5 of the Best Non-Photography Books That Shaped My Career

5 of the Best Non-Photography Books That Shaped My Career

From modern-day yogis like Kelly Slater to Tim Ferriss, all have one piece of advice that I will paraphrase here: if you want to excel at your craft, you must always be the student, not a master, and immerse yourself into your discipline at all times.

As creative professionals, we can't always be painting, cooking, shooting, etc., so we naturally turn from producing to seeking inspiration and education. However, what many young photographers get wrong is to only source materials directly connected to their discipline, i.e., photography books. This mistake is an honest one, but I am here to tell you that technical how-to books and fancy $100 coffee table showpieces are only going to get you so far. 

Certain books from other disciplines, and even fiction, have informed me just as much as any book on photography. Think of this as cross-training for the photography Olympics. Let's be honest, the last thing you need is another article entitled "5 Must-Read Books To Become a Succesful Photographer, Like Now!" 

Instead, I will highlight several reads from other disciplines that have shaped my career behind the camera and in business.

1) Picture This by Molly Bang

Why do horizontal lines make us feel safe and how can vertical lines make us feel lost and afraid? Why do some shapes give us one feeling in the background and an entirely different impression in the foreground? 

I picked this 25th-anniversary edition up in a museum gift shop about two years ago. It has the deceptive look and feel of a children's book, and I believe that is the intention. The genius behind Molly Bang's book is her approach to break down the composition and build it back up with a few words and exposition as possible. Her entire process in the book, and I believe design itself is a less is more attitude. 

If you need another push to pick this book ostensibly about graphic design, read Illy Ovchar's recent interview with Alber Watson where they touch on the importance of design literacy in the photography world.

2) How To See by George Nelson

Any architect, industrial designer, or engineer probably read this book as a freshman in college. This is a book about becoming visually literate in the world around us. Design, typography, and imagery all influence how we move throughout our world, and this classic book help us understand why well-designed works work so well on us. Good design, signage, type treatment, and of course, photography, all begin with understanding your audience. It begins with empathy. This book will not teach you how to be empathic in your work, you have to figure that out for yourself, however, it will introduce you to see your city, airport, highways, menus, and art in 3D technicolor.

Of all the books in this list, this one has the most overlap with the craft of photography. George Nelson's book will have you noticing relationships between the most mundane elements in everyday life. Furthermore, how those relationships influence, and at times dictate behavior.

What the first two books have in common is their connection with the design discipline. I promise you that the next book on my list may surprise you as it has zero obvious links to anything in the creative industry.

3) Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

That right. Ender's Game, a classic science fiction adventure from 1985 that will always hold a special place in my heart. There is no picture as I let someone "borrow" my copy five years ago!

The truth is that there are so many little lessons to extrapolate from this classic hero story. I see this book as a modern-day "Art Of War" as I see it filled with many similar lessons on business, relationships, politics, etc. For our conversation, I want to point out that this book helps me understand the value of competition, embrace it, and even welcome it.

The main character, Ender, is a blend of Harry Potter and Walter White. An unlikely and reclusive hero who is fighting for his life. Both heroes only begin to thrive once they take ownership of their place in this world, accept uncomfortable challenges, and failure as the only way to grow. As I said, there is a lot more to the book than that, and if you read it, you will likely walk away with a different interpretation, but I can tell you that this story motivated me to embrace change and hardships along my own road. 

A word of warning, dear reader, Enders Game was made into a movie, and like so many great works of my childhood, the Hollywood version is terrible, so don't bother.

4) The Secret Lives Of Colour by Kassia St. Clair

Why are western wedding dresses white? When did magenta start becoming pink? Why did ancient Greeks describe water and blood as the same color? What are colors communicating to us subliminally, and is that culture or biology?

This book rearranges world history, art history, and the history of fashion through the lens of color theory. Each chapter is short and sweet and covers one color at a time. I use this brilliant little book as a reference now and it sits next to my desk whenever I am thinking of a new concept for a test shoot or creating a color scheme during post-production.

5) This Is Marketing (You Can't Be Seen Until You Learn How To See) by Seth Godin

If there is one book from this list that you read, it should be this one.

At least a dozen different friends have recommended this book to me over the years, and I was wrong to ignore them – so very wrong.
The book is about business as much as it is about influencing change. No matter what you are selling, there are ethical entanglements that come with selling it, so you better know that now.

Anyone seeking a change in business performance, their job status, or in their community (so basically everyone) will have their eyes opened by Godin's wisdom.

I "read" the audio version, which is nice because it's easy to listen to as Godin narrates it himself; however, this is a book where you will want to rewind again and again to take notes. Reading the paperback version and taking notes within the margins may be a better fit, but that's up to you.

If you have any non-photography books to recommend that have helped you see your craft a little differently, please leave a comment below, as I am always on the lookout.


Alejandro (Alex) Martinez's picture

Since Alex was 18, he has been working on commercial sets. Now a spritely 40 years old, he knows that the easiest thing about photography is how quickly it can all go wrong. This is why Alex is laser-focused on a fully collaborative pre-production process to create stunning images that build brands, create awareness, or tell stories.

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Wonderful article! I feel like I need to get and read all the books. Let's see how I get a copy or two here. You are very right, in any profession or passion one should think outside the box. And actually not only that, but also deeply into others without restraint.

Thanks Jan! Let me know what you think if you pick up any listed above. Also if you yourself have any recommendations I would love to know.

Some great suggestions which Id not come across. Its so important to transplant visual ideas from other design areas. I found "Just My Type" by Simon Garfield a great jump off in to the world of typography!

Reviews of "This Is Marketing" seem really polarized. Maybe one to get from the library so see if it is as good as the positive reviews.