Whether you’re brand new to photography, a seasoned veteran, or somewhere in-between, learning and re-learning the ins and outs of your craft is an essential part of the continuing education that comes along with being a photographer. If you’re a professional who makes a living on taking photos, then this is even more vital. Here are the most influential authors of the past 10 years who have helped me to understand everything from light itself through setting up my own office / studio.
I realize we live in such an age that physical books are becoming less and less utilized. However, I highly recommend grabbing yourself tangible copies of the books I’m about to recommend for a few reasons: although tablets allow you to carry infinitely more “books” at a time, engaging in one real printed-on-paper book allows you to keep focus on what you’re reading and block out all the social media and other electronic notifications that can come along as distractions when reading on a tablet or smart phone; secondly, the ability to write in the margins, underline important parts or sections, and highlight key ideas on the book’s page is something that I personally enjoy doing when reading (from instructional manuals to fiction or poetry), and you can’t really do that on a tablet; lastly, you can often save a lot of money by buying books used, or borrowing them from friends. So go ahead and use your tablet to search the Internet and find yourself a cheap, tangible copy that you can sit on the toilet with, curl up with on the couch, or lay in the pool with on a sunny day drinking a margarita. Now, on to the list…
Understanding How Light Works
This is the first part of what it means to be a photographer. If you don’t understand light, then you don’t understand what you’re doing. Just as a guy with a hammer, nails, and wood can still build things, a guy with a camera can still take photos. They both might create something, but neither will really understand how to repeat what they’ve created or progress any further without comprehending the hows and whys. So when it comes to photography, I recommend Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting. Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, and Paul Fuqua have mastered explaining the nature of light, regardless of style, and how to handle the practical application of controlling it. One of the most valuable lessons within this book explains how reflections work, and how to avoid them. It's one of the most crucial things to know if you plan to shoot portraits or product photography. I have an older edition of this book, but the new 5th edition comes out this March and looks like it addresses even more! The authors take what could become a boring science lesson and write in simple language that is easy to understand. It helps make the learning exciting and they also provide examples that are fun to re-create. Light Science and Magic is the go-to book I recommend to anyone interested in learning about how light works. It's great for newbies and oldies all around!
Inspiration and Instruction on Taking Lit Portraits
When it comes to off-camera lighting (especially with small speedlights), there are few more knowledgeable or more creative than Joe McNally. Even though he writes in a very Nikon-centric way, his stylized approach and careful methodology to creating dramatically lit portraits can be applied universally to any camera or lighting system. His book Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash offers both creative inspiration as well as detailed behind-the-scenes sketches and looks at his setups that are invaluable references for aspiring and well-versed portrait photographers alike. Combine this captivating insight with a casual writing-style full of humor, and you’ll find yourself at the last page of the book wanting to start back at the beginning in no time. Joe offers real-world solutions to creating amazing portraits, and this book is a truly motivating second read once you’ve understood the science behind light.
Post Processing and Workflow
An easy-to-learn approach to any computer program is rare, but Scott Kelby offers up digestible knowledge in spades. Over the last ten years, I’ve trusted nobody more than Scott to teach me what I need to know about post processing. He addresses features efficiently, and he provides a manual you can read from beginning to end or dig in and out of when you need to find something specific. I highly recommend The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 Book for Digital Photographers although his Photoshop books are just as insightful. I choose to share his Lightroom series in this article as it’s a tool that accomplishes so much more than just photo editing, and I feel that most photographers use Lightroom first before diving into Photoshop for more complicated edits. Whichever software you prefer, Kelby has written a guide that includes everything from the basics of operation to utilizing hidden advanced features so you can master your workflow and fine-tune your photographic vision.
Making Everything Work Together
I’ve been following Zach Arias’ tutelage since his original One Light DVD. He’s always been an open-book of information on how he has both struggled and succeeded as a photographer over the years, with a much appreciated candor on what to do and what not to do. After enjoying his ever-popular Tumblr Q&A blog, I was very eager to grab a printed copy of what that blog became, Photography Q&A: Real Questions. Real Answers. As he states in the introduction, “I am not trying to write the definitive book on any one subject here. This book fills the gaps.” It is a collection of questions and answers that range from what gear to buy to the merits of critique or comparing yourself to others. You’ll find information from learning all the technical stuff to applying what you know to business – and he even includes some inspiring milestone photographs for you to learn from as well. It’s a great book to round out your journey from learning about your craft to knowing about your craft.
Building a Successful Business
This is the part that is often the hardest for photographers or for artists in general. I often see people focused solely on the technical and artistic sides of creating photos who think selling this skill as a service will only follow suit. Hell, I was actually one of those people who thought that money would just naturally come with the skills I achieved. The reality is that the business side of photography is the hard part. To a point I agree with the generalization that “anyone can take a picture of something or someone” in relation to the point that not everyone can sell that picture. That’s where discovering John Harrington’s Best Business Practices for Photographers was so beneficial for me, and why it’s the most important book in this list (if you’re wanting to make a business out of photography). In it, he addresses clients, contracts, licensing, taxes, and even what to do if you’re audited by the IRS. It’s basically a comprehensive business bible for every photographer who wants to make a living taking photos – providing the keys to succeed and the confidence and stability your clients deserve. This book is what helped me figure out a pricing structure and proper business practices that have allowed me to achieve a year-five goal of having my own studio back in my third year of operation. To this day, I continue to consult with this book and recommend it to everyone I know who seriously wants to make photography their career.
This is a solid collection of how-to and why-to books that are bound to jumpstart your creativity and motivate you to become more than someone who simply takes pictures for fun. Reading these tomes forward and back again will give you the understanding of how light works, how to control it, ways to workflow and edit your photographs, all the in-betweens of the technical and psychological aspects of being a photographer, and how to successfully start and run your own business. But these are just my personal favorites. I’d love to read more, so share your favorites below with us all and let’s continue to help spread good information with each other!