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Saturday, 14 August 2010


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The best how-to books I have read have been photographer's memoirs and biographies. I'm thinking specifically of: "Walker Evans" by James Mellow, "Mapplethorpe: A Biography" by Patricia Morrisoe, "Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Londa Gordon, "Brassai: Letters to My Parents"' "The Mind's Eye" by Henri Cartier Bresson and my absolute favorite of all "Memories of a Dog" by Daido Moriyama. Read that last one twice. Read about how these people lived and you will learn so much.

Regarding Ansel's series, I recently attended SIGGRAPH (a computer-centric imaging convention attended by many in the digital film and animation world), and sat in on a talk by a high-ranking expert at SONY Imageworks, about as digital an image-processing shop as you get. During his lecture (which was about digital and film 'looks' he mentioned that the best source of information about image capture and image correction was Ansel's 'The Negative' and that everyone in the room should read it if they had not. You could see a number of the people in the room jotting down the title in their notes. So, it has not quite faded into the category of history quite yet.

Great choices - especially Light: Science and Magic. This book has been an immense help to me.

I'm not sure I'd list "On Being Photographer" but maybe that's because it is aimed at photojournalists and I'm a landscape photographer. In any case I didn't consider it a "practical guide". I see Amazon has used ones for $49 and change. I might sell my copy for $50 too.

You list a good selection of "how to" books, but a dearth of "what is photography" and "art of photography" books. Arguably, art is more important than technique...

Upon your recommendation in an old post, I bought "American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to the Present". That book did more to educate me on "what it means to be a photographer" than anything else.

I suggest you do a similar article as this one, recommending books on the artistic aspects. In this vein, I have loved Galen Rowell's "Mountain Light".


You did not mention composition…that the hard part of photography IMHO. The only good book I found on the subject is…in French and almost impossible to find unfortunately. But it is a very good one.

« L’art de la compostion et du cadrade » by Bernard Duc

I understand that your list is dedicated to How To books, but since you mentioned “The printed picture” at the end of the post I will speak about the big big guy, you know, John Szarkowski.

“The photographer’s eye”, “Looking at Photographs” and “Photography until now” are MUST READ BOOKS to me.



what?! no mention of "post exposure" by ctein?

OK, your readers aren't the typical audience, but the best "how to take pictures" book for non-photographers I've seen is Nick Kelsh's "How to Photograph Your Baby". Great for new parents and probably useful for anyone shooting friends & family with a point & shoot.

Beyond that, I can't say I have any good how to books to recommend. I have a few nature, landscape & wildlife books ... John Shaw's classics (nature and macro) are great introductions.

Allen Rokach and Anne Millman have a series out "The Field Guide to Photographing Gardens/Trees/etc" and they're good. My favorite how to for landscape photography (along the same level as the John Shaw books) is actually "Landscape Photography: A Kodak Guide" by Jeff Wignall 1987. And for birds, "The Art of Bird Photography" by Arthur Morris is excellent.

I haven't really run across much in the way of "how to shoot artistically" type books. The ones I've read have been sorely disappointing. They tend to talk about what makes a good photo as if it's something you can stop and study for five minutes before pressing the shutter rather, with 2 pages dedicated to "diagonal lines" then 2 pages dedicated to "curving lines". Maybe one of those books is helpful for analyzing photos, but I think I'll give up photography before I stop and ask myself "what am I trying to communicate here" each time I press the shutter :) But it does help to know what makes a good picture. The Photographers Eye" is excellent.

The only book on your list (other than the John Shaw mentions) that I have is "On Being A Photographer" and I'd recommend that to anyone ... what an eye opener !

My bible (or Koran) growing up: The Nikon Image.

I must say that On Being a Photographer is one of the most useful books I've read. The authors address the hard questions of figuring out where to point the camera and when to press the shutter release. It fascinates me how relevant this books becomes as camera technology improves -- it addresses the questions that the software folks haven't figured out yet :-) I do wish it included the images that they discuss as examples, but you can find most of them online.<./p>

Even though the print version is hard to come by, Lenswork Publishing has a PDF on DVD for about $10 US. A real bargain I think.

I have benefited tremendously from the Ansel Adams basic photo series, and from Light: Science and Magic. I recently got EF Lens Work III, and am not disappointed but have not yet benefited tremendously (give it time) (I shoot Nikon).

So I will look with greater attention at a couple of the others that look of interest, since I seem to be in sync with the ideas behind this list.

I have benefited tremendously from Ctein's restoration book. I'm sure it's been said here before, but let me say again that it's very useful in general, not just for restoration. Useful techniques, and useful ways to think about what you want to achieve.

I found Adams' Examples very very educational. It takes 40 of his photos, and tells us what he can recall of his thought process planning them, taking them, and printing them.

Maybe because I am aging all to0 rapidly due to external forces beyond my control, have found "NO" publication
serves my purpose save the original instruction (once a small booklet now a major tome in length) guide.

Damn difficult to carry a reference publication into the field.

Learned by a hands on process,
from a simple box camera including a Hasselblad all the way to large view cameras. Ditto the processing of the film, printing and prresentation of same.

Books are good if they fulfill a purpose for you! They don't for me.

As for life itself, it is trial and error.

Talk about timing! I was planning to order a couple of how-to photo/imaging books this very weekend, and then this post comes along. Fascinating concept, serendipity.

Opportunistically, I have a question: It's not (yet) in your list, but you've previously strongly recommended Bruce Fraser's Real-World Sharpening. Does it still rate as highly in your view? Or do you recommend another title in its place?

I still do recommend it, yes.


David Ward books are impressive. Not anly "Landscape Beyond", but also the former "Landscape Within".
My comments about both books can be read in Amazon UK

Perhaps for the very philosophical end of things: John Berger: Ways of seeing?

From memory I can recommend Andreas Feininger's Principles of Composition in Photography. It was not prescriptive and had a good selection of interesting examples, with discussion about what worked and why. Unfortunately I lost my copy, and it seems to be long out of print. I also remember his book The Complete Colour Photographer as a worthwhile read.
Another long time favourite of mine is The Ilford Manual of Photography, first published in 1890. I have the sixth edition (April 1971) - it has comprehensive discussions about the nature of light and light sources, image formation, lenses, camera movements, sensitometry, film characteristics, exposure, development and processing, printing, identifying faults in negatives and lots more. A great resource, particularly for film work.
Another recommendation is the Kodak Professional Photoguide, first published in 1977. Printed on heavy duty cardboard, it's a slim volume designed to be carried on location, it even includes a gray card and colour patches.

Having owned several editions of the Olympus lens books back in the day, I was happy to lay my hands on the Canon lens book as well a few years ago.

For more frugal readers, the Canon book is available for download from


It is broken up into sections, but is all there.

Great list, I have most of theese books. :-)

Re: Canon EF Lens Work III: The Eyes of EOS.

If you are satisfied to just reading the content, Canon have published the book in PDF format here:


I also think I like David Wards first book "The landscape within" even better than the "landscape beyond".

You're right about the OM System Lens Handbook. Many were the nights when I fell asleep in bed lusting after yet another OM system lens. In the end I owned nearly all of them over the years, from the earliest 55mm f1.2 (sucked wide open) to the glorious 180mm f2 (truly stunning and an actual bag lens.) The book included great images and cogent explanations of lens technology. And over the years all of the Olympus brochures and catalogs were some of the most intelligently produced and beautiful to be found. There were indeed feeling their oats.

Let me echo or re-enforce that Martin Evening on Lightroom 3 (or 2) is probably the best book for the program. I rate it highly and it sits on the shelf above my Mac with a couple of other reference books.

I like that you placed Adam's books on the top of your list. I realize that digital is the way that most kids will learn photography, but just like you suggested an "M6 and one lens for a year" there is a lot to be learned by going the "Old School" route. Being self taught, I learned almost everything I know from the three books by Adams. Actually, the darkroom book by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum press was a very good and fun book to read. It had great stories of Larry Clark mixing up special concoctions in his darkroom. I would say that book should be on the list, except it's not 1985 anymore...

I liked Bryan Peterson's newer book, "Understanding Photography Field Guide". I have been taking photos for 60+ years and I would recommend it to all, especially new photographers.

Coming to this late, against my better judgment I'll offer a whiff to this storm.

The computer books in the list may be useful but you'll learn nothing of photography from them. Personally, I've sworn off them a few years ago. Short shelf lives and generally inside-out organizations (i.e. user manuals) made them poor investments in knowledge. They become clutter quickly.

I do recommend Light, Science and Magic but only for someone who's really willing to take the time to study it and try the lessons/experiments. Some will but most won't.

richardplondon's suggestion for Harald Mante's "The Photograph" is a real gem that I loudly second. The compositional/organizational lessons that Mante puts forth in this book are timeless and travel far beyond the mindless "rule of thirds". If you want to buy a book that will be genuinely useful in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years, as an heirloom to the babies whose pictures you're snapping madly today, this is it.

Not to be a putz, however, but the best books on photography are books of photography. They're also books of photography by people who have taken excursions beyond the conventional pretty pictures and snapshots in long careers. The work of folks such as Barbara Crane, for example, will take you on a decades-long excursion of photographic possibilities.

The best ways to learn photography are to (a) DO IT and, (b) to study work you admire. I salute Mike's list effort but much of it ain't about photography skills or appreciation.

What? No David Vestal?

Dennis wrote I think I'll give up photography before I stop and ask myself "what am I trying to communicate here" each time I press the shutter

I have to disagree here. The point is to learn to do this instinctively over time. Without that you run a high risk of a muddled message, unless you have inherent ability (in which case you do not need any of these guides). You don't have to do it each time, but in situations that allow it can be extremely helpful. One useful tip I picked up from Thom Hogan's writing is to try to name each photo before you press the shutter release. This forces you to do just that --- enunciate what the image is about.

The book that taught me more than any other (except the Ansel Adams books) was The Amateur Photographer's Handbook by Aaron Sussman. It is old but for me when I was starting out, it was gold.

re Lightroom:

It's not a book, but I have found Adobe's Lightroom 2 online help pages useful and usable. The clean and uncluttered main page includes an explanation of LR's workflow philosophy, which is echoed by the layout of the documentation. The documentation is both searchable and well hyperlinked.

The first chapter explains and links to the various available help resources, which includes many video demonstrations by professional users and instructors.

Beyond addressing specific topics, procedures or cases, most of the videos are also useful for demonstrating LR's workflow paradigm and how individuals customize it for their needs.

The LR 2 page is here:


The LR 3 page is here:


LR 3 was recently released and hasn't changed much in terms of design and usability, so at the moment there is some understandable but potentially confusing overlap in the help resources.

The better "how to book" I have read in the last years in written in Spanish by José Benito Ruiz, an amazing nature photographer from Spain.

The book is "El fotógrafo en la naturaleza".
Here is a link to his personal page.


Absolutely fantastic. I have been looking for some books to help me along. I found Bryan Peterson's Understanding Exposure really helpful in my first 6 months to a year. I went into town this afternoon and found 1 of the Ansel Adams set and have the other 2 on order. Lightroom and the various techniques available to be unleashed within were another sticking point for me, now I have the answer! Thanks V Much

I don't think any aspiring amateur or profession photographer should go out until he or she has an answer to why they're doing what they're doing which is why Sontag's On Photography should be mandatory reading.

One more reader suggestion:

Practical Composition in Photography by Axel Brück.

It has been invaluable to me, and I refer back to it periodically.

I am surprised that no one has mentioned the Life Library of Photography. I have seen complete sets at yard sales for $10, a steal even if all you use them for is looking at great reproductions of historically significant photographs.

It is generally my first recommendation to those who want concise and detailed examples of "how" and "why" photography works. The fact that you can break down the process into separate titles, The Camera, The Darkroom, Photojournalism, Color, etc. is even better.

Some of the information may be dated (what, no digital) does not detract from the wealth of information presented.

I don't know whether Kenneth Kobré took the photo on the cover of his book, but it's terrific, marvelous, and so on. That's what decisive moment is all about. Definitely a photo I would like to have on my wall.

BTW, instead of Photoshop for photographers, people can also try a book simply about Photoshop. I skimmed Photoshop CS5: The Missing manual by Lesa Snyder and it looks quite comprehensive. Covers not only Camera RAW, but also all the other features of Photoshop. It's aimed at beginners and advanced users, and from what I saw, it delivers.

There is a free electronic version of the Sony Lens Book available at http://www.sony.de/res/attachment/file/94/1193315650394.pdf (German; I don't know whether an english version can be found online). Since it's directly from a Sony server, I assume this is legal.

Likewise, Google may find a PDF version of "on being a photographer". In Germany, used editions cost 90 €, which is a bit much for 96 pages, in my opinion. I don't really assume this to be legal, but for some, there may be no other practical way to obtain the book.

I would very much like something to teach me how to see, how to find great pictures. I'm good enough at technique, but fear I'll never be good as an artist.

As far as I am concerned, the three books from Ansel Adams are by no means passé. Alright, unless you still work in a wet darkroom, many things have changed in a direct, technical sense. But Mr. Adams explained why he did what he did, and described his experiments leading to his way in detail. While we no longer need to look at him for guidance on developer and paper, we can still learn from how he worked to get at a certain point. Basically, all those small titbits of information in-between his once ‘real’ information have become the basic information. How big should a print be? Common answer back then was negative size, and now would be pixel numbers? But he starts out by attention to perspective and viewing distance… In the beginning of 'the print' he explains how he evaluates his proof prints, using a dimmable lamp. Still works, and perhaps even more important now we do out correction onscreen before seeing a print…

The zone system has been abused massively even back in the wet days, and we are waiting for the hands of a new genius like Adams to come up with a digital -colour?- version. But when producing black and white pictures, it still helps me to pre-visualise the end-result up to a level the lcd on the back of the camera never can. Nothing changed there. I hear massive howling about the dynamic range of digital, but very few seem to realise what the dynamic range of an actual print is...

Greetings, Janneman

" "pro" pictures are generally (I say generally, son, generally) fashionable, competent, standardized, surfacey, and most often anonymous and interchangeable"

This is the most appalling predjudice. Surely someone with your knowledge of photography must be able to name - without even trying - 100 professional photographers who are/were also great artists. Just go through the alphabet - Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Eugene Atget, Richard Avedon . . . and that's in ten seconds from someone with no memory for names. Of course not everyone reaches those heights, but your dismissive attitude insults many thousands of more workaday "pros" whose private work is nevertheless thoughtful and deeply felt.

David Paterson,
Naming a few exceptions doesn't disprove the rule. Almost all pros have done some exceptional work; just look to their portfolios to see their best. But most pros (the egotists aside) would agree that many of the pictures they do for clients are workaday and prosaic.

If you don't believe that, just ask a few of them.


It's funny (or sad, I suppose): Whenever I go to the bookstore, there are shelves and shelves of "how to" photography books, but precious few of actual photography, and even fewer of actually decent photography.

Mike Johnston
We judge famous photographers by their famous images, not by their failures or their out-takes, of which - of course - there will be many. Likewise I don't think we should judge professional photographers solely on what they produce for commercial clients; they are being ASKED for the workaday and prosaic, much of the time. Many do such commercial commissions in order to support their private work - Sebastian Salgado springs to mind.

"they are being ASKED for the workaday and prosaic, much of the time"

...That's what I was saying.


Mike: You have more guts than a bucket of fish to publish a "10 Best" list of anything, let alone photography! Good for you. Great read.
I concur on the recent trilogy from David duChemin. Excellent, refreshing, insightful. (His eBook publications are likewise very good).
Thanks again.

"And you've got to love a book the first chapter of which is entitled "Simplicity.""

I'm afraid this made me smile, written as it is above a photo of David Ward next to a quarter of a tonne of equipment that he looks as if he is about to lug off on his latest shoot...

Great article though Mike and thanks for all the tips and controversial choices.

By the way, I've found the best way to learn a computer program is to start with a video tutorial and discover for yourself from there on. There are a great many free video tutorials on Lightroom - which is a great program, and not hard at all, once you learn how this new category of program is to be used - on the net.

Jim Metzger: It's true, I did learn a lot from the Life Library of Photography, which my parents bought for me when I was first shooting seriously.

I think mine are from when they were first coming out, and the photo reproduction quality in those volumes was very high.

Boyan wrote:
"Dennis wrote I think I'll give up photography before I stop and ask myself "what am I trying to communicate here" each time I press the shutter

I have to disagree here. The point is to learn to do this instinctively over time. Without that you run a high risk of a muddled message ... (cut) "

The conclusion I've reached, pretty comfortably, after years of amateur photography and lots of reading about photography, is that the only message I want my photographs to carry is "hey, look at what I saw that I found interesting". I've tried making photography about light and I've made boring pictures of pretty light; I've tried making it about lines and made boring pictures of interesting lines. Finally, the words of David Vestal and Jay & Hurn resonated with me. Light & composition are important, but ultimately it's about the subject. And I love Vestal's take on the introspective photographer whose explorations of inner self are of interest to nobody but the photographer !

I'll admit that sometimes it takes a second to figure out what about a scene catches your eye. But talk about what you want to communicate (at least for the pretty straightforward photography I do) seems like a layer of fog over something that should be straightforward. If you mean consider whether you want to freeze or show motion; consider whether you want to isolate the subject or show everything in focus; consider whether you want a silhouette or halo I agree those are things you need to think about and learn to decide quickly. But calling that communication is taking it way too seriously IMO.

I know this is kind of OT, but at least I emphasized a couple of authors ;)

One of the best books on learning composition IMHO is: "The Simple Secret to Better Painting", by Greg Albert.


Don't be put off by the title. Photographs follow the exact same rules of composition as paintings do. It's simple and clear, albeit occasionally repetitive. Nevertheless, it does a great job of taking the many important (and sometimes complicated and hard to visualize) concepts and distills them into a few core principles with an underlying theme: the "simple secret", as it were.

Another strength of the book is the way it illustrates a particular concept in action. For each concept, there is a reference painting that very clearly uses that concept and includes two thumbnail graphics showing correct and incorrect applications of said concept so you can not only see the right way of incorporating said element into your painting / photograph, but how to avoid compositional mistakes, too.

Right On, You are definitely on the mark with the series by Adams and Baker. I have the original series and have referred back to them often to refresh and see how to bend in a different way the rules of photography. Great list.

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