
Michael Freeman is as great a writer as he is a photographer, which is a good thing for the reader. The Photographers Eye: A graphic Guide: Instantly Understand Composition & Design for Better Photography, Freeman teaches us to create amazing imagery using basic design principles, which we can incorporate immediately into our photography. Just like a well design graphic, we can use the elements in a given scene to intentionally compose our image before pushing the shutter button. This is a great photography book to help new photographers develop their own visual style.
11. The Visual Toolbox: 60 Lessons for Stronger Photographs by David duChemin
David duChemin presents a visual toolbox to help photographers master a range of topics, including balance, negative space, color contrast, and more. This book serves as a guide not only for how to best use your camera, but also how to use it to capture stronger photos. Like other books on the list, this guide covers composition, the creative process, and other photography principles, but it does so in “action-oriented micro-chapters designed to improve your photography immediately,” featuring a breakdown of 60 concepts with an assignment for nearly every chapter. It’s cheaper than attending a workshop and just as effective. Highly recommended.
12. The Photographer’s Guide to Posing: Techniques to Flatter Everyone by Lindsay Adler
A well-known fashion photographer, Lindsay Adler is no stranger to posing subjects and creating striking imagery. In this guide, Adler shares her knowledge of editorial photography and offers tips and tricks for posing your subjects in a flattering way, as the title of the book implies. In addition to sharing examples of posing, Adler also shares her thought process behind the poses, explaining why some poses work for certain body types and situations while others don’t. Use this book as a resource to take the mystery out of posing your subjects, whether alone, as a couple, or a group.
13. The Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Crafting Light and Shadow by Chris Knight
For those looking to up their skills in photographic lighting, The Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Crafting Light and Shadow comes highly recommended. Follow along as author and master of lighting, Chris Knight, examines the interplay of light and shadow in a collection of striking portraits. Knight brings years of experience as an instructor to make this subject more accessible than one might expect. It’s time to get over your fear of off-camera flash and embrace the key (light) to help elevate your photo skills and open up a new world of options in your own portraiture.
14. Studio Anywhere: A Photographer’s Guide to Shooting in Unconventional Locations by Nick Fancher
While we’d all love our own photography studio, it’s just not a reality for most photographers. Besides, even for those who do have regular access to a studio, I’m willing to bet most still shoot on location more often than not, and it’s there that photographers must be able to think on their feet and work in whatever lighting and other challenges are thrust upon them.
With this book, author and photographer Nick Fancher has given us a tool to make working through those challenges easier. Through these pages, we get to follow Fancher behind the scenes of various photo shoots and see how he uses everything from lighting to post-processing to get creative with his imagery. The idea is to get you creative fuel to use on your own shoots, no matter how crappy the location.
While this book is out of print, you can find affordable copies online. I also recommend checking out Fancher’s other books, including Studio Anywhere 2: Hard Light: A Photographer’s Guide to Shaping Hard Light and Chroma: A Photographer’s Guide to Lighting with Color.
15. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon
From the description: “When Austin Kleon was asked to address college students in upstate New York, he shaped his speech around the ten things he wished someone had told him when he was starting out.”
In Steal Like an Artist, Kleon offers ten basic principles to give your creativity a boost. You’ll also find a number of practical tips that you can put into practice right out of the gate. Consider creative ruts a thing of the past. Kleon has provided an answer to the age old question, “What now?” Follow these tips and keep your photography fresh and inspiring.
If you’ve ever searched for photography tutorials online, then you’re probably already familiar with Tony Northrup. In this book, Northrup also includes access to over three hours of video tutorials to supplement the 233 written pages. It’s a great approach for those with different learning preferences. As is true with most of the instructional books on this list, it helps if you practice with your camera as you work your way through the lessons in the book. Northrup has included several exercises in each chapter to help you do just that.
17. Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs by Henry Carroll
Henry Carroll makes it fun and easy to understand the basics of photography. Consider this a go-to accessible photography guide, especially if you’re on the beginning side of photography. Rather than bury his readers under a load of technical jargon, Carroll instead has created a handbook full of helpful hints and expert tips, not to mention a library of fantastic example images.
Be sure to check out Carroll’s other books on photography as well, including Read This if you Want to Take Great Photographs of People and Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of Places.
18. The Hotshoe Diaries by Joel McNally
In The Hotshoe Diaries, Joel McNally shares a number of lighting solutions for all kinds of images. A regular user of flash on his shoots, McNally is no stranger to enhancing his images through the literal power of flash photography. The results are pretty much always inspirational. Check out this guide to flash photography and get insight into a master flash photographer’s thought process.
You can find another of other insightful books authored by Joel McNally as well. Be sure to check those out for more great photography education.
19. Photography Q&A by Zach Arias
In Photography Q&A, Zach Arias provides answers 100+ questions on a range of business-related topics like marketing, pricing, branding and work/life balance, as well as technical advice about photography basics. Arias includes personal anecdotes throughout the book that complement the topic of discussion, as well as helpful worksheets to use when building your own businesses. While we often focus on our technical photography skills, we can never make photography more than a hobby without also building our business skills, and this book is a strong contributor for allowing us to do that.
20. Extraordinary Everyday Photography by Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring
In addition to possessing technical expertise, the best photographers are also able to see things differently. In Extraordinary Everyday Photography, Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring encourage photographers, especially those newer to photography, to slow down and realize the potential to capture great images, even in the most mundane locations. By combining a number of compositional elements, available light, color, and different angels will allow you to up your photography game, no matter the circumstances surrounding your shoot.
21. One Face 50 Ways: The Portrait Photography Idea Book by Imogen Dyer and Mark Wilkinson
The dynamic duo the famed “Weekly Imogen” YouTube channel, photographer Mark Wilkinson and his muse/model, Imogen, bring the lessons from their video platform into a book format. Just like the videos, the book offers easy-to-follow examples that will show you how to get an amazing variety of looks using the same model. Of course, you can apply these principles to all of your portraits, no matter the particular subject/client. This includes your friends and family!
This book is out of print, officially, but you can still find affordable copies, and it’s worth picking up if you find a decent deal.
These are only 21 of the best photography books, but I know there are many, many more out there! List your favorite recommendations in the comments below.