A good photography book an enjoyable way to pass the afternoon, and it’s often the perfect antidote to a creative rut. Whether you’ve been photographing for years or you’re a beginner looking to take your work to the next level we’re going to take a look at the best photography books for everyone.
When I started this post, it was my intention to create a top 10 list. Something like “The 10 best books for photographers”. But honestly, I couldn’t narrow down the list to just those few. And the best books for portrait photographers are not the same as the best books for landscape and nature photographers. So instead of a top 10 list, this is the first post in what is going to become a master resource of the absolute best books for photographers.
Across the series, I’m going to be diving into the best books for beginners, and the best books for advanced photographers looking to take their work to the next level. I’m going to be looking at the best books about composition and the best books on nature photography, portrait photography, as well as books about lighting. If you enjoy memoir, then you will want to stick around for the best photography books about the lives of photographers, and we will conclude with the best photography books for kids so that you can pass your love of photography onto your children as well.
Most of the books on this list are not new. Some of them are more than a decade old. But every one of them is as relevant today as the day it was released. Because some of these have been out a while you may be able to find a used copy and save a few dollars. A good photography book is less expensive than almost any piece of gear and it can work wonders to get those creative juices flowing.
Please feel free to share your own favorite photography books in the comments! I would love to hear about the books that inspired you as a photographer, the books you keep coming back to, and the books that you find yourself recommending to friends.
Table of Contents
Best Photography Books For Any Photographer
While many photography books are fairly specific in their audience, there are a few that make amazing reads for anyone interested in photography. These are the books that I recommend over and over again to photographers of all interests and experience levels. These are books that don’t fit neatly into a category but stand out on my shelf as the most relevant or inspiring books for photographers.
“The Moment it Clicks” by Joe McNally
In some photography books, a photographer shows us an image and then talks about what makes it work or why and how they took that image. But The Moment it Clicks comes across as though Joe McNally chose the advice and wisdom he wanted to share and then effortlessly chose an image from his vast portfolio to illustrate the point.
While I don’t actually know the process through which he wrote the book, I do know that his wisdom and the vast array of information he wants to share with the reader are clearly front and center.
McNally, who photographed for Life magazine and National Geographic among countless other publications is a literal master of light and he has written other, more technical volumes that I will include in other reviews. But this book might be my favorite of his. It feels personal. He poured countless years of accumulated wisdom into a single volume, seamlessly mixing the technical with the anecdotal.
Tidbits of wisdom include quotes such as:
Nice is nice, but it stops short of being fabulous.
A good idea becomes a bad idea when you don’t see anything else.
If you want something to look interesting don’t light all of it.
Light falls, just make sure it falls in your favor.
Each pithy quote is illustrated with one of Joe’s amazing photographs as well as an accompanying behind-the-scenes story and technical information on “how to get this type of shot”.
This book should be required reading for anyone working in or hoping to pursue a career in commercial or editorial work, but you will be hard-pressed to find a photographer that won’t find this book binge-worthy. If you do binge on it though, enjoying the entertainment and drama that comes with the life of a commercial photographer, you’ll want to go back and re-read it slowly, with a highlighter or a notebook on hand.
“Light, Gesture, Color & It’s Not About the F-Stop” by Jay Maisel
If you don’t already know the work of Jay Maisel then these books, Light Gesture, Color and It’s Not About the F-Stop will be a surprise treasure. Jay’s career spans more than half a century, and he has photographed just about everyone and everything there is to photograph during that time. But these books focus less on his commercial work and more on his personal love of photographing “Light, Gesture, and Color”.
These 3 elements, according to Jay make up the essence of every good photograph and his books describe his relentless pursuit of light, gesture, and color in a classic, conversational manner. Every photographer will glean from Jay’s wisdom in these two books, but these should be considered essential for anyone with an interest in street photography. Many of his photographs are of objects so ordinary (bus wheels, power lines) that most people would have overlooked them but Jay’s search for Light, Color, and Gesture transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
The images alone are worth the price of the book, but the real brilliance is the ease and generosity with which he pours out his wisdom and knowledge of the craft. Jay’s tone is casual, almost conversational as he shares his thoughts and the stories behind each image. These books are less technical than Joe McNally’s and while they are chock full of wisdom, it’s shared in such a casual off-hand way that I’m positive they barely scratch the surface of Jay’s years of cumulative knowledge. These are the books I come back to when I am in need of inspiration and motivation. I once heard an interview with Jay where he described the process of hitting the streets daily with a camera as doing “visual pushups” and exercising those creative muscles. That approach changed the way I think of photography. Instead of picking up my camera only when there is something important to photograph, only when I’m sure that I can get that “trophy” shot, Jay Maisel’s work is a reminder that photographs are everywhere if only we look for them. I’m confident that any photographer who reads these books is going to be inspired to pick up their camera and take it to the streets in search of Light, Gesture, and Color.
“A World History of Photography” by Naomi Rosenblum
When I was in college, I was fastidious about reselling my textbooks at the end of each semester to pay for film. A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum was the one exception. Despite the fact that it commanded a relatively high price on the used book market, it’s the one textbook I kept and I still have it on my shelf today. While I’m sure there are other books I should have kept, I’m thankful I had the foresight to realize that this book was well worth the shelf space.
Years later I can still confidently say that this book belongs in the library of every photographer. It’s a massive volume and the most comprehensive history of photography I have seen to date. It is also a very image-heavy volume, with hundreds of images spanning almost two-centuries of photographic history.
I appreciate the fact that it focuses on the people and historical context of photography as well as the technology. Admittedly my third-edition is essentially pre-digital but the book has been updated in the two editions since then to cover the advent of digital image-making.
While the book is a chronological history of photography, it also delves deeply into the uses and types of photography during each time period. For example, there are 4 chapters on photography between 1839 and 1890, each one focusing on a different aspect of photography (portraits, landscape and architecture, objects and events, and art). Throughout the book there are also profiles of photographers, which serve not as side boxes or antidotal information but as a part of the text, giving specificity and context to each time period. And because this is a world history each section also compares what was happening around the world within each time period and genre of photography.
The book is well laid out, and if reading more than 600 pages on the history of photography is more than you want to tackle right now, it will be easy enough to pick out the chapters that are of most interest to you. And while the book is text-heavy, the images are still plentiful and it would be worthwhile to spend an afternoon looking through the images of your favorite subjects (portraits, landscapes, etc.) from beginning to end just to trace the stylistic and technical changes over the centuries.
Best Books and Resources to Learn the Basics of Photography
If you are just getting into photography, you might be wondering what books are the best for beginners. A list like that would be tough to compile and recommend for a number of reasons. For example, many beginner-level books have a lot of technical information on things like camera technology, gear recommendations, and typical camera settings that change all the time with newer technology. Many beginner-level books end up getting re-published with newer editions in order to incorporate these changes, and they can get out of date rather quickly. The classic book in the genre is Bryan Peterson’s Understanding Exposure, although the fact that it is on the fourth edition demonstrates my point.
I would recommend looking into online resources like our own 14-chapter guide, Photography Basics – The Complete Beginner’s Guide that is kept up-to-date. We also have separate guides to various genres of photography, all of which are free:
- How to Take Good Pictures
- Landscape Photography Guide
- Wildlife Photography Guide
- Macro Photography Guide
- Guide to Composition in Photography
- Black and White Photography Guide
- Milky Way Photography Guide
- Street Photography Guide
Lastly, don’t forget about the rich repository of other material available online from other photography websites, universities, as well as video resources like YouTube.
Best Books For Portrait Photographers
If you have interest in portrait photography, there are plenty of amazing books that will serve as a great resource in terms of camera settings, technique, composition, subject placement, posing and much more. Below is a list of the best books on portrait photography that I recommend.
“50 Portraits” by Gregory Heisler
While I’m including this book as one of the best books for portrait photographers, 50 Portraits by Gregory Heisler is a book that should be read (and reread) by all photographers, regardless of their preferred genre and subject matter.
As its name suggests, this book is a collection of 50 portraits that Heisler has photographed over the course of his career. The book its self is incredible. It’s hardback and the images could easily stand alone as a coffee table book. If you don’t immediately recognize Heisler’s name you will undoubtedly recognize his work. He has photographed everyone from Muhamad Ali to Hillary Clinton. Many of the images he shares in the book were photographed as cover images for Time, GQ, Sports Illustrated, Life, Esquire, and the likes. Every portrait is a study in lighting, of which Heisler is a master.
Along with each portrait, Heisler shares the story behind the images. He shares his thought processes, and how his ideas evolved into the final portraits. It’s the sort of stories and information one might share if you sat down with him to look through his images in person. The stories have depth and every one of them is more than a fun anecdote about photographing someone famous. They are an absolute wealth of information about what goes through the head of a photographer while working.
I once heard this book described as generous, and the description is apt. Heisler is generous with his stories, he’s generous with sharing his thoughts, his expectations, and the ideas that failed before ultimately being reworked into brilliance. As if there isn’t enough to glean from the stories behind the images, Gregory Heisler also shares his “Thoughts on Technique for each image.” This isn’t a place to get bogged down with f/stops, shutter speed, and iso (although he includes that information for each image in an appendix) but they are literal thoughts on why and how he used the techniques he did and why they work in that particular portrait.
Have you ever talked to someone who is an expert in their field, and sharing so casually and effortlessly while all the while you’re thinking “Hold on. Slow Down, I need to get a pen and write down every word!” This book is like that. I actually own it in both print and kindle- print because you need the physical book to do the images justice and kindle because I needed to highlight all the words of wisdom that Heisler shares so effortlessly, and I didn’t want to write in my print copy.
Heisler’s tidbits of wisdom range from his thoughts on portraits:
I don’t seek to flatter my subjects so much as to respect them. I want to give them their moment, a moment in which their individuality is heightened. Their uniqueness set into strong relief.
To his thoughts on technique:
If your picture isn’t good enough, your light isn’t close enough.
This book is a must-buy for all portrait photographers, but it really should be the cornerstone of any photographer’s library.
“People Pictures & Capturing Authentic Portraits” by Chris Orwig
What makes the books People Pictures and Authentic Portraits by Chris Orwig isn’t just the skill of the photographer, it’s the masterful and approachable way in which Orwig teaches what appears to come so naturally to him.
After having read his first three books (Visual Poetry, the Creative Fight, and People Pictures) I had to chuckle a little at the title of his fourth book, Authentic Portraits because authentic is the very word I would have used to describe both Chris’s photography, his teaching style, and his books.
While both of Chris’s books on portrait photography focus on connecting with people, People Pictures is more about finding your own voice and Authentic Portraits is about learning to create portraits that represent who a person is not what they look like. These are not books filled with lighting diagrams. While the words “voice”, “poetry”, and “plot” appear in the index of People Pictures, technical terms such as Aperture, Shutter Speed, F/Stop, and ISO do not. These books are not technical manuals and they’re less about Chris sharing his own work then about him teaching you how to take yours to the next level.
People pictures is a book of 30 exercises to improve your portrait photography. While the concept is simple the assignments are not. Every assignment is about connecting, seeing, and developing your own voice and vision as a portrait photographer. These exercises are not technical in nature; don’t expect lessons about trying different focal lengths or experimenting with the difference between broad and Rembrandt lighting. Instead, the assignment objectives include things like “explore how to capture an inner strength of character.” “Use the camera to respect and admire someone else.” While these objectives may sound ambitious, Orwig then walks you step by step through an exercise designed to help you achieve those goals. I am 100% positive that if you went through these assignments step by step and completed all 30 of them that you would not only be better at making portraits but a completely different photographer than you started out.
Every good portrait is a collaboration between the subject and the photographer.
In that one sentence, Orwig clearly lays out the entire premise and purpose of his book Authentic Portraits. He walks you through what makes a good portrait and then delves into more specifics of how to capture those images. This book does contain more technical information than People Pictures, but again it is more about capturing the vision and getting you started on the journey of making authentic portraits than an instruction manual or a formula for how to achieve a good portrait.
Both of these books are worth the read and they should be considered essential for anyone looking to get past the technical and learn how to make great portraits. Although People Pictures was released before Authentic Portraits, I recommend reading them in the opposite order. I think reading Authentic Portraiture would be a benefit before completing the exercises in People Pictures.
“The Headshot: The Secrets to Creating Amazing Headshot Portraits” by Peter Hurley
While at first glance the audience of Peter Hurley’s book The Headshot might appear to be very specific the depth of Hurley’s knowledge about faces, and how to make people look good in images is valuable for anyone who ever photographs people, regardless of their style or the type of images they produce.
This book is really sort of the opposite of Chris Orwig’s books above. While Chris’s books are about vision and voice, Hurley is all about the technical side. While they both focus on drawing emotion and expression out of their subjects, Hurley delves into the nitty-gritty details of how to coax and direct that expression from your subject.
Hurley started out photographing actor headshots when, as an actor himself he was disappointed with his own headshot. He was determined to create images with the expression that he felt his own headshots lacked. Hurley’s work is deceptively simple- inspired by Richard Avedon his headshots are generally shot on a white background with flat lighting. While Hurley does walk you through the technical aspects of lighting the subject, his setup is not complicated and it is clear that his technique goes well beyond the lights or post-processing. After decades of photographing countless faces, he has mastered the small details that can make or break an image.
While on some level we all know that subtle changes to the angle of the face or the tilt of the chin or the line of their smile can affect a portrait, Peter Hurley’s examples of just how much of a difference subtle adjustments actually make are amazing. And he doesn’t just teach us what makes a good headshot, he teaches us how to get those amazing headshots. This book includes an abundance of tips for how to direct our subjects to achieve expressive and flattering portraits.
It’s hard to explain the level of understanding Peter Hurley has about the human face, and the detailed explanations and examples he shares about how to make sure every element comes together. In one chapter he talks about which facial muscles are engaged when smiling genuinely (as opposed to that forced, fake smile), in another, he talks about the eyes and teaches his tricks for avoiding that wide-eyed deer in the headlights stare.
While every portrait isn’t a headshot, and every image may not require the same level of micro-adjustments necessary for a fantastic facial closeup, reading through this book slowly and really studying the examples in which Hurly demonstrates the difference small changes can make to the way your subject appears on camera, will benefit any portrait photographer.
“Secrets of Great Portrait Photography” by Brian Smith
Secrets of Great Portrait Photography is a fun, quick, and insightful read. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Smith, Secrets of Great Portrait Photography is worth the read for anyone who enjoys portrait photography or just wants to read about the adventures of photographing some of the world’s most famous celebrities. This book is divided into 12 chapters, each containing one central idea such as find the place, see the light, create the look, less is more, etc. Within each chapter Smith shares a collection of images and a short story describing the “how” or the “why” of the image.
This is not a technical book, it’s a collection of stories about the images that Brian Smith shares in this book. Each story is short, and some feel more like fun anecdotes than a deep dive into the mind of the photographer. If you are looking for that deep dive then 50 Portraits by Gregory Heisler is the better choice. But this book is a great read for anyone who doesn’t want to get bogged down in something quite so weighty. Yet despite the lighthearted feel, there is a lot of meat tucked into these stories, Smith’s advice is tucked into the corners of his stories in a way that is very casual and conversational. It almost comes across as if you are standing there listening to him share information offhand, while he is setting up his cameras for the next shoot.
Smith’s portfolio is spectacular and spending some time with the images is reason enough to pick up this book. In that way, his book reminds me of Smith’s photography. His images are bright, fun, and straightforward yet technically masterful and the stories in the book present the same way.
“The Luminous Portrait” by Elizabeth Messina
Elizabeth Messina’s The Luminous Portrait: Capture the Beauty of Natural Light for Glowing, Flattering Photographs has now become a classic for any portrait photographer who wants to explore the beauty of natural light. She starts out by explaining why natural light is so attractive for portrait work, then goes over her film equipment, then goes straight into the parameters of a photoshoot.
The next big chapter is “The Anatomy of a Portrait”, where Elizabeth goes through such important topics as understanding your subject, location, guiding subjects to the best light, the nuances of exposure, and even goes over why it is sometimes important to use reflectors and scrims to add or control natural light. If you struggle with composition, the “Creativity and Composition” chapter has quite a bit of info accompanied by beautiful images to give you some ideas when taking portraits of people. Other chapters go through boudoir photography, child photography, celebrity portrait photography, and wedding photography. The last two chapters are dedicated to styling and props, as well as the business side of portrait photography.
What I like about this book (other than Elizabeth’s exceptionally beautiful portraiture work), is that it takes the reader straight to the point without adding too much unnecessary information, which makes “The Luminous Portrait” a very easy read – I finished it in one day. So you can count on getting some real inspiration, as well as great ideas for your next portrait photography session.