10 Books Every Photographer Should Read

Grab a cup of coffee, put on your slippers, and curl up in your favorite arm chair with one of these texts and learn something new about the art of photography! I have a rather large and ecclectic collection of photography texts, and this list represents my 10 favorites - texts I would recommend to anyone wanting to improve their photography.

What have I missed on the list? Leave me a comment and let me know what you'd add!

  1. "The Camera" & "The Negative" & "The Print" - Ansel Adams
    The author needs no introduction, and this is really three texts in one, but they are the definitive texts for all technical things film photography. So you're a digital photographer? Read anyway. Seriously, these books are #1.0, 1.1 and 1.2 on my list for a reason. The fundamentals of photography are the same no matter the medium, and I promise you'll learn something. Plus, its awesome seeing how Ansel thought about his work.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  2. "Black and White Photography Workshop" - John Blakemore
    This is without question one of the best all-in-one books on using the Zone System to create incredible black and white film images. Like with the texts from Ansel Adams, this is a great material for any digital photographer who wants to build their foundational knowledge.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  3. "Vivian Maier: Street Photographer" - John Maloof
    Vivian Maier was a nanny in the mid-1900s who travelled around Europe and the United States taking photographs with her Rolleiflex 120mm film camera. She was a very private woman and never shared her work - it was only discovered and she became famous after her death. There is a documentary (currently on Netflix) about her story, but the book is fantastic as a resource to study the work of another photographer. What I find so inspiring about Vivian is that she took photographs for personal joy and satisfaction - not to share them. That's opposite of most of us (myself included) who have blogs, Facebook, etc where we share our images. There is something particularly special about her work because of the private nature of her images.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  4. "From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black and White Conversion Technique Known to Man" - Vincent Versace
    Vincent is a Nikon Ambassador, and an exceptional black and white digital photography artist. His text differs from the above black and white books in that he spends more time on the details of the digital workflow, and how to create masterpieces in the digital era. A must-own for any black and white photographer. Seriously.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  5. “Chasing Light: An Exploration of the American Landscape” - Frank Lee Ruggles

    Frank is a friend of mine. He was my first mentor in photography and sold me some of my very first lenses (I’m embarrassed to say it was a Tokina). Needless to say, after years of studying his work, I have found him to be one of my greatest inspirations. This isn’t a how-to book, it’s a fine art photography book, and it will inspire you. A good photographer is always looking at the work of others — I have spent hours reverse engineering Frank’s images and learning from them, and suggest this book to any landscape photographer. Plus, Frank’s an all-around awesome guy, so it’s no wonder this book is so high on my list of must-reads!

    Buy on Amazon.com

  6. "Eyes Wide Open - 100 Years of Leica Photography"
    Some of the best books for photography aren't instructional - they are collections of work from which I can draw new inspiration or ideas. I love to deconstruct other photographer's images, and this book is full of inspiration. And if you ever need a paperweight or door stop, it'll cover those bases too!

    Buy on Amazon.com

  7. "Captured: Lessons from Behind the Lens of a Legendary Wildlife Photographer" - Moose Peterson
    So you have an interest in wildlife photography? Moose wrote the definitive guide on all things wildlife and bird photography - its a fun read complete with great images and some amusing stories of his time spent shooting in the field.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  8. "Surreal Photography: Creating the Impossible" - Daniela Bowker
    This is a fun and entertaining text - a great way to see how some photographers express creativity by creating surrealist images. While I rarely (if ever) will use the techniques taught in this book, it's another great resource to draw new inspiration and pull new techniques from. Certainly one of the more bizarre and fun books on my shelf.

    Buy on Amazon.com

  9. "Black and White Magazine" - Subscription
    I am not a fan of most photography magazines - they push you to buy crap and gadgets you don't need. And just like the exercise magazines that routinely re-run the same articles with the "best weight loss tips," most photography magazines don't offer new content, or content that will make you a better artist. Black and White is the exception. There is a great showcase of various artists (real artists) and inspiring pieces. I would recommend the paper subscription over e-version - the printed quality is exceptionally good.

    Subscribe Online

  10. “Sketching Light: An Illustrated Tour of the Possibilities of Flash” - Joe McNally

    This addition to my list might surprise you, considering how little I use flash in my photography. I only ever use a flash for macro images, so it should speak volumes that I recommend a book about something I don’t use. Why? Because photography is all about light, and Joe McNally is arguably the master of light. The things he can do with a flash boggle the mind, and I think it’s important to study light as a photographer. So might as well learn from the master. Besides, my flash is the sun, and if you can control a AA-battery powered flash, you’re that much closer to making the sun work for you,


    Buy on Amazon.com

Inside the Darkroom with John Blakemore

I had the opportunity to join famous UK photographer John Blakemore for a black and white printing workshop in the darkroom at a studio called the Photo Parlour outside Nottingham this past weekend. It was my first real adventure in darkroom work and I wanted to share some of the process for anyone who is curious what working in a darkroom is like. I should warn you - it's addicting!

The workshop was held at the Derby Photo Parlour, which is a community darkroom and developing studio run by Dan Wheeler. Through his relationship with local famous UK photographer John Blakemore, Dan is able to offer some workshops to a small group of students who want to learn from one of the masters of the darkroom. The workshop ran over two full days and although I was tired at the end, I was still eager to keep printing!

Day 1 of the workshop began with John running through some of his work to describe tonality, visualization, the zone system, and his general philosophy towards many things! After a lunch break we headed into the darkroom to watch John as he made about six prints from one of his negatives. The powerful thing was to watch him explore a negative-  taking it from a dark and gloomy image to a bright and uplifting image....... all from a single negative. My brain was going a million miles an hour trying to keep up, and I couldn't wait to get my hands wet in some chemicals the following day. 

John laid out many of his prints for us to inspect and discuss - having a photographer deconstruct their work is one of the best ways to learn a new technique.

John laid out many of his prints for us to inspect and discuss - having a photographer deconstruct their work is one of the best ways to learn a new technique.

Looking at some of the prints John made under our watch. Although it's a basic iPhone photo, you can still tell the difference in tonality between the two prints, which are made from the same negative.

The second day was where we got our own turn at printing on the series of enlargers available in the darkroom. Under the guidance of Dan and John, we selected a negative to print and began setting up home in the darkroom. 

The row of enlargers on the dry side of the darkroom.

The row of enlargers on the dry side of the darkroom.

If you've never been in a darkroom, I'll give you a general layout. It's broken into two sides: a wet side where the chemicals for developing the paper are kept, along with drums to wash prints, and a dry side which is where the enlargers are located. Wet should never enter dry and vice versa. Despite the name, a darkroom isn't totally dark - special red lights called "safelights" are on to provide some light from which to work, but it's faint and not good lighting for really evaluating your work, so you are regularly exiting the darkroom to view prints in the daylight. Access in and out is via a special rounded door that spins so that light from outside cannot enter the room. It's a cramped little door and looks like it should belong on the side of a space station, but it works!

The wet side of the darkroom. Each tray holds a different developing chemical. The black and silver thing at the end is the light tight door.

The wet side of the darkroom. Each tray holds a different developing chemical. The black and silver thing at the end is the light tight door.

An enlarger is essentially a projector with a timer on it. You load your negative, set the timer, and the light in the enlarger stays on for until the timer expires. Below the enlarger is where the image is projected onto an easel that holds a piece of special paper coated in an emulsion. As the enlarger projects the image onto the paper, the emulsion reacts (just link with normal film). The "disturbing" thing is that you don't get to see the photo appear on the paper immediately. In fact, when you are done on an enlarger it looks like you've just made a white piece of paper!

The enlarging station I worked from - this is obviously before the lights went out for the day. The timer is the big orange button on the back right corner.

The enlarging station I worked from - this is obviously before the lights went out for the day. The timer is the big orange button on the back right corner.

From there you cross to the wet side and submerge the paper into a developer bath for around a minute (depending on the paper). While the paper soaks, an image begins to appear on the paper, which is extremely gratifying to see! From there the paper moves to a stop bath which (as the name implies) stops the developer from reacting further. Finally it's into the fixer, which (again, clever naming) fixes the image into the paper permanently. Technically there is one more step, which is to wash the paper for hours to remove these strong chemicals as they could degrade the image over time.

One of my prints (this is "Dali's Tree") in the day and being reviewed in the daylight after developing.

One of my prints (this is "Dali's Tree") in the day and being reviewed in the daylight after developing.

This is all overly simplified of course...... how long to you set the enlarger's timer to project the image onto the paper if you can't see the image appearing on the paper in real time? How do you get it dark enough / light enough? This is where the real magic of the darkroom comes in..... before making an actual print you first make a series of test strips at different intervals to help you select the proper exposure time. You then make a straight print before starting to play with dodging and burning (selective darkening or lightening of particular areas). Because so much of this process is human driven, no two prints will ever come out exactly the same, which is the fun of it! I can press "print" on my inkjet machine and get the same photograph repeatedly, but I didn't work for it, my sweat isn't in it, and it's lacking personality. Each of the prints I made that day have their own personality and feeling. When I hang them on the wall, the extra effort will mean a lot more than so many of my other prints.

Test strips! It took many of these to really dial in the proper exposure times for the print. In the case of this test strip, each "step" is an extra three seconds exposed to the light.

Test strips! It took many of these to really dial in the proper exposure times for the print. In the case of this test strip, each "step" is an extra three seconds exposed to the light.

More test strips! The bottom one helped me determine that between 13-15 seconds was the proper exposure. The one in the white tray is a side by side of 13 and 15 seconds to compare those exposures more closely.

More test strips! The bottom one helped me determine that between 13-15 seconds was the proper exposure. The one in the white tray is a side by side of 13 and 15 seconds to compare those exposures more closely.

John was a fantastic instructor - he offered many tips and tricks for improving each print and wasn't afraid to challenging you outside your comfort zone. I particularly appreciated the challenge he offered and have already started shooting some new work with his advice in the back of my mind. 

John reviewing some of the work we did- in this case, one of my prints.

John reviewing some of the work we did- in this case, one of my prints.

John offering a quick primer in touching up a few spots on a finished print.

John offering a quick primer in touching up a few spots on a finished print.

While I'm here in the UK I will continue to visit the Photo Parlour to refine my work. When I move back stateside I'll probably build my own darkroom, but for now, there is much to learn! I cannot wait to get back into the darkroom and would strongly recommend this class to anyone interested in improving or learning to print in the darkroom.

I came away with six prints which were then left hanging to dry in my bathroom at home. Unlike film, which dries in roughly an hour, the prints take over eight hours to fully dry.

I came away with six prints which were then left hanging to dry in my bathroom at home. Unlike film, which dries in roughly an hour, the prints take over eight hours to fully dry.