Photographer’s Holiday Buying Guide: Books

Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures, by Hans-Michael Koetzle
Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures, by Hans-Michael Koetzle

Whether you’re a photographer looking for reading material, or a non-photographer trying to figure out what you can buy your photographer friend/spouse/coworker that won’t break the bank, books on photography — be it history, technique, or philosophy — are a pretty safe bet. Below are a few personal favorites, some of which have been reviewed in this space, and others of which we haven’t gotten to yet.

Technique:

Fundamentals of Photography: The Essential Handbook for Both Digital and Film Cameras (Tom Ang): At some point, nearly anyone who’s serious about photography will want to give themselves an overview of the basics. Ang’s book is best suited to novices and amateurs, though it’s a useful reference for the more forgetful among us, as well. It’s all here — the technology, the technique, postproduction, et cetera. Since there are at least half a dozen books by the same author covering similar subject matter, I’d strongly suggest browsing the books before buying to make sure you’re getting one that fits your personal style.

Jim Krause’s Photo Idea Index could be termed a how-to for the self-motivated. There’s less in the way of explicit instruction here than a series of short exercises with examples, designed to act as prompts to creativity (the same formula followed in most of Krause’s other work). While he’s enamored with creativity, he doesn’t have any particular affection for one type or brand of gear. That ethos, and the approach of the book as a whole, makes it useful if you’re in a mood to experiment and see where it might take your photography.

If you or someone you know is going to be finding a new DSLR under the tree, consider the Magic Lantern Guide series. These guides are written by, and for, photographers (Simon Stafford covers most of the Nikon gear, Michael Guncheon covers Canon, and other guides are available for those of you using Sony, Pentax, et al.). David Busch’s exhaustive reference books for various camera systems, and somewhat more compact field guides, are likewise well worth the time and money.

Philosophy:

The Photographer’s Vision: Understanding and Appreciating Great Photography follows in the footsteps of earlier Michael Freeman works The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos and The Photographer’s Mind: Creative Thinking for Better Digital Photos, presenting sound practical advice with history, theory, and philosophy. Here, Freeman explores the importance of visual literacy in understanding the “reading” of a photo, but also how that practice extends to how we make photos.

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes (Andy Karr and Michael Wood) is a book-length treatment of the ways of seeing. The authors’ intent is to have us check conception at the door, in favor of perception. The advantage, they argue, is that you learn to see in detail, and in depth. In other words, you stop just looking at things, and start to pay closer attention, being present with the subject nearly to the point that your photograph is a means of bearing witness to it, rather than simply getting the cold facts of an image onto your memory card.

 Visual Poetry: A Creative Guide for Making Engaging Digital Photographs, by Chris Orwig, is as helpful to the beginning photographer as to one who’s more advanced. The former will find plenty that helps them develop habits and ways of seeing that will serve them well, while the latter will find much to rejuvinate their approach to their craft, not least because of the insistance on first principles that can help kindle, or re-awaken, the joy to be found in simplifying one’s gear, approach, and process. 

Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision. put David duChemin on the map, and for good reason; it’s page after page of wisdom perhaps best summed up in the author’s maxim, “Gear is good. Vision is better.” Most of us are more likely to go ’round the bend than around the world for a photo, but the advice given here applies equally well regardless of where you happen to find yourself.

History/Photo Books:

Photo Icons: The Story Behind the Pictures (Hans-Michael Koetzle) provides the backstories on several legendary images, from the dawn of photography (Niepce’s “View From the Study Window,” made in 1827) to the early 1990’s (Salgado’s 1991 photos from Kuwait). Unlike many other books, which simply provide a title, date, and photographer’s name, this one gives you a sense of history, and often also shows other shots from the same session, giving further insight into the photographer’s creative and editorial processes.

Pillars of the Almighty: A Celebration of Cathedrals (Ken Follett and F-stop Fitzgerald) is currently out of print, but if you’re at all interested in photography, cathedrals, or historical fiction (or some combination thereof), take the time to seek it out; the writing, adapted from Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, is thought provoking, and it’s perfectly complemented by Fitzgerald’s gorgeous photography from cathedrals around the world.

Unforgettable: Images That Have Changed Our Lives is a small book, both in size and number of pages, but that belies the big idea that underpins it. Author Peter Davenport, through nothing more than a series of captions on blank pages, argues that certain images have the power to transcend their time and even their original purpose.

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