Top 10 books every aspiring photographer should read

Get inspired, boost your technique and understand photography more broadly with these classic and modern photography titles.

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Working on your photography skills isn't just something you do at the beginning; it's a job for life. While growing as a photographer is as much about inspiration and vision as it is about learning and refining techniques. A good photography book can provide both in abundance and to help you out; we've curated a list of the ten best on the market today.

The blend of practical skills, artistic insight and philosophical musings in these ten books offers a comprehensive journey through the multifaceted world of photography. This collection will not only equip you with technical knowledge but also encourage you to explore the profound emotional and intellectual dimensions of this medium.

At the same time, the world-class images they feature will enthral and inspire you, encouraging you to take your own images further.

Whether you aspire to become a professional photographer or simply want to appreciate the world through a different lens, these books will ignite your passion for photography and guide you on a transformative journey through the art and science of image-making.

Note: We've included links to buy these books from independent booksellers, but we don't make a penny of affiliate revenue if you do. Our list is purely determined by the books we like and which we think will help our readers the most!

1. The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson

French artist Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, mainly because he pioneered the genre of street photography. This book explores how he viewed photography as capturing the 'decisive moment' and how this philosophy can inform the practice of all types of photographers. First published in 1952 and described by Robert Capa as "a Bible for photographers", it's been required reading for generations of photographers and is just as relevant today.

Key takeaway: Understand the importance of timing and intuition in capturing the perfect moment.

2. Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson

Baffled by technical jargon? Author Bryan Peterson has a knack for explaining complex concepts in a language normal people can understand. His guide to the concept and practice of exposure is brought to life by stunning and colourful images that will inspire you creatively, as well as help you understand how to create similar results yourself. Peterson thoroughly explains aperture, shutter speed and ISO, demystifying the process of creating a well-exposed image. And that makes this pocket guide a good choice for everyone, from beginners to aspiring professionals.

Key takeaway: Gain a clear understanding of the fundamentals of exposure and how they interplay.

3. On Photography by Susan Sontag

Writer, author and photographer Susan Sontag (1933-2004) didn't just want to make pretty pictures; her work was firmly focused on promoting radical political change. In this seminal and groundbreaking collection of essays, first published in 1977, she delves into the philosophical and societal implications of photography. It's a reflective read that offers a deeper understanding of why we photograph, which in many ways is more important than the how.

Key takeaway: Explore the psychological and philosophical dimensions of photography.

4. The Photographer's Eye by Michael Freeman

Composition is the single most important factor in creating a successful photograph. The ability to see the potential for a strong picture and then organise the graphic elements into an effective, compelling vignette is vital for every photographer to learn. And this masterful guide dissects the essence of image-making, discussing what exactly makes a photograph great. It explores all the traditional approaches to composition and design. Also, it addresses new digital techniques and the idea of shooting in the knowledge that a picture will later be edited, manipulated, or montaged. Note that this book was first published in 2007 and was thoroughly updated in 2017 to take account of new technologies.

Key takeaway: Enhance your compositional skills by understanding the elements that create visual impact.

5. Annie Leibovitz at Work by Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz is probably the world's best-known portrait photographer, and this eye-opening book provides a behind-the-scenes look at her process. You'll learn about her experiences, equipment, and thoughts behind some of her most iconic shots. She also talks about photojournalism, studio work, photographing dancers and athletes, working with writers, and making the transition from shooting with film to working with digital cameras. Originally published in 2008, this book was fully revised and updated in 2018.

Key takeaway: Learn about the intricacies of portrait photography and the stories behind the shots.

6. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes

This book by the French theorist Roland Barthes (1915-80) takes a deep dive into the nature of photography and its effect on the viewer, exploring the relationship between photography and theatre, history and death. It might not sound a lot of fun, but this seminal 1993 text is still in print for a reason: it's a classic and unique exploration of how photographs create meaning and evoke emotion.

Key takeaway: Reflect on the power and essence of photographs beyond their visual content.

7. Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson

Want to become more creative in your photography practice? Then, this internationally acclaimed guide to photography and visual design will help you get there. Its main focus is on tapping into your creativity by pushing yourself to see the world differently. In plain, jargon-free English, the author explains techniques and exercises you can use to break with traditional concepts of design, enabling you to develop a keen awareness of your subject matter and a better direction for composing photographs.

Key takeaway: Cultivate a fresh perspective and boost your creative intuition.

8. Magnum Contact Sheets

Want to really see behind the scenes of professional photographers? This unique book offers a real-life look at the creative process of Magnum stalwarts by sharing their contact sheets from a number of iconic shots. A total of 139 contact sheets, representing 69 photographers, are featured, as well as zoom-in details, selected photographs, press cards, notebooks and spreads from contemporary publications, including Life magazine and Picture Post. Further insight is provided by texts written by the photographers themselves or by experts chosen by members' estates.

Key takeaway: Understand the selection process and the journey from shooting to the final image.

9. The Negative by Ansel Adams

American landscape photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) produced some of the 20th century's most iconic photographs and remains a huge influence on photographers around the world today. Part of his three-book series on photography, The Negative, delves into techniques for achieving high-quality prints, emphasising the significance of visualisation and the importance of the photographer's intent. This classic work has taught generations of photographers how to use film and the film development process creatively, and examples of Adams' own work clarify the principles discussed.

Key takeaway: Master the art of print-making and the value of pre-visualisation.

10. Street Photography Now by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren

This book enables you to get up close and personal with the world's best street photographers as they capture the drama of everyday life at 1⁄125 of a second. Introducing you to the works of 46 artists, including Magnum masters such as Bruce Gilden, Martin Parr and Alex Webb, it's an exploration of the candid, unexpected, and often serendipitous moments captured on city streets worldwide. Four thought-provoking essays and a global conversation between leading street photographers explore the compelling and often controversial issues in the genre, and a select bibliography and a resource section for aspiring street photographers complete the book.

Key takeaway: Delve into the diverse world of street photography and its evolution in the modern era.


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