PHLEARN MagazineThe 20 Best Photography Books of All Time

The 20 Best Photography Books of All Time

The Internet is a veritable treasure trove of inspiration for photographers. Everywhere you look, from Pinterest to Instagram, you’ll find images that spark your creativity and get you reaching for your camera.

But even in today’s technologically-driven world, there’s still no true substitute for picking up a book and getting lost in the pages. There’s something about holding information in your hands that makes it feel more meaningful – the tactile sensation of turning the pages is almost as satisfying as pressing down your shutter and hearing that familiar ‘snap.’

Photography has changed a lot over the years. There are always new concepts to learn, creative techniques to explore – and there’s no better way to do it than by picking up an inspiring book. A great photography book generally includes a combination of three important elements: well-curated images, interesting and informative text and a valuable message. It’s the way they all come together that makes for a truly spectacular collection you’ll want to read again and again.

Our collection of the 20 best photography books out there will give you a great place to start as you delve into the world of reading about your favorite medium.

The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos by Michael Freeman

Born in England in 1945, Michael Freeman has authored more than 100 books, including more than 40 on the subject of photography. In this volume, Freeman guides readers through an exploration of what it takes to make a good image, breaking down the concept of composition into the idea of organizing graphic elements into a successful design.

Since compelling composition is one of the keys to great photography, this book can really help photographers take their work to the next level by providing valuable tools to help them look at the entire process of taking photos in an entirely new way.

Originally published: 2007
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to think more critically about the way various elements in an image interact.

On Photography by Susan Sontag

This is one book that goes against our own criteria – it’s a book about photography that doesn’t contain a single image within the text. But there are exceptions to every rule, and this is one photography book that shouldn’t be missed.

Susan Sontag, who died in 2004 at the age of 71, was an American writer, teacher, filmmaker, philosopher and political activist. Her collection of photography-related essays detail the impact modern photography has had on the world, exploring the idea that while photographs have expanded our access to knowledge and the way we understand history and foreign lands, they’ve also limited our perceptions of reality and desensitized us to traumatic human experiences.

Originally published: 1977
Recommended for: Anyone interested in learning more about the philosophical side of photography and how it influences society.

The Visual Toolbox: 60 Lessons for Stronger Photographs by David duChemin

If you’d like to take a masterclass in photography but can’t afford the time or expense, pick up a copy of this book. Nomadic photographer David duChemin knows his stuff – he’s traveled the world shooting for humanitarian assignments and has written a library of books covering a wide variety of photography-related topics.

This action-oriented book provides a basic “curriculum” to help photographers learn more than just how to work a camera – it teaches how to create images that offer deeper visual experiences for your audience. Not only does duChemin clearly explain each concept (like balance, negative space, incorporating mood and motion and shooting at the right moment) within the book, he invites readers to play with them in a more hands-on kind of way.

Originally published: 2015
Recommended for: Anyone looking for inspirational photo assignments to jumpstart their creativity.

The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson

For generations, photographers around the world have been inspired by this quintessential book. And for good reason – it’s a chance to learn from a French photographer considered by some to be the father of modern photojournalism. Although Henri Cartier-Bresson died in 2004 at the age of 95, his style of ‘real life reportage’ heavily influenced the development of today’s street photography.

The Decisive Moment highlights exactly that – Cartier-Bresson’s idea that a photograph should capture a split-second scene which reveals a greater truth about the larger situation, through text and beautifully-reproduced images from Cartier-Bresson’s expansive and impressive body of work.

Originally published: 1952
Recommended for: Anyone hoping to improve their ability to capture a scene that tells a story.

The Photographer’s Guide to Posing: Techniques to Flatter Everyone by Lindsay Adler

Named one of the top 10 fashion photographers in the world, Lindsay Adler has plenty of experience when it comes to posing her subjects. With this book, she showcases her knowledge of editorial photography in an easy to digest way, offering tips and tricks on creating the most flattering poses that would be invaluable to any portrait or wedding photographer.

Instead of offering page after page of suggested poses, Adler delves into the thought process behind posing, detailing what works and what doesn’t for a wide variety of body types and situations, including group photos, couples and more. If you’ve ever had to organize a room full of people into a nice-looking shot, you’ll know how challenging posing can be – and you’ll understand why this book is such an important resource.

Originally published: 2017
Recommended for: Anyone who takes pictures of people – from selfies to wedding parties to family gatherings.

The Negative by Ansel Adams

Some of the most widely-recognizable images produced during the 20th century can be attributed to American landscape photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984). His mastery of the technical aspects of photography is impressive, and his secrets are revealed through his series of photography books.

This selection is the second volume in the series, where he provides insight into his “zone” system of exposure. Although Adams discusses film photography in his books, his lessons are just as vital today as they were when they were first published. Check out The Camera and The Print for the complete series.

Originally published: 1955
Recommended for: Anyone who has a particular affinity for black and white photography.

Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua

Photographic lighting is not an easy subject to understand, but since light is one of the most important elements of a good photo, it’s definitely an important one. This book compiles valuable secrets from three experienced editorial and commercial photographers, examining the concepts behind various lighting techniques and how each impacts the final image.

The greatest takeaway from this resource is the ability to predict what your lighting setup will do before you even get behind the camera, saving you time and enabling you to more accurately achieve the product you had in mind – whether you’re using natural or artificial light.

Originally published: 2007
Recommended for: Anyone looking for a logical breakdown of the science behind lighting for photography.

The Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Crafting Light and Shadow by Chris Knight

Once you’ve gained a solid understanding of the theory behind photographic lighting, it’s time to learn how to use it in just the right way. This book examines how light and shadow work hand in hand to create more striking, expressive photographs, particularly when it comes to portraiture.

Chris Knight draws from his experience as an instructor at Pratt Institute and the New York Film Academy and his love of art and art history to offer tons of helpful, practical information, with just enough humor to make it easily digestible for readers. Even those who struggle to understand technical explanations will be able to learn something from this seasoned teacher.

Originally published: 2017
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to take portraits so perfectly lit, they could be mistaken for a Rembrandt.

Magnum Contact Sheets by Kristen Lubben

There’s no better way to learn photography than by understanding what goes into making a great image. This book breaks down the creation of some of the most iconic photographs ever taken, discussing the creative methods, concepts, strategies and post-processing involved in their production – even the outcome a photographer had in mind as they shot the image in question.

This is how the world’s top photographers shoot and edit their best work, explained in clear language to help up-and-comers do the same. Through a critical analysis of the backstory of each image, this book provides readers with a solid understanding of what it takes to shoot an outstanding photograph.

Originally published: 2011
Recommended for: Anyone curious about the creative process used by some of the best in the industry.

All Marketers Are Liars by Seth Godin

While this one isn’t exactly a photography book, anyone looking to turn photography into their full-time job needs to gain a basic understanding of the principles behind marketing strategies. This is a fantastic guide to selling yourself and your product through storytelling. And, since good photography is all about telling a great story, this book’s approach to marketing is perfect for someone looking to brand themselves in this industry.

With a winning combination of humor and practical examples, Seth Godin illustrates how to present your content framed in a message that will hit home for your target audience. It’s necessary reading if photography is becoming more than just your hobby.

Originally published: 2005
Recommended for: Anyone eager to take their photography business to the next level.

Studio Anywhere: A Photographer’s Guide to Shooting in Unconventional Locations by Nick Fancher

Especially useful for beginning photographers on a budget, Nick Fancher’s book offers an endless supply of creative ideas that will let you shoot beautiful images in less-than-ideal situations. As a portrait and commercial photographer, Fancher is no stranger to shooting in imperfect scenarios – and with this book, he passes his secrets on to you.

Even if you don’t typically shoot using a bare-bones style, the practical information contained within this book is useful for any kind of photographer, but might be especially valuable to street, documentary or travel photographers who aren’t always in control of the scenes they’re shooting. It’s a great way to train yourself to be prepared to shoot in the spur of the moment and still end up with a great final product.

Originally published: 2015
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to limit the amount of equipment they use without compromising the quality of their work.

Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs by Henry Carroll

If books full of graphs, diagrams and technical jargon intimidate and overwhelm you, we’d suggest you give this book a try instead. Henry Carroll, who founded the United Kingdom’s leading provider of photography, painting, and cooking holidays and courses, provides clear, simple information covering five important sections: light, composition, exposure, lenses and seeing.

Using hands-on tips and iconic images, Carroll shows readers how they can achieve stunning photographs in a practical, accessible way. He’s also authored several other photography books that are more specific to certain areas, like portraits and landscapes, and even a guide to building your brand on Instagram.

Originally published: 2014
Recommended for: Anyone looking to gain a baseline knowledge of everything that goes into taking a great image.

The Essence of Photography: Seeing and Creativity by Bruce Barnbaum

Most photography books focus on the technical aspects of the craft, examining how cameras work or the rules of composition. This book, however, delves deeper into the less practical side of things to give readers the tools they need to take more impactful images – photographs that evoke reactions from their viewers.

It’s something all photographers hope to achieve, but it’s a hard thing to learn. Bruce Barnbaum’s decades of experience as an exhibiting photographer give him significant insight to share, helping readers transform their photography from just an instrument for recording moments into an opportunity to make personal artistic statements. He guides you through analyzing how you feel about a specific scene and how you can then express that feeling to viewers through the way you capture your image.

Originally published: 2014
Recommended for: Anyone interested in pursuing fine art or editorial work.

The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes by Joe McNally

Few career photographers have been more prolific than Joe McNally. Shooting around the world for Time, Sports Illustrated, Life and National Geographic, he’s amassed an expansive portfolio of incredible work – and has shot in some pretty unconventional places.

This book offers a candid collection of the stories behind some of his greatest captures, with a focus on his lighting. Using a friendly, humorous voice, McNally reveals the thought process that goes into achieving dramatic light and shadows with small hot shoe flashes.

Originally published: 2009
Recommended for: Anyone wanting to know how to make the most of a small amount of light.

Photography Q&A: Real Questions. Real Answers. (Voices That Matter) by Zach Arias

In this book, editorial and commercial photographer Zach Arias provides detailed responses to more than 100 questions fielded directly from the public, covering business-related topics like marketing, pricing, branding and work/life balance, as well as offering technical advice about photography basics.

Broken up with personal anecdotes and milestones in his own career, along with useful worksheets to guide photographers in building their own businesses through his expertise, Arias’ book is a valuable resource to help photographers take their careers to the next level.

Originally published: 2013
Recommended for: Anyone looking for real-world solutions to issues faced by peers in the industry.

Understanding a Photograph by John Berger

This groundbreaking collection of essays by art critic John Berger (1926-2017) examines how we view the world around us. The thought-provoking, eloquent texts explore themes like war, culture and politics through the unique lens of experience and artistic expression, detailing in literary language the role that photography has played in the shaping of today’s society.

There’s no question that photography is a medium that impacts many aspects of the world outside of the realms of art and culture, and this book is essential reading for photographers who want to understand just how powerful their images can be.

Originally published: 2013
Recommended for: Anyone interested in seeing how photography relates to the world of media as a whole.

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon

When young writer and artist Austin Kleon was asked to make a presentation to college students in upstate New York, he decided to talk to them about all the things he’d wished someone had told him when he was getting started in the industry – namely, that nothing is original anymore. Instead, Kleon posits, creativity is about embracing influence and ideas to remix them and recreate things in your own way.

After the success of his first book, Kleon followed up with other volumes discussing how artists should share their work and build an audience, as well as how to stay creative even during difficult times.

Originally published: 2012
Recommended for: Anyone who might be discouraged by trying to keep up with the great work they see all over Instagram.

Best Business Practices for Photographers (Third Edition) by John Harrington

Taking great photos is only part of what it means to be a photographer – there’s so much more to consider. John Harrington dives into the nitty-gritty of the business side of photography, detailing how entrepreneurs can successfully negotiate projects, organize their operations and interact with clients to keep them coming back for more.

It’s been updated and expanded upon since it was first published, too, so the information contained within this volume is still relevant to photographers working in today’s market.

Originally published: 2017
Recommended for: Anyone looking for a roadmap toward building a profitable photography business.

Why People Photograph: Selected Essays and Reviews by Robert Adams

This classic book from a noted photographer of the American west uses a collection of poetic, original essays to delve into the essence of the art of photography. Robert Adams helps photographers think about not just what they want to shoot, but why they want to shoot it – what message are they hoping to communicate through their work?

Additionally, the book explores the aesthetic philosophy behind the work of several well-known photographers, giving readers a unique insight into the processes involved in the creation of some of their favorite images.

Originally published: 2005
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to better understand the photographer as an artist, not just a person behind the camera.

Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art by John Szarkowski

This isn’t just a book full of beautiful, inspiring images, carefully selected from the history of photography by photographer, curator, historian and critic John Szarkowski (1925-2007), who spent 29 years as the Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Each image is accompanied by text, where Szarkowski discusses what makes the work outstanding and significant.

It’s a rare glimpse into what curators look for when they’re evaluating pieces, to help aspiring artists better understand the creative process as it relates to photography while extending their knowledge of and appreciation for art. It’s like spending the day at the museum without leaving the comfort of home – and just as inspiring.

Originally published: 1973
Recommended for: Anyone interested in discovering the artistic possibilities of photography.

Obviously, there are tons of other photography books out there that can enhance your experience as a photographer – most of the authors behind the selections on our list have written a number of other great books we would also recommend. And, with the many talented people sharing on social media and the huge variety of publications online, there are plenty of ways to learn new things without paying a visit to your local library.

Check out PHLEARN Magazine for more content like this – including interviews with professional photographers, online tutorials and informative articles – to help you grow and develop your own skills.

Jessi Gowan

Jessi Gowan is an award-winning writer and photographer who specializes in rural landscapes and fine art abstracts, with a focus on form and composition. Her photography has been included in a variety of publications, as well as in exhibitions in Canada and the United States.

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