I’m often asked where I went to school for photography or how I learned photography. The answer is simple yet complicated. The simple part is that I read Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson repeatedly for a couple of weeks to learn the basics.
Since then, it has been a lot of in-the-field learning, which has been supplemented with plenty of other books to help me improve my skills. Some have been duds, but plenty have really helped–here are some of the helpful ones. This list was most recently updated with new photography books, so it should have plenty of current titles for you to check out!
Let’s start out with my favorite books that I think every photographer should read, and then move onto others that I think are also worth picking up…
Cream of the Crop
Understanding Exposure – This book is where I learned photography. I would still be using automatic mode if it weren’t for someone recommending Mr. Peterson’s book. A wealth of information, from the basics to some more advanced techniques, this book is the perfect jumping off point. The most important book you can own for improving your photography.
The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos– Great composition is paramount to a great photo, but unfortunately it’s one of those things that’s difficult to learn (conventional wisdom says that you either have “the eye” or you don’t). This book disproves that conventional wisdom and helps any aspiring photographer really learn composition. This is a book to read over and over again. Definitely the second-most important book to own on photography.
Understanding Composition Field Guide – Bryan Peterson’s newest book rivals The Photographer’s Eye as the best book on composition. I give the slight edge to Photographer’s Eye, but depending upon how you learn, this might be a better option, as it’s less abstract. This is a true field guide, and it approaches composition from a different perspective than the typical “Rule of Thirds. RULE OF THIRDS!” shtick that is found in most books concerning composition. After reading Peterson’s book and going through the exercises contained in it, you will find yourself seeing potential subjects in a different way. The photography legend who taught many of us how to the basics of exposure hit another home run with this book. It will teach newbie photographers the basics of composition, and experienced photographers ways to refine their approach.
The HDR Book: Unlocking the Pros’ Hottest Post-Processing Techniques – I’ve had a difficult time getting into tone-mapped HDR, always becoming frustrated by my lack of understanding or my belief that the programs I was using had certain shortcomings. All of that changed after I read this book, which laid it out in simple terms, and most importantly, gave a side-by-side comparison of the industry-leading HDR processing programs including Photoshop’s HDR Pro, Photomatix Pro, and HDR Efex Pro. This is one book worth owning rather than renting, as it becomes a valuable resource when you hit a wall processing your own HDR photos.
Scott Kelby’s Digital Photography Boxed Set, Volumes 1, 2, 3, and 4 – A four part series of beginner and intermediate books with plenty of useful tips for veteran photographers, too. The information in these books really runs the gamut, and if ever there were to be a single (or 4-book) series for mastering the craft/business of all types of photography, this would be it.
The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes – Very inspirational book, and a great look at the creative process of Joe McNally. Wonderful writing style and sense of humor, to boot. If ever a photography book were a page-turner, this would be it.
Best of the Rest
The Moment It Clicks: Photography secrets from one of the world’s top shooters – Another brilliant book from Joe McNally that combines stunning photos (this could stand alone as a coffee-table book) with simple explanations as to how the photo was made.
Understanding Shutter Speed: Creative Action and Low-Light Photography Beyond 1/125 Second by Bryan Peterson – very similar (in some ways redundant) to Understanding Exposure, this book also starts to dive into some creative ways to manipulate shutter speed and aperture.
National Geographic Ultimate Field Guide to Photography: Revised and Expanded – Another great book for learning photography, this is a great alternative to Understanding Exposure.
Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips and Techniques – Night and low light photography can be difficult to master, but this book does an excellent job teaching the basics to get a great night photo, and it also contains many unique techniques to get creative night shots.
Trey Ratcliff’s Complete HDR Video Tutorial – At $86-97, this may seem a bit pricey. That said, Trey Ratcliff is the HDR master, and this video includes 11.5 hours of instructions, 9 classes, 130 raw files, access to private forums, and a HDR eBook. This is the full and definitive package to get you started making great HDR photos.
LIFE Guide to Digital Photography: Everything You Need to Shoot Like the Pros – Anecdotal and humorous account of how to “make” a great image by some of the veteran photographers at LIFE Magazine (for you young whipper-snappers, this was a prolific magazine for photographers back in the day). A great hands-on way to learn.
The Camera (Ansel Adams Photography Series)Ansel Adams Arts & Photography Books) – The “Ansel Adams” aspect of this line is all you need to know. The technical side is obviously not so relevant to digital, but as Adams demonstrates, it’s the photographer, not the camera.
Captured by the Light: The Essential Guide to Creating Extraordinary Wedding Photography – Don’t let the “Wedding Photography” bit in the title fool you. Although the tone is geared towards wedding photographers, the lessons are universally applicable. Anyone looking to improve their dramatic lighting should check this book out.
If you’re looking for other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
Photography Buying Guide: Everything from Underwater Cameras to Software
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Infrared Photography Guide & Tips
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
Which of these books have you read? Which would you recommend? Are there any other titles you think I should check out? Hearing from readers is half the fun, so please share any questions or thoughts you have below in the comments!
Thanks for sharing
Hey Tom, thanks to your articles I have been getting really hooked into photography and feel I have learned a lot (Undesrtanding Exposure was a great read and I feel I’m getting plenty out of my D5300).
One area where I’m interested in learning more but I haven’t seen much on the site (or others) is Post Processing. I Know that you have mentioned in the past that your step by step post processing is very personal, but are there some basic techniques or skills that you recommend learning? Do you have any books or tutorials that you think would cover the basics?
I wanted to let you know that the link on this page for “Understanding Photography” links to the 3rd edition whereas on one of your others it links to the 4th. I just ordered the 4th from a link on the other page. Thank you for taking the time to share all of your knowledge with us, it is so incredibly helpful!
I’m interested in to getting more in to photography, and I’m looking in to buying Understanding Exposure. I saw that a 4th edition is coming out soon… do you think it will be worth paying more/waiting a month to get the new edition, or buying the old one (for even cheaper)? What do you think the difference will be?
The fundamentals of photography have not changed since the last book (and likely won’t anytime soon), and that’s 95% of the content. There are a handful of references to technology here and there, and I suppose those could be updated, but I wouldn’t wait/pay more for a newer edition. I didn’t think many material changes were made between the 3rd and 4th editions…it just seemed like a way for the publisher to make more money.
Thank you for the photography guidance. I really want to take better pictures, so am starting with Understanding Exposure, and will later consider purchasing a DSLR. Currently have a Sony Cyber-shot Digital Still Camera for some time and will practice on that for now.
I really appreciate your insight and recommendation on where to start.
So I stumbled across your blog in a random Disney search at work because we all need a little Disney in our day. Epsecially when you live in Northern Indiana and it’s January. And I want to say I love all of these recommendations! I’m adding them to my Amazon wishlist because I’m one of those people who keeps their DSLR on Auto. I love my camera and want to learn more about how to use it so I’ll be ordering Understanding Exposure really soon!
Understanding Exposure is a great first choice–perfect winter reading!
I apologize if this has been answered before, but I searched your site and couldn’t find the answer. I was wondering what HDR software you use. I use Photomatix, but am looking to change things up and was wondering if you had a different program that you liked better? Thank!
I use Photomatix on the rare occasions when I do HDR. Photoshop CS6 has a built-in HDR feature (it’s better than previous versions, but I’m still not a fan) and Nik EFEX Pro 2 is also pretty popular.
Understanding Exposure was one of the best books I’ve ever read on photography. Even after 4 years of classes, and 10 years working for a private studio, I still didn’t have a good grasp of settings. I knew what settings to use, theoretically, but didn’t understand WHY. Reading Peterson’s book was like flipping the light switch. It all began to make sense. Now I can take more creative photos, and expand my portfolio.
I just purchased Kelby’s series, but I got the 4-book set. I don’t know if there’s anything special about the 4th book, but I found it on eBay at a cheaper price than the 3-book set, so…
Now, out of curiosity, are you a camera manual reader? I’ve discovered so many people that just have no real idea what their camera is capable of, so one of the books I usually recommend is the camera manual (or the Magic Lantern guide, if they have one for that specific camera).
I recommended the 3-book set because that’s what I’ve actually read. Since the 4-book set is now cheaper, I’m comfortable recommending it, so I’ve made that change in the article…I need to read that 4th book myself, now!
Generally, I don’t read camera manuals unless there is a setting I don’t understand when using the camera, which is rare. My DSLRs are all Nikon, and have mostly the same menu options, so I’m familiar with new models as soon as I pick them up. If there is something I don’t understand, I’ll pick up the manual or Google it.
That said, I’ve heard great things about the Magic Lantern series, and I do recommend that others read a manual for their camera (something like Magic Lantern if the normal manual is too dry) if they aren’t familiar with a lot of the settings and options they encounter.
I just added a bunch of these to my giant bookmarks folder of books to read. These will really help me improve my photography skills for my next trip. Thank you!
Care to share anything else on that list? (Photography books only, of course…and any interesting Disney ones! ;))
Just ordered Understanding Exposure and the photographers eye from the library can’t wait to read them. Thanks for the great book tips. We have learned so much from you and love reading your blogs.
Same here! I hope you’re not using CWMars in Massachusetts…
Thanks! I’m a photography student with some not so great teachers. I ordered a couple of these from our library. I just finished Understanding Digital Photography by Bryan Peterson, it was an easy and very informative read. I’m excited about the rest!
That stinks. If it’s any consolation, I have never taken a photography course or attended a lecture or seminar. Everything I know is thanks to these books and the internet.
I know everyone learns in different ways, but these books should help “make up” for a professor who isn’t so great.