Ted Orland's Photographic Truths poster, 2000s version. (I have an original
print of the photograph hanging in my downstairs half bath.)
• Bill Jay and David Hurn, On Being a Photographer. The ultimate explanation of why photography is not about photography, this is the first book a student or beginning or intermediate photographer should read—because it might impart to them the idea that subject can come first, and it might get them to question the standard or conventional ideas about what photographs should look like. Short, and not perfectly argued, but both courageous and essential. For further reading, LensWork #83 consists of the best of Bill Jay's Lenswork column, "Endnotes."
• Bryan Peterson, Understanding Exposure, Fourth Edition: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera. Not only is exposure the basis for most classic photographing "systems" such as the Zone System, not only is correct and creative exposure the very fundament and foundation of good photographic technique, but knowledge of exposure is often lacking among photographers today because cameras have become so automatic and correction in post is so readily at hand. Do not be lulled! Well-controlled exposure is still necessary if you want pictures that look their best. This title (the fourth edition linked above is due next Spring; the third edition is available now) is one of the great bestsellers of photographic technique, and appropriately so. Even if you think you already know this stuff well enough, it might not be a bad idea to brush up on your basics.
• Richard Benson, The Printed Picture. A highly enjoyable and profusely illustrated guided tour of the technology of photographic printing from one of the master printmakers of the age. Benson, himself a master of many processes and a no-nonsense lecturer, teaches at Yale.
• Joe McNally, The Moment It Clicks. Joe McNally's lively and engaging account of what it's like to be Joe McNally was part of a mini-avalanche of "How I Do It" books, the list of which includes Gregory Heisler's 50 Portraits, the compendious Road to Seeing by Dan Winter, Annie Leibovitz at Work, Steve McCurry's Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs, and numerous others. The Moment It Clicks was the one that best clicked with readers.
• Kirk Tuck, Minimalist Lighting. You don't necessarily need to do lighting, but it helps to know a little about it, and it helps to know some basic techniques. This perennially popular title will walk you through basic concepts and is also a great instruction manual for getting started.
• [As a pair] Michael L. Carlebach, The Origins of Photojournalism in America and American Photojournalism Comes of Age. A great window into photography's tumultuous development through the lens of its historically most important use. Engagingly readable and painlessly informative. I keep recommending these, and each time I do, a small number of lucky people actually read them. At least now they're very cheap, because they're only available used. Trust me, I've read a lot of photo history, and these books are special. They should be reprinted—or at least formatted for Kindle.
• Rather than recommend a book like Scott Kelby's The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC Book for Digital Photographers and the small library of books like it that you'd need in order to master the ins and outs of digital technique, I think I'll just recommend a subscription to Lynda.com. Lynda.com, if you don't know it, is a video tutorial site that covers all sorts of software—and not only photography-related. Helpfully divided into easily digestible chunks, each course covers everything you need to get up to speed. For those already in the know, there are often shorter courses that clue you in to changes when newer versions come out. View one a day and you'll soon have gotten more than your money's worth.
• [As a pair] Jeff Schewe, The Digital Negative, and Ansel Adams: The Negative. (Search Abebooks or eBay for a nice used hardcover copy of the latter.) The Negative is the best of Adams's technical books. Like a clear mountain pool, it's both deep and clear. It can be read with great profit even by photographers who will only ever use a camera with a sensor in it. I suggest reading it one-after-the-other with Jeff Schewe's excellent The Digital Negative, which was in part inspired by Ansel's book and was newly refreshed just this past September. Of course then you will want Jeff's The Digital Print, and Ansel's The Print...but I'm cheating on my ten!
• David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. One of the oddities of artmaking is that, at an elemental level, it takes real courage. You're looking at places in yourself that many human beings aren't comfortable confronting, and putting forward something so deeply personal that fear can prevent you from working freely. David and Ted "unpack" the problems of overcoming the impediments that our feelings put in our way.
• John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art. I suppose at age 58 this is unlikely ever to be displaced as my personal Tao Te Ching of photography (much more appropriate than saying "personal Bible of photography," as both LaP and the Chinese classic are brief and a bit inscrutable). On the other hand, there can't be many TOP readers who still don't have this book unless they are recalcitrant and obstreperous and pigheadedly refuse to see reason. So you probably already have it. The late John Szarkowski (with me he pronounced it "shar-kov-ski") was one of the best writers on photography in the history of the medium, and LaP is his masterpiece.
• Have I reached ten yet? Finally, recently updated for the twenty-teens, Ted Orland's ultra-classic Photographic Truths poster. (Illustrated above.) Ted used to be Ansel's assistant, and is a fine writer and a creative brain, and he has an impish, wise and breezy attitude. He is the soul of "lighten up." Sample: "When your friends finally realize that you are a True Artist, committed to making sensitive and meaningful images, they will ask you to photograph their wedding." Let Ted's cheery aphorisms lighten your outlook a bit, and perhaps you'll be the better for it.
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Rodger Kingston: "Of all the books you mention here, John Szarkowski's Looking at Photographs is certainly one of my all-time favorites. In my copy I've noted that I acquired it in November 1973 (the year it was published as well as the year I was married). At some point along the way John inscribed it to me. In addition to 100 photographs, the book contains 100 short essays that are some of the best writing on photography that I know of. I think my favorite is the one on Carleton E. Watkins, in which, after writing about the photographer, he compares Watkins' photograph of a strawberry tree to a Japanese flag. Did I mention that Szarkowski had a wry, lively sense of humor?"
Kenneth Tanaka: "Some good choices there, Mike.
"My own list would meander outside the boundaries of photography and into the realms of modern (i.e. 1900+) art and design history for grounding and sources for visual and conceptual inspiration.
"But as I'm pressed for time at the moment that list will have to wait. Still, since you highlighted Bryan Petersen's Exposure book (how does he find the time to take a picture?) I do want to offer that Petersen's Learning to See Creatively is an excellent exposition on expanding your photographic vision. There are many such books but Petersen's lively and inviting style makes his messages easy to grasp immediately.
"Even better is The Photographer's Mind by the equally popular photo author Michael Freeman. This is also an engaging, but much deeper look at the visual, cultural, and psychological aspects of managing photographic space. Even if you've been using a camera for 50 years I can virtually guarantee that you'll find something very interesting and perhaps even immediately useful in Freeman's book. It's inexpensive. Just get it.
"(Both titles are also available on Kindle.)