3 of My Favorite Photography Books

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We are all familiar with the old refrain, “Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.  Those who can’t teach, teach gym.”  I’m still not sure about that last part, but I think by now we’ve pretty much debunked the middle part.  The photography world is full of incredibly successful, highly talented photographers who willingly and eagerly pass along their knowledge and expertise to a new wave of hobbyists, enthusiasts, and professionals.  From workshops and photo walks, to seminars and tutorials, there is a lot of solid information to be found.  As great as live face-time with many of these photographers is, however, it’s not always feasible, possible, or even affordable.  As amazing as a five-day seminar at a four-star hotel in the Virgin Islands might sound, in my world things like food, shelter, and a growing 12-year-old son have to come first.

That’s when I hit the books.  And I’m not talking about an e-book or an on-line forum or magazine (not that there’s anything wrong with them).  I’m talking about an actual collection of pages, bound together in a single unit, containing useful information and insight.  Something I can highlight and bookmark.  But just like not every workshop is everything it’s cracked up to be, not every book is full of secrets bound to catapult you to the next level.  I’ve amassed a fairly sizable photography library over the years.  Some have been disappointing, while others have been worth every penny.  My philosophy on photography books is simple.  A photography book is worth its price tag and earns a permanent place on the shelf if I learn even just one or two things that can noticeably impact my photography in a positive way.  Regardless of whether it is geared towards shooting, editing, or running my business, a good photography book will have at least one shiny nugget that changes the way I do things.

In no particular order, these are three of my favorites.

1.  “Photography Q&A – Real Questions. Real Answers,” by Zack Arias

I had the pleasure of writing the first published review of  Zack’s book back in June.  Since then, I have re-read it cover-to-cover twice.  In August of 2012, Zack, an Atlanta-based commercial/editorial photographer, embarked on a mission to save us all from really bad advice.  He launched his popular Tumblr blog, “Phtography Q&A – Ask Me Anything About Photography”, with the goal of answering 1,000 reader-submitted questions.  It was this collection of questions and answers that became the rough draft for the Q&A Book.   There are several things I love about this book.  For starters, it’s not about any one topic.  The questions range from gear, lighting, and confidence, to portfolio-building, submitting your work, and selling yourself.  I wouldn’t call this a book about photography,  but I would call it a book about being a photographer.  Covering topics as widely varied as the photographers who submitted them, PQ&A reads like you’re sitting across the table from Zack, having a beer, as he shares not only his advice and expertise, but the personal experiences that taught him those lessons in the first place.

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I summed up my original review like this: “While this book may help improve your photography, I think its greater goal will be improving your quality of life as a photographer– or at least the quality of your head space.  If you’re anything like I am– still grappling with crises of confidence, fighting and clawing through creative and practical ruts, or still occasionally convinced that ‘my photography/business will skyrocket if I can just buy THAT,’ then this book is for you.”

Our playing field has changed drastically in recent years.  PQ&A cuts to the chase and tells it like it is.  The advice you’ll find in these pages is worth way more than the price tag.

2.  A Tie Between “The Moment it Clicks” and “The Hot Shoe Diaries,” both by Joe McNally

Joe McNally has to be one of the most dynamic photographers and educators working today.  And no, I’m not exaggerating.  If you’ve ever had the privilege of attending one his seminars you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, read both of these books.  Both are written in Joe’s signature conversational style and will leave you chomping at the bit to get out and put what you’ve learned into practice.

A typical Joe McNally seminar or workshop tends to be filled with sentences that begin with things like, “The photo editor at National Geographic once told me…” or “My editor at Life Magazine used to say…”  These are your cues to start feverishly writing down every word that follows.  “The Moment it Clicks” is an entire book of these one-liners, with each two-page spread combining Joe’s words of wisdom with a stellar photograph and the story behind it to illustrate the point.

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“The Hot Shoe Diaries” should absolutely be required reading for anyone who even gives passing thought to off-camera flash.  I know I sound like a gushing fanboy when I say this book changed my life, and I’m okay with that.  With sections like “Up to Your Ass in Alligators,” “Strobe Strategy,” and “Do You Have a Bedsheet?” you know that a whole heap of knowledge and information is about to fall in your lap.  As with “The Moment it Clicks,” each lesson is illustrated with one of Joe’s amazing images.  One of the most valuable sections comes at the very beginning of the book.  “What I Use…and Why and When I Use It” sets the stage for each of the many off-camera flash lessons.

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3. “The Digital Photography Book – Volume 2,” by Scott Kelby

The name Scott Kelby has pretty much become synonymous with photographic education, from shooting to post production, and everything in between.  There are currently four volumes in this series.  Volume 2 is my favorite.  Just like the other authors mentioned here, Scott Kelby lays it all out on the table, sharing his setups, his experiences, and why he does things the way he does them.  Each chapter (all named “Shoot ________ Like a Pro”) sets out with a singular goal– to improve a specific aspect of your photography.  Topics include flash, portraits, landscapes, weddings, travel, and macro.  There is also excellent information on “Building a Studio from Scratch” and “Pro Tips for Getting Better Photos,” as well as Scott’s “Recipes to Help You Get ‘The Shot.'”

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Photography is one of those things where you only get better by doing it.  A LOT.  You can read all the photography books you can get your hands on, but until you get out there and repeatedly apply what you’ve read (over and over again), nothing is going to change.  I’ve chosen the three (okay…four) books here for three very different reasons.  Scott Kelby’s “The Digital Photography Book” series is bursting at the seams with useful information for the beginning to intermediate photographer looking to take their photography to the next level.  Nobody beats Joe McNally when it comes to teaching everything from the basics to the finer points of off-camera flash, but you need to have a solid foundation and firm grasp of certain photographic principles before tackling advanced lighting techniques.  Zack Arias’ book departs from the traditional photography book in that it is less about technique and more about getting your photographic head screwed on straight.  All three are important, and all three will benefit every photographer at some point on their journey.

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Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class called: Digital Photo Challenges.

  • Jim Donahue

    Got all Six..Looking for more.

  • Thanks, Jeff – I have just ordered Photography Q&A 🙂

  • Many really good books out there, Jim.

    Colleen– Enjoy “PQ&A.” It’s a great book to have on hand.

  • Joe Hogan

    The Photographer’s Eye, by Michael Freeman (and followed very closely by everything else he has written)

  • Good recommendations. I have the McNally and Kelby books – will definitely check out the Arias book. Thanks.

  • Great books and I have all of them 😉

    Another great book/magazine from Zack Arias is his DEDPXL “one light field guide” where he explains different light setups.

    One book in particluar I liked very much on the topic of film photography was Jonathan Canlas “Film is not dead”

  • Vadim Sokol

    Syk Arena “Speedliter’s Handbook” – one of the best book if you want to learn hiw to control your flash.

  • Wiebke

    I would have to disagree a little on the Scott Kelby books. While I enjoyed reading Volume 1 & 2 of his Digital Photography books, Volume 3 was basically a repetition of what already had been stated in Volume 1 & 2 with very little (if any) new information.
    Another disadvantage with books like these is that they cover pretty much everything from shooting Portraits and Weddings to Landscapes, Travels and Sports (not to forget about Macro and Flash), which leaves rather little room for every of the subjects. I would say that they give you a nice introduction into the different areas of photography, but once you have decided for yourself which area you really want to shoot, you might be a lot better off getting a book about just that area.

    I would recommend Syl Arena’s “Lighting for Digital Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots” is a great introduction into how to work with light and how to “read light”.

    @vadimsokol:disqus thanks for your suggestion – too sad it is “restricted” to Canon Speedlights…

  • Vadim Sokol

    Well, I think Syl Arena’s methods and techniques can be used with Nikon flashes – the basic rules are equal for all systems

  • Wiebke

    Well yes and no. (Not wanting it for Nikon but Pentax though.) The trouble that I potentially see is when it comes to terms how settings are called / where they are located. If I told you to use the X-Mode to sync your shutter speed and flash time, you’d probably look at me wondering what I want…but on a Pentax you have a setting on the dial for Manual/Av/Tv called X to set Flash sync time. And I would assume that something similar would be valid for Canon / Pentax flashes. But if I get my hands on it I will have a look inside and see if I have to change my mind anyway.

Some Older Comments

  • Matthias August 30, 2013 09:15 pm

    Great books and I have all of them ;)

    Another great book/magazine from Zack Arias is his DEDPXL "one light field guide" where he explains different light setups.

    One book in particluar I liked very much on the topic of film photography was Jonathan Canlas "Film is not dead"

  • Paul Cotter August 23, 2013 11:12 am

    Good recommendations. I have the McNally and Kelby books - will definitely check out the Arias book. Thanks.

  • Joe Hogan August 23, 2013 02:37 am

    The Photographer's Eye, by Michael Freeman (and followed very closely by everything else he has written)

  • Jeff Guyer August 21, 2013 04:27 pm

    Many really good books out there, Jim.

    Colleen-- Enjoy "PQ&A." It's a great book to have on hand.

  • Colleen Milburn August 21, 2013 01:36 pm

    Thanks, Jeff - I have just ordered Photography Q&A :)

  • Jim Donahue August 19, 2013 12:36 pm

    Got all Six..Looking for more.

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