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Photo How-To Books That Don’t Suck and One That Does

January 8, 2010

I was recently contacted by a new photographer who really wants to improve her skills and learn more about all those crazy buttons and dials on her camera, but can’t fit a workshop into her schedule right now.  What’s a girl to do?  Read a book.  Or five.  And guys, this applies to you, too.

I’m a voracious reader.  I read magazines, books, web articles, blogs and even news on my iPhone.  When my interest in photography started to take off I didn’t even know about workshops.  I knew about books.  So, I bought a few, I read a few and I used the knowledge to make hundreds, if not thousands, of bad photos.  Then one day I picked up my film from the lab and much to my surprise, there on the light table, was a slide that didn’t suck.  And it was mine.

Apparently, reading all those books and making all those bad images was finally starting to pay off.  You may never see your slide on a light table.  You may not even know what a slide or a light table is.  But, you can still glean loads of useful knowledge from reading a good book.

Here are the books I found most helpful and one…not so much.

Books by Art Wolfe

The Art of Photographing Nature

Photography Outdoors: A Field Guide for Travel and Adventure Photographers (Both of these books are your classic “how-to” guides filled with lots of stunning Art Wolfe images from around the world.  He offers tips on composition, exposure, using filters, traveling with your gear and explains how to use different camera settings for creative effect.) 

A Book by Galen Rowell

The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography (I would not start with this one.  Galen was a world-class adventure athlete, a photographer, a writer and a philosopher.  This book is not your standard how-to book.  There are few discussions of gear and technique.  Galen is at his absolute best here, discussing the quieter and more philosophical side of outdoor photography.  It’s a book that will make you stop and ponder why you want to make pretty pictures, and that’s a good thing.)

Books by John Shaw

Nature Photography Field Guide

Landscape Photography (Both of these books are among the best of the best.  John has a very easy, informal way of writing and teaching.  His ability to explain difficult and technical topics such that a moron like me can understand is unsurpassed.  Both of these two books are “how-to” guides that cover the same topics as Art’s, but with a different voice.  Some things may click with you when you read them in Art’s book while others may resonate more when read from John’s books.)

Business of Nature Photography: A Professional’s Guide to Marketing and Managing a Successful Nature Photography Business (Do you want to be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams and travel the world making photographs?  Okay, I concede – you may not become wealthy as a pro photographer but you sure can have lots of fun.  And you can certainly make a living at it if you don’t mind being a businessperson first and a photographer second.  This book covers all the basic stuff you’ll need to know as a working professional photographer.  It is a bit dated in today’s digital world as there are references to the filing of your slide pages and making film submissions to magazines.  Nonetheless, John divulges lots of valuable information about marketing, taxes, legal issues and more.  Well worth a read if you’re thinking of running a nature photography business.) 

Photoshop CS3 Guide (This is an e-book, available for purchase only at John’s website.  It is, in my humble opinion, the holy grail of Photoshop books.  I learned way more in one week after purchasing this book than I did in over a year of fumbling around in Photoshop on my own.  Almost all the techniques and workflow he discusses are applicable in CS4, too.  If you are mystified by Photoshop do yourself a favor and buy this book.) 

Books by Tim Fitzharris

National Audubon Society Guide to Landscape Photography (Another “how-to” guide, albeit very well written and chock full of amazing Tim Fitzharris images.)

National Park Photography (This one is a little different.  It’s a “how-to and where-to” guide.  Each chapter covers a popular national park and has useful tips for photographing the area.  Really a great book.)

A Book from Arizona Highways

Photography Guide: How & Where to Make Great Photographs (This is another “how-to and where-to” guide but it only covers Arizona.  This one is published by the good folks at Arizona Highways magazine, which is itself internationally recognized for the high quality photography within its pages.  Several frequent Arizona Highways contributors provided content for the book.  Great how-to information is provided and at the end of the book, you get some awesome advice on when and where to photograph popular areas of Arizona.

A Book by Nathaniel Coalson

Lightroom 2: Streamlining Your Digital Photography Process (Full disclosure: Nat and I run workshops together.  Even if we didn’t and Nat was a jackass, I’d still recommend his book.  No other Lightroom book I’ve read comes close to the depth and breadth with which this book covered Lightroom.  And, Nat does so with a writing style that is engaging and easy to follow.  John Shaw also offers a Lightroom e-book.  I have no doubt it is a great one although I can’t comment personally because I haven’t seen it.  By the way, Nat isn’t a jackass.  He’s actually a really nice guy, an amazing instructor and a good friend.)

And finally, the one and only photography book I’ve ever returned (drum roll please)…

A Book by John Fielder

Photographing the Landscape: The Art of Seeing (Suffice it to say that when an author starts comparing photography to pizza, I quickly lose interest.  Yeah, I get the whole analogy thing but I just found this one to be really, really bad.  I know others, friends even, who think it’s a great “how-to” book.  I try not to hold it against them.  You might find it useful.  I didn’t.)

There you have it!  My favorite books and a couple opinions you didn’t ask for.  I’ll close by saying this: You can read all the books in the world but if you don’t get out and photograph, you’re never going to improve.  Shoot often and seek honest, constructive critique on your images.  And most importantly, have fun.

Got a favorite how-to book?  How about a not-so-favorite one?  Or a thought on the books I’ve listed?  Be heard – leave a comment!

23 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2010 9:46 am

    Bret, this is a really great summary of some of the best out there. Some I have read and some that I still need to pick up (I will only open Lightroom if I have Nat’s book in my hand). And the Filder thing just got me cracking up!


  2. January 8, 2010 9:47 am

    I found your site on Google and read a few of your other entires. Nice Stuff. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

  3. kurtbudliger permalink
    January 8, 2010 10:14 am

    Couldn’t agree more with your picks, very solid choices and worth every penny. I haven’t seen Fielder’s book but your review made me chuckle.

    I recently got a copy of VisonMongers by David duChemin of the pixelatedimageblog, couldn’t put it down, very motivational.

  4. January 8, 2010 10:31 am

    Great review. Stumbled across your blog while tagsurfing on WordPress, and I’m going to make a note of this entry on Twitter.

  5. January 8, 2010 1:10 pm

    You guys and gals are awesome! Thanks for the comments and mention on Twitter. Very much appreciated.

    Kurt: I’ve not heard of VisionMongers or pixelatedimageblog but I’ll look into both. Thanks for the tip.

    Mike and/or B: What were you searching for when you found my blog on Google? Just curious as I’m really into learning all this SEO and social media marketing stuff these days. Thanks!

    Aleks: Glad I made you chuckle. 🙂

  6. January 8, 2010 1:12 pm

    I was just browsing the “photography” tag on WordPress.

    This just happened to be a recent post when I checked. But I know, SEO is really difficult to navigate. Best of luck!

  7. Paulie permalink
    January 8, 2010 2:33 pm

    Great list! Alain Briot’s Mastering Landscape Photography was a good one for me too. David Duchemin’s VisionMongers has been mentioned and I’m VERY anxious to read that because I read his prior book, Within the Frame, and I can’t say enough good things about it. That one will be forever on the list of classics, it just hasn’t been out long enough. =-)

    • January 8, 2010 4:59 pm

      I really need to look into David Duchemin’s books. Sounds like a super talented writer. Alain Briot also writes articles for NPN, which is itself a great resource and one of the two best photo forums on the ‘net. Thanks for adding to the list!

  8. January 8, 2010 3:08 pm

    I was recently in Banff and can highly recommend Darwin Wiggett’s “How to Photograph the Canadian Rockies.” It was a invaluable source and help us get to remote places we more than likely would have missed.

    • January 8, 2010 4:55 pm

      I can’t believe I forgot to mention Darwin’s book. Thanks for posting this, Bert. Darwin is one of my all-time favorite photographers and his book really is an outstanding resource.

  9. Bill Brennan permalink
    January 8, 2010 4:32 pm

    Thanks Bret. I enjoy Moose Peterson’s, Guy Tal’s and Bill Fortney’s writings.

    Also agree wholeheartedly with your comments about Nat Coalson.

    Bill Brennan

    • January 8, 2010 4:57 pm

      Hey Bill, thanks for the comment. I’ve not read any of Moose’s or Bill’s writing but I’m sure they’re great additions to the list. Guy Tal is one of the most eloquent writers covering photography and the environment. Really, an enormously talented guy. And, he’s one of the absolute nicest, most thoughtful and generous people you’ll ever meet.

  10. January 8, 2010 6:31 pm

    Hi Bret,

    I bet it was fun putting a list such as this together and remembering all the books. I also read as much as possible when not in the field or working on my own work. I’ve read lots of photography how to books and John Shaw’s I have always without doubt considered the best. So many “how to” books are like a paint by number set. Do this, adjust this, set this and presto your a photographer. Even Mr. Shaw’s can only teach someone so much as far as book learning. There are other aspects of photography that can only be acquired by spending time with your chosen subject and it has nothing to do with the technical aspect. Evoking true emotion through one’s work is (in my opinion) where true craftsmanship and talent shows.

    The latest book I have read has been David DeChemin’s “Visionmongers” and it is a true pleasure to read. Non of this “how-to” stuff that people seem to gravitate to in hopes of a magic fix for their photography. It is based on the business side of photography but written like one friend talking to another and not as a how to. In David’s word’s “Gear is good, Vision is better”.

    We all need to read thoughts, stories and experiences of others and there is great value in that. But I try not to get caught up in spending to much time “reading” what I should be doing, when I could be out “doing” what makes me a better photographer, and that is time with camera in hand not face in book. Like most things in life, everything in moderation except, out shooting and then you can not over do that.

    • January 8, 2010 6:50 pm

      Okay, that’s it. I just ordered “Visionmongers”. Can’t wait to check it out with all these endorsements. You’ve made some really good points, Brad. You really hit a home run in that books, blogs, newsletters, etc. are all great to get you started but there really is no substitute for time spent in the field. Most nature photographers fell in love with photography only after falling in love with the outdoors. Get outside – hike, climb and explore and make a few photos but most importantly, have fun doing it all! Thanks for that great reminder, Brad.

  11. January 9, 2010 10:47 am

    Great list of resources. My boss gave me Tim Fitzharris’ “Audobon’s Guide” for Christmas and I haven’t been able to put it down. Lots of great tips & info there, together with amazing images. Think I’ll have to order the National Park guide as well.

    I found George Lepp’s “Beyond the Basics I & II” books to be very helpful. I also obtained great info from “Flower & Garden Photography” by Derek Fell and “Close-up & Macro – A Photographer’s Guide” by Robert Thompson.

    • January 9, 2010 3:55 pm

      Thanks for adding a few more good books to the list, Angela!

  12. January 9, 2010 7:37 pm


    Nice list of books. I actually have most of them on my bookshelf and find myself returning to them again and again. One I do think should be added is Bill Fortney’s Great Photography Workshop. For the beginning nature photographer, I put him on par with John Shaw.

    • January 9, 2010 7:47 pm

      Never heard of it Chris, but I’ll certainly have a look on my next visit to the bookstore. Thanks for leaving a comment and offering another book suggestion. I’m gonna go broke buying all these new books!

  13. January 9, 2010 8:48 pm

    Hi Brett: Enjoyed your list. I have several of them in my many Photography Books. My own favorites are Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure” and “Learning To See Creatively.” I find them great books for beginners, but have gone back and read and re-read them myself from time to time.

    I also think the Dan Margulis book, “Photoshop LAB Color – The Canyon Conundrum” book is a great advanced book for Photoshop users.

    Funny. I attended John Shaw’s weekend workshop last winter (I have all his “How To Books” from back in the film days) and bought the CD and never have spent any time with it. I’ll be digging it up when I sign off here.

    • January 9, 2010 9:24 pm

      Andy: I’ve heard a lot of good things about “Learning to See Creatively”. I’ll have to look into that one, too. I would love for John Shaw to write a CS4 or CS5 e-book and include a really comprehensive tutorial on image blends. John Shaw, are you listening?

      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and leave a thoughtful comment, Andy. Hope you’re enjoying your weekend!


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