The Internet is a treasure trove of information, but photography books are still a fantastic way to both learn about photography as well as be inspired by the work of leading photographers.
I am a big fan of art books, and I often recommend that beginning photographers look beyond photography and immerse themselves in art. That’s not to say that I recommend not looking at pictures at all: that would be silly. In this article, I will suggest some of my favorite books that I found very interesting, informative, and/or inspiring — books that I would not hesitate to recommend, either for yourself or as a gift for another photographer.
1. Annie Leibovitz At Work
A deep dive into the career of Leibovitz, Annie Leibovitz At Work will tell you about how she approaches photographing different subjects, creates her work from start to finish, and gear. I found this book particularly helpful in understanding how to work with different subjects. It opened up a new channel of communication with people I was previously hesitant to photograph such as politicians.
2. Peter Lindbergh. On Fashion Photography
This is a great choice for the ones who want to get familiar with the late German fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh’s authentic work and style. The book is neatly divided into designers Lindbergh worked with which enables you to understand how he applied his artistic style with various clothes and designs.
3. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
I am a big fan of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author of Eat Pray Love. It is not photography-specific, it is art-specific. This book has changed my life by making me a lot braver with art and creativity. Perhaps this is the one I recommend most to people outside photography as well.
Contrary to what you may think, this isn’t a self-help book — Gilbert wrote Big Magic to help herself. It does resonate with a lot of creatives simply because we all wish to be braver, create for the sake of creation, and not be afraid to make mistakes. In a way, this is a must-read, even if you think you know everything Gilbert has to say. I suggest reading this book to every single person who comes to my coaching sessions.
4. On Photography by Susan Sontag
On Photography is another thought-provoking book that makes you think about what photography is even about. Sontag argues that photography is a control mechanism we exert upon the world. Her argument against photography is based on the principle of seeing for the sake of seeing. This is a highly controversial book that is bound to spark discussions and make you re-think everything you believe about photography…
5. Light ― Science & Magic
Light ― Science & Magic is my favorite book is about light and the book I recommend to everyone who wants to learn light. Speaking from personal experience, my lighting was turned upside-down by learning and applying the principles in this book. It dives into the core of lighting and how we see, without ever mentioning “5 light setups for perfect portraits”. A real treat for a light-conscious photographer who wants to go above and beyond with their skills.
6. Helmut Newton. Legacy
Helmut Newton is one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. He created work that stood the test of time and sparked debates around controversial topics. Published by Taschen, a reputable publisher in the industry, Helmut Newton. Legacy is a collection of Newton’s work that spans 5 decades. Having revolutionized fashion photography forever, Helmut Newton was best known for blending genres and creating work that has cultural significance, subtle seduction, and interestingly, a sense of humor.
7. Annie Leivovitz: Wonderland
Published in the fall of 2021, Wonderland is a collection of Leibovit’s fashion work. Anna Wintour is a co-author of the book meaning that only the best of the best images are in it and the publication itself is bound to be nothing short of excellent. Although commonly known for her portraits, Leibovitz has photographed a great deal of fashion as well. In fact, as recently as this summer, in an advertorial for Vogue magazine. Despite this being her first book that is dedicated to solely fashion, it was received incredibly well.
8. Martin Schoeller: Close
If you enjoy portraits, you may find Schoeller’s work rather unique and interesting. Yet another example of how a photographer can apply their style to any subject, close is a series of intimate portraits of celebrities, politicians, and other well-known people. Martin Schoeller: Close pushes the viewer to look beyond the technicalities and beyond photography altogether, it pushes the audience to look at the subject. At the end of the day, if your images are not about the subject, what are they about?
9. Magnum Contact Sheets
Have you ever sat on a selection of photos without any idea on what shot to edit? I know I have, I still do. Perhaps the core of editing is making the selection for the final shot. Somehow, very few photographers share how they select images to edit. Magnum Contact Sheets solves this very problem. It takes film scans, or contact sheets, and shows all of the images from the shoot. You can see how the photographer worked, and how they selected the final shot. This is a great purchase for someone who wants to see behind the scenes of the world’s most significant images that made history.
Spoiler alert: all photographers take awful photos that you mostly never get to see.
10. The Americans by Robert Frank
One of my favorite street photography books, The Americans is a collection of images that show how vastly diverse American society in the 1950s was. To some degree, the photos in The Americans are as relevant now as it was 70 years ago. In a sentence, this seminal photo book is both thought-provoking and moving.
These books are all different, some dive into technicalities, while others are made to make you think. Now it comes down to personal taste and what you want for yourself. If I were only getting two books from this list, I would probably pick Susan Sontag’s essays and Big Magic.
Editor’s note: While the scope of these initial 10 picks is relatively narrow, the list will continue to grow and evolve over time to include a wider range of genres and topics. If you have a suggestion for a photography book that deserves to be in the next edition of this list, we would love to hear from you.