Monday, June 3, 2013

Which Books Should I Read?–2013 Edition

UDPATED: June 3, 2013

So you've got a new digital SLR camera, great lenses, and awesome software so you are ready to go right?

Now you are all excited, but you've discovered one little problem - your camera doesn't seem to work as good as others. Well my friend, let me assure you that it ISN'T a back focus problem, and your camera works just fine (99.9% of the time)! The problem is more likely that you haven't acquired the skills to get those amazing shots you see other photographers taking.  Let's start by getting real and learning how those other photographers do - it's called experience my friend!

How do I get that experience - NOW?

In this age of instant gratification, everybody wants results now. You just spent a couple grand or more on a camera so you think you should be shooting stuff that my Top Photographers would be in awe of, but the reality is that you aren't going to be a great photographer over night. However, the good news is that you can improve your photography skills drastically by reading the right books right now!

So Ron, what books do you recommend?

Without a doubt, the best (and most popular) book on the market right now is The Digital Photography Book by Scott Kelby (a fantastic no-nonsense author). This book will teach you what some people take years to learn, and the best part is that the book is a quick read. Most people will finish it in around an hour. In fact, this book is so great that I suggest you keep it in your backpack and read it again when you find the time! In fact, I recommend whole series of books because the additional editions pick up where the previous volumes left off. Collectively they will teach you more in a short time than you’d learn on your own over the course of several years.

After you know the basics on how to use your camera and gear, you'll probably discover that your pictures are more technically sound but still considered pretty boring by others. The best way to remedy that is to start Learning to See Creatively - a phenomenal book by Bryan Peterson (another outstanding author and amazing photographer). Some will argue that Understanding Exposure should be read first, and in many ways I agree with that recommendation. Understanding Exposure will teach you how to use your camera to create interesting compositions, but you have to be willing to read your manual and switch out of P mode (fully automatic) to take full advantage of it. However, if I had to pick one for the beginner I'd stick with Learning to See Creatively because you might might not be ready to read that camera manual just yet.

However, this is only half the problem because you'll have good gear, but still struggle with how to use it. Scott Kelby’s books will teach you how to use it, and Bryan Peterson’s books will teach you how to become a better photographer. However, there’s still the subject of inspiration on how to shoot differently than you have been up to this point in your life. This of course is the challenge for you, and for those who master it like Joe McNally you'll see what wonderful things you can do. In Joe's latest book, Sketching Light (and his others The Moment it Clicks & Hot Shoe Diaries) you'll see some great shots from a truly gifted photographer, hear some great stories. You’ll have a few tips on how to get those great shots, but for most of us it won't be enough info to turn us into explorers of light – at least not yet!

To begin your journey to master lighting there is one book that I deem to be the bible on subject of light that I am convinced will amaze you (if you have the patience to read it from cover to cover and understand the content). This wonderful book is called Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting. If there is one book I wish I could read over and over again until every concept was permanently etched into my brain it would be this book. I'll admit that it is a text book style that isn't nearly as fun as Scott Kelby or Bryan Peterson books, but if you take the time to read it then you'll learn more about light than most photographers you know. It WILL help you become a great photographer, but knowledge and application are two separate things, so this is one area (like creative composition) where only experience will help you. However, without the knowledge this book offers, it would take a lifetime to gain the experience needed to be a master. This book saves you 20 years, so I can't recommend it highly enough.

With that said, I know that some people just won’t be able to handle reading Light because it can be pretty intense. If you want a more practical approach to “how do I get better shots with that $500+ flash I bought”, then look no further than On-Camera Flash: Techniques for Digital Wedding and Portrait Photography by Neil van Niekerk. It is a short, easy-to-read book that teaches you everything you want to know and little that you could care less about. In short, it’s a practical book that will make your photography much better.

f you take pictures, you owe it to yourself to own Lightroom. It is quite simply the best photo management product on the planet right now and it will help you get the results you wished you could get from you DSLR when you purchased it – without the need to own Photoshop.  You should definitely pick up Scott Kelby’s Lightroom for Digital Photographers. It will show you how to use this great product to process your pictures to get the kind of results you hoped you get when you put your hard earned money down to buy a DSLR.

Show me the money

The funny thing about Digital Photography is that it is really easy to ramp up quickly and begin to take amazing shots. In fact, odds are that in your first year of photography you'll take a shot that everyone thinks is simply amazing. In fact, it will be so good that you'll find yourself being asked by friends to shoot a wedding so you'll need to learn really quickly how to do a decent job, so again Scott Kelby comes to the rescue again with The Digital Photography Book - Volume 2. While there are more exhaustive books on the subject that are quite good, this is enough to get you going to shoot that friend or family member's wedding that you just got signed up to shoot because your fee is in their budget (yeah, free :-)).

Of course, after you pull off that first wedding or group shot you now think you are ready to quit your day job and become a big name photographer. For a great book that will give you a reality check, check out Best Business Practices for Photographers by John Harrington. 

But Ron, I hate books what else can I do?

Sign yourself up for Kelby Training as it’s the best bang for the buck resource on the web for photographers. NAPP is a close second for Photoshop users (or Photoshop Elements User Magazine if you use PSE instead of Photoshop). PPSOP is also great if you like interactive training.

The MUST HAVE Photography Books

  1. The Digital Photography Book (or the collection if you can afford it) – Trust me, it’s like having a pro friend with you to answer your every question!
  2. Learning to See Creatively (2b. Understanding Exposure for those with extra funds to spend and who are willing to take their camera out of auto mode)
  3. On-Camera Flash – Techniques for Digital Wedding & Portrait Photography (for the “show me how” types)
  4. Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting (for the “show me why” types)
  5. Scott Kelby’s Lightroom for Digital Photographers  (if you take my advice and purchase Lightroom)

If you can't afford to purchase them then go to your local library and borrow them (as I did initially) and you'll discover why these are must own books. However, if you do purchase them, I’d appreciate it if you use my links here to help support this blog.

But what about Photoshop books?

I'm so convinced that the Earth could be be completely covered in all of the Photoshop books out there, so I've chosen to leave this topic out of this article. When you are ready you can read article on recommended Photoshop books.

But what about other books to inspire my creativity?

I've gone through a stack of about 10 books that fall into this category, and I have come to the following generalizations:

  • Any Bryan Peterson book is going to be outstanding. In addition to those previously mentioned, I have reviews of Understanding Shutter Speed, and Beyond PortraitureJoe McNally’s books mentioned previously are also great to get the creative juices going.
  • I also find that most Peachpit Press photography books are quite good.
  • The Web is a phenomenal resource for inspiration. Visit sites like 500px, Flickr, your favorite photographers home page, and others and you are certain to find plenty of inspiration.
  • Most inspirational books are good to browse once, less useful to own. Your best bet is to look at them at the library or your favorite bookstore and save yourself the money for other things.

What about Michael Freeman or <insert name>’s books?

Michael Freeman writes some very popular photography books that many (engineers usually) swear by, but personally I swear at them. I found them more boring than reading an insurance policy or legal document. If you thought the book Light that I recommend above was an easy read and the level of detail you like, then you’ll love Michael Freeman’s books. If you cleaned your room and/or fell asleep reading Light, then you probably won’t care for Michael’s books.

Everyone also has their favorite books, so this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve read hundreds of books on Photography – mostly for the blog – and these are what I boiled my list down to the most useful for normal people with lives.


Simply by asking this question and reading this blog post you are a step ahead of many by taking the initiative to making your photos much better. Get out there and start reading and I assure you your camera will start working better and you'll start getting the kind of shots that will amaze your friends and family, but more importantly they'll impress and excite you!

To stay up on my latest recommendations, be sure to check out my recommendations store on I also post book reviews which you can find in the index on the right column of this blog.

Happy Shooting!

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James Wm. Dawson said...

Good to know that I have the books that you've recommended .. interesting to see another person without a Degree in Fine Art Photography making their way up the ladder.

Harry John said...

Great article! There's enough there to keep newbies reading for months, if not years! As for your last category (building creativity), you didn't suggest looking at books of photos from the masters. I'm thinking of people like Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Edward Weston, etc. etc. There's no better way to get inspired than to view great photos from great artists. said...


You can see who inspires me in this article.

Steve Coleman said...

Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson is a great book. It kick started my understanding of photographic exposure.

I'm a landscape photographer who mostly shoots Velvia film but I would recommend this booked to anyone, beginner or the more experienced, film shooter or digital shooter.

Cheers Steve Coleman

Anonymous said...

I have a nikon d5100 and cannot decide which if these 3 deals on google play books would be best...can you help me? I am muddling through with the manual...fairly new to dslr's. The "dummies' books are too slow and not enough in depth.

The books:

Peterson's 'understanding photography field guide' for 16.99

shelby's 'digital photography' 4 volume set for 14.40,
Thomas' ' d5100 digital photography field guide' for 12.99

I know shelby's books sound like a good deal, but peterson seems to have the better info and his book seems to include most of the info from all his other books! I am on a budget here, and I barely have enough for two of the three books, i want the best bang for my buck (of course!)
Thanks for any advice you can give! said...

I'd go with the Kelby set