The best books on photography will help you improve your skills, give you a fresh perspective on how to approach a shoot, and provide a burst of inspiration and ideas for new projects.
It doesn't matter whether you're an experienced pro or a total novice: there are always new things you can learn about taking pictures. So in this post, we've gathered together our favorite photography books, for every skill level.
From the best books on photography for beginners right through to advanced-level skills guides – plus beautiful coffee table photography books, insightful guides to the business of photography and more – these are the best photography books money can buy. If you're on the hunt for a shiny new camera to put these skills into practice with, don't miss our round-up of the best digital cameras in 2021 money can buy.
Best photography books for beginners
Getting to grips with the basics of photography has never been easier – or more fun – than with Read This if You Want to Take Good Photographs. An easy-to-follow, accessible guide, this book is perfect for anyone knew to using DSLRs, compact system and bridge camera. The author – teacher, writer and photographer Henry Carroll – has dialled down the technical jargon and instead opted for handbook that champions the art of photography via iconic images, playful dialogue and expert tips.
Inspired by the greats, Carroll draws on acclaimed photographers such as Sebastião Salgado, Nadav Kander and Daido Moriyama to help illustrate technique and encourage readers to get involved.
• 12 essential photography tips for beginners
If you're a photography novice looking for a relatively light and friendly read, this guide from Jim Miotke, the brains behind online photography school BetterPhoto.com, should be just up your street.
Explaining everything an absolute beginner needs to get started taking great photos, it's packed with tips and advice, and explanations are friendly sounding and written in plain English.
Once you've got to grips with the basics, Miotke walks you through taking 20 common categories of photos, including family and pet portraits, flowers, sunsets, candids, close-ups and monochrome shots.
Suitable for children and adults, this is one of the best photography books to make learning photography fun and rewarding, and ultimately whether it succeeds will be down to you.
When it comes to learning photography, reading from books and watching videos are two approaches that each have strengths and weaknesses. So why not combine the two for the best of both worlds?
That's exactly what this package from Tony Northrup, the founder of photo.net, offers. As well as this 233-page book, you get over three hours of supplementary online training videos, and free help from the author and other readers via an online readers group.
This is very much a practical, hands-on course that requires you to grab your camera and get shooting right away. There are exercises at the end of every chapter to give you the real world experience you need, and the emphasis is very much on learning by doing.
Improving your photography
Mark Wilkinson is an enthusiast photographer, and Imogen – the model of the titular “one face” – an acquaintance. Their chance encounter spawned not only Europe’s most popular photography YouTube channel Weekly Imogen, but now this book.
Its simple premise is to offering easy-to-follow examples you can use to getting as many different looks as possible with the same model. In so doing it also covers many basics of photographing all people (and there is a chapter with models other than Imogen). Since so many of us start out with family members or cooperative friends serving in that role, this light-hearted but informative guide is a good way to build your confidence shooting people.
This book takes an approach to improving your photography that makes perfect sense to us. Here's how author Scott Kelby, co-host of Photoshop User TV, explains it...
“If you and I were out on a shoot, and you asked me, 'Hey, how do I get this flower to be in focus, with the background out of focus?,' I wouldn't stand there and give you a photography lecture," he says. "In real life, I’d just say, 'Put on your zoom lens, set your f-stop to f/2.8, focus on the flower, and fire away.'"
In exactly that spirit, this book offers more than 200 photographic tricks of the trade, to help you get looking, sharper, more colorful, more professional-looking photos, explained in the same way you would in a normal conversation. So you learn how using a different setting, tool or trick in a particular situation can truly transform the quality of your work, and make it look more like the work of a pro than an amateur.
Kelby really does write like you're standing next to you, and while that might sometimes be off-putting (depending on whether you 'get' his sense of humour), there's no denying that these tricks really work, whether you're a beginner or an experienced photographer.
Henry Carroll’s series of books on photography are an example of exceptional publishing – and this one dedicated to portraiture is no exception. They show what a little academic knowledge can do when boiled down by great editors, skilled illustrators and an investment in the images – many publishers skimp on using photographs from famous photographers for books of this price because of the cost of licensing, but not LK.
They’re also beautifully bound, with matt paper, some shiny (foil) and debossed lettering. That tactile experience and flickability is why, ultimately, they are superb gifts. They are inspiring to browse through, and contain some useful nuggets of information which any creative person of your acquaintance should enjoy. The recipient, in other words, will not be disappointed. Experienced photographers, however, will find every other book on this list more useful.
In the modern social media age, having a decent looking head-and-shoulders portrait is something that concerns everyone, not just actors and models. So if you want to know how to take professional looking headshots, this book by professional portraitist Peter Hurley is just what you need.
You'll learn the same techniques the author had used to take amazing headshots of Fortune 500 CEOs, actors and public figures, from lighting your subjects correctly to putting them in flattering positions.
Hurley also shares his trade secrets for getting genuine smiles and authentic expressions rather than people's standard 'photo face' that always makes a headshot look dull and lifeless.
Note that this is not so much a step-by-step training manual or reference guide as an insight into how one man approaches his art. But when it's someone at the top of his game like this, there's a huge amount any photographer can learn here.
• See also The best books on portrait photography
First published in 1994, this book is considered a classic of photography instruction. It was fully updated in 2010 to incorporate digital photography. But actually, it's not so much a technical guide as a deep dive into the philosophical and creative side to photography.
The author's main aim is to dissuade photographers from the approach of taking hundreds of shots in the hope of getting one good image, and instead understand the processes by which you can shoot fewer, but better pictures overall.
In other words, if you're at the stage of your photography journey where you understand all the tools and techniques, but you're still taking unimpressive pictures, this is the book for you.
There's something magical about the idea of a photo studio, a place where you can ensure the right lighting, space and ambience to capture the perfect shot.
But in the real world, photography takes place in much more challenging locations, and that's where this book comes in.
Whether you're shooting a corporate portrait of a CEO, a test shoot with a model, or a promo shoot with a band, professional portraitist Nick Fancher explains how to get great looking shots in less than ideal scenarios.
He takes you behind the scenes of his own photo shoots and explains how getting creative, from changing the lighting to post-processing, allows you to develop your own vision and achieve professional looking shots in the potentially worst places.
If you do a lot of portrait photography and want some tips on thinking outside the box, you won't find better.
There's no point in understanding the technical side of photography if you don't understand composition. This classic book, updated to celebrate its 10th anniversary, explains the principles of good composition, and how to put them into practice.
It's divided up into bite-size chapters to make everything easy to follow. And usefully the images (which are mainly from the author's travel photography) are shown with multiple crops, thus demonstrating how one particular composition of a picture works better than another.
Following the author's reasoned and well-explained advice will help you develop your compositions and take better pictures as a result. In short, if you struggle with composition as a photographer, then you need this book.
Great photography lies not so much in technical expertise but in learning to see things in a different way to the norm. The starting point for this book is that you don't have to travel to far-flung locations to take arresting pictures; great images are possible any where. You just have to scratch the surface and find them.
Authors Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring encourage you to slow down, open your eyes and respond to what you see through advice, discussions and exercises. Throughout this book, you'll learn to use composition, available light, color, and different point of views to raise the quality and interest level of your shots.
Aimed at amateur photographers who have technical knowledge but are lacking purpose and vision, this insightful read will help you rediscover your photographic soul and give you new ideas and enthusiasm.
Develop your technical skills
If portrait photography is your area of expertise, or you want it to be, Mastering Portraits from Sarah Plater and multi-award winning portrait photographer Paul Wilkinson is one of the best photography books on the subject. The authoritative guide explains the essential techniques of portrait photography in a clear and concise way, with minimal jargon to make it as accessible as possible.
Inside you'll find advice on choosing right camera and equipment for you, right through to understanding exposure, aperture, metering, shutter speed, depth of field and white balance settings. No matter what your subject, the technical know-how, tips and hints in this book will help you get the very best portrait possible.
Get to grips with landscape photography with one of the best photography books around. A beautifully illustrated workshop-in-a-book, this photography handbook acts as a training session in the art of landscape photography, mixing detailed written explanations with easy-to-follow creative assignments to help you hone your skills. And you’re in safe hands with authors Ross Hoddinott and Mark Bauer – the duo are leading landscape photographers in the UK, who offer a range of workshops in South-West England.
No matter what you’re skill level, there’s something here for everyone, starting with the basics of equipment and exposure right through to more advanced photography techniques, post-processing and printing.
Updated for 2016, this popular book explains the fundamentals of exposure as it relates to light, aperture and shutter speed, in order to help you taking successful photographs in almost any situation.
Author Bryan Peterson, founder of www.ppsop.com, demonstrates how to get sharpness and contrast in images, freeze action, take meter readings and more, as well as explaining everything you need to know about filters, flash and light.
Peterson has a clear enthusiasm for his subject, and whether you're an experienced beginner or an intermediate photographer looking for a refresher, you'll get a deeper understanding of exposure from this guide that can't help but improve the quality of your images.
Many of the most basic photography terms can be off-putting to the beginner, and even experienced photographers don't always understand them properly. So this book explains the fundamentals in a quick, easy and very accessible manner, allowing you to have more control over quality of your images.
By the end you'll fully understand exposure and its components, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – also known as the Exposure Triangle – and how they work together. Every photographic term is clearly defined and thoroughly explained, as well as being highlighted by using bold caps, so that you can easily find them again to refresh your memory.
With handy charts and relevant photos included to aid understanding, this book is tightly focused on helping you explain what can be complex and confusing concepts, and so it's the ideal purchase for anyone who's struggling with them.
You don't always have the perfect lighting for the image you want to capture, and this can be particularly problematic for beginner and amateur photographers. In this provocatively titled book, pro photographers Lindsay Adler and Erik Valind discuss 10 challenging lighting situations and provide practical solutions for each.
Each challenge and solution and is explained clearly and logically, and you'll come away with an array of tools at your disposal next time you attempt to take a decent photograph in poor lighting conditions.
Note though that although the title doesn't suggest this, all the examples given involve photographing people (at weddings, etc) so there's nothing here on landscape or wildlife photography, for example.
Written by Instagram sensation Beata Lubas, who has 163K followers and rising, this hardback is a must-read for food bloggers or anyone looking to diversify into food photography. It covers both the art and science of food styling and camera skills, not to mention the business side, too.
You'll learn how to tell food stories using light, colour and shape to evoke atmosphere, and discover methods for shaping natural light to produce magical images in any environment. This book is beautifully designed, with gorgeous photos and a layout that gives everything room to breathe.
Best books on photography business skills
Instagram looks like it's here to stay. And love it or hate it, it can work wonders for building a business when used in the right way. Sara Tasker is a woman who has done just that, and luckily for us, she's decided to generously note her recipe for success in this rather wonderful book, Hashtag Authentic.
Having given up her job as a speech therapist when she was pregnant, activating her Instagram account and three months later having over 35,000 followers, we don't know about you, but we were very interested to hear what she had to say. If you need help building an social following, want to turn your account into profitable creative outlet, or just need a few pointers on how to present your imagery online, this is a resource you'll visit time and time again.
It’s all in the title – author Finn Beales walks the reader through five steps towards creating unforgettable photos (‘Pitch’, ‘Prep’, ‘Shoot’, ‘Edit’ and ‘Deliver’).
Beales’ journey to amassing 600,000 followers on Instagram started after he gave up his career as a designer to shoot better images than what he was getting from commissioning other photographers.
This in itself is something of a tell, because The Photography Storytelling Workshop is a well conceived and structured book, with an easy-to-navigate design and a good balance between text and images.
What it exhorts the reader to go out and do feels achievable, but it’s only the beginning – as the title of the final heading in the book puts it, ‘There Is No Finish Line’. There’s always more to learn, whatever your level of experience. A wise buy for any photographer seeking to hone their craft to tell better stories.
Best Business Practices for Photographers delivers exactly what it promises in the title. This updated and expanded third edition of a 1980s classic is a comprehensive guide to succeeding in your business as a photographer, including negotiating contracts and licenses, making a profit, hiring staff, making the career change from staff to freelancer, and so on.
Once more, quite a bit of this is specifically American, so non-US residents will want to skip the chapter on How to Survive an IRS audit, for example. Also note that it's largely focused on commercial photographers, which is where the author's speciality lies. But with that said, there's still plenty of useful information to be had for photographers of all types, wherever you are in the world.
With over 3 million Instagram followers, Aimee Song has mastered the art of capturing an image that's going to appeal to a wide audience and draw them in. Song reveals her secrets behind creating an engaging feed and drawing thousands of followers to help gain you opportunities and connections. While this might be more helpful to fashion, lifestyle and portrait photographers, it's still an engaging read for anyone who wants to break into the Instagram game.
Best books on photography for inspiration
If you want to learn from the best, then check out this collection of work by Rankin, one of the most celebrated portrait photographers of modern times. This book brings together almost 200 of his most iconic music portraits, including Tom Jones, Bryan Ferry, Elton John, Blondie and Marianne Faithfull, as well as images of ‘Cool Britannia’ in the late 1990s.
As well as these inspiration visuals, Rankin provides commentary to set them in context. He outlines his process and explaining how he empowers his subjects, so they give him part of themselves in return.
Released in 2020, this no-holds-barred memoir by the world's most famous living photographer was well worth the wait. It's riveting from start to finish, packed as it is with evocative anecdotes and vignettes, featuring veritable Who’s Who of the movers and shakers of late 20th century culture. Co-author James Fox sits in on some conversations between Bailey and his collaborators to provide added insight and analysis of this great man and his work.
With a career spanning five decades, Annie Leibovitz is one of the world's best known portrait photographers and has shot some of the last half-century's most famous people. If, like many, you've ever fancied watching her in action, this new edition of the bestselling book Annie Leibovitz At Work is the closest you'll come to the real thing.
First released in 2008 and recently out of print, At Work is aimed mainly at young photographers and those interested in how an image comes to be. Subjects covered include photojournalism, studio work, working with writers, and making the transition from film to digital cameras. If you're a fan of Leibovitz, it doesn't get much better than this.
See also: Best books on portrait photography
One of the world's most respected contemporary documentary photographers, Sebastião Salgado is renowned for his spellbinding black and white imagery of the world as we don't know it. For his latest book Genesis, Salgado documents some of the very few areas of Earth that remain relatively untouched by man with a epic collection of imagery.
There are several hundred images to peruse, which take you on a journey through polar regions, the African savannah and rainforests of Amazonia. "In Genesis, my camera allowed nature to speak to me. And it was my privilege to listen" – Sebastião Salgado.
With over 500 pages and hardcover to boot, you're not going to want to carry this book around. But as a firm fixture on your coffee table, this rare look into Earth's somewhat unseen environments is a gift that keeps on giving.
Sixteen leading practitioners of street photography are chosen to showcase their wares in this cleverly curated collection of images. Printed on quality paper, the reproduction of the photographs, a mixture of color and black and white, is of a high standard.
The clue to the organisation of the book lies in the title. Individual photographers are each assigned to a ‘Master of…’ chapter – for example, Flash (The Bragdon Brothers), Urban landscape (Sally Davies), Noir (Giacomo Brunelli) and Hidden stories (Melissa Breyer) – and contribute six images.
Interviews with the photographers within each chapter allow the readers to get an insight into their artistic missions and working methods, while image thumbnails at the close of each chapter contain at-a-glance technical information.
With these themed chapters permitting a clear focus on a particular area – especially one you may not have considered before – this cleverly curated book is an ideal introduction to the possibilities of street photography.
Successful street photographers recognise and capture the beauty of everyday life. Street Photography Now showcases the work of 46 photographers, all recognised for their inspirational depictions of the day-to-day.
Included among them are Magnum Photo members Bruce Gilden, best known for his candid close-ups of people on the streets of NYC, and Alex Web, whose colourful and complex images have made their way in to the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic. There's also a collection of work from some emerging street photographers depicting life in New York, Tokyo and Delhi.
With over 300 images to look through and multiple conversations between the photographers on the genre, you sure to find some street art inspiration here.
In the summer of 2010, Brandon Stanton left his job in finance to do "something artistic" but wasn't sure what it should be. He began crisscrossing New York City, talking to passers-by and asking to photograph them. This ultimately became the source material for Humans of New York, a blog that now attracts more than a million followers.
With 400 color photos, including exclusive portraits and all-new stories, this collection of Stanton's images is a stunning achievement. Capturing a breathtaking sweep of humanity, these images are a heartfelt and moving tribute to the spirit of a city.
However, do note that unlike with the blog, this book is all about the images. The captions that accompany them are a few words at most, rather than the detailed stories the blog followers will be used to.
Six continents, 40 countries and some of the most remote corners of Planet Earth feature in this collection of night-sky images – all of which makes The World at Night a great introduction to astrophotography.
Author Babak Tafreshi has drawn together the work of a team of photographers from 20 countries for this partnership with international bodies The World at Night (which Tafreshi founded) and Astronomy Without Borders.
Organized into six chapters covering themes including UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Night, celestial events, dark sky refuges and the threat posed by grey-light polluted urban skies, the book features no end of astonishing images, many previously unseen.
Fascinating for anyone faintly interested in photographing the night sky (and there’s a ‘how to’ section on p235), and inspirational for those already doing it, The World at Night really is a journey to some of the most far-flung places on the earth.
But it also strikes a note of caution: “By losing the night sky [to light pollution] we risk the loss of a deep-rooted connection to our origins.”
Sometimes you just need to flick through the work of an undisputed master of the genre, and it’s impossible to argue with Steve McCurry’s credentials on that score. The Afghan Girl, the cover photo, is the leading contender for most famous photograph of all time, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to see more of the Kodachrome master. This is, too, very accessibly priced for a collection of 255 books because it’s presented in a compact hardback format which makes it a nice gift (or self-gift) for photo lovers. It’d be nice to have a little more detail in the captions, and it is a monograph so variety is limited, but this is far from Phaidon’s most expensive book – really you can have no complaints.
Several photographers told me I had to put a Steve McCurry book in this list, and for me this is the obvious pick – this are bigger books out there, but at 11 inches (27cm) on the long side this is big enough to enjoy Magnum-photographer McCurry’s amazing assignments for National Geographic back in the day, while being small enough to make it readable.
That’s a good thing too – this book doesn’t just caption photos with location and year as other McCurry collections do, but tell the story, partly in his own words, of being on those assignments over 30 years. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to read too much with out self-assigning your self, grabbing your camera, and setting off right away.
Photographer Gregory Heisler is best known for his work for Time magazine, including a number of Man, Person, and People of the Year covers. This first-ever collection of his work includes 50 evocative portraits of celebrities, athletes and world leaders, along with fascinating tales of how the images were made.
From his controversial portrait of President George H.W. Bush to his Time magazine cover of Rudolph Giuliani, and including shots of Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Hillary Clinton, Michael Phelps, Muhammad Ali, and many more, Heisler reveals the creative and technical processes behind the creation of each frame.
With a foreword by New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, this is both a gorgeous collection of world-class portraiture and a revealing insight into the work of a master photographer.
Over several decades, National Geographic has made a name for itself bringing the epic, the eye-catching and the unusual into people's home. And this large-format photography book is brings together some of the world's strangest and more wonderful sights. The desert flower that only blooms once a year; a priceless Egyptian artefact buried for years in King Tut's tomb; 30,000-year-old cave art; volcanic lightning; giant crystals that weigh more than 50 tons... all life is here, and all brilliantly captured by world-class photographers.
If your goal is understanding Henry Cartier-Bresson but your budget doesn't stretch to a big volume like the Decisive Moment, above, then this is a great alternative. Published a few years after his death in 2004, the book features images from Cartier-Bresson’s entire working life, and gives a thorough overview of his own story, from experiences in WW2, the development of his own style, and, of course, the founding of Magnum (which goes such a long way to maintain his legend today). All this in a book the size of paperback which can be had for less than the latest dystopian novel (or seasonal take-away coffee).
Ansel Easton Adams (1902-1984) was a landscape photographer whose black-and-white pictures of the American wilderness have been widely reproduced and become iconic and historic images. He worked in more than 40 national parks over five decades, and some of his most stunning work features in this volume, including 50 never-before-published images. There's also an essay by critic and historian Richard B. Woodward about Adams' role in the conservation movement.
A collaboration between an esteemed curator and a distinguished photographer, this book brings together the work of some of street photography's greatest names, including Arget, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Walker Evans, Frank and Winogrand, along with some impressive work by complete unknowns. Colin Westerbeck's delightfully detailed text explains the story behind each image, and the photographers who took them. An excellent overview of street photography from the earliest Victorian experiments to the end of the 20th century.
Best photography books for students
This seminal photography text is in its 10th edition, which should go some way to show what a popular resource it's been over the past 50 years or so. This book is written by Michael Langford (former Photography Course Director at the Royal College of Art, London), Anna Fox (Professor of Photography at University for the Arts, Farnham) and Richard Sawdon Smith (Professor of Photography and Dean of Media at Norwich University of the Arts).
While previous editions focused heavily on film photography, the 10th edition has been revamped, reorganized and modernized to include the most up-to-date information for photographers. However, the heart of the text still retains the same comprehensive mix of scholarly and practical information.
This groundbreaking critique of photography should be required reading for every photography student. In six essays that were originally published serially in the New York Review of Books, 'On Photography' delves into the meaning and purpose of a photograph. While it might be light on technique, it's heavy on philosophy and passion. Read this to rediscover your love for the art of photography.
This could well become a classic of photography writing, says its publisher.
The author, a leading writer and curator, has gathered a collection of photographs from across various genres to produce a personal and playful take on the history of the medium, and what images mean.
Images from many greats of photography appear in this book, on the right-hand page of each spread, with commentary and analysis from the author opposite.
This intriguing selection of images with erudite commentary will appeal to any photography lover. Whether you choose to dip in and out, or read it for prolonged spells, the sequencing of this book will always have you coming back for more.
Imagine having some of the most significant insights and memorable aphorisms about photography in your camera bag.
Dream no longer… Photography Rules is a compendium of wisdom gleaned from photographers and industry professionals including Robert Capa, Diane Arbus, Martin Parr and many more.
Helpfully arranged in three discrete sections, ‘Making Photographs’, ‘Being a Photographer’ and ‘Professional Practice’, Photography Rules doesn’t over-egg its messages; each image featured is accompanied by text that’s as digestible as it is concise – making this book a handy reference guide for keeping on or around you when you’re in the field.
Read more: The best books on street photography
Wondering how aerial photography happened before drones? In this enlightening book, Eamonn McCabe and Gemma Padley pull together some fascinating images from the 1850s up to the modern day. They trace the evolution of the discipline masterfully, with balloons and airships giving way to airplanes, helicoptersand satellites. And along with the work of pioneers like Edward Burtynsky, Sebastiao Salgado and Yann Arthus-Bertrandt there are some incredible images, including San Francisco after the earthquake in 1906.
He's best known as the actor behind Hercule Poirot on British television. But leading character actor David Suchet is also one of those celebrities who take pictures. And that gives this unusual autobiography a distinctive hook.
He traces this lifelong passion back to being inspired as a young child by his press photographer grandfather Jimmy Jarché, and it resulted in more than 8,000 images to choose from when putting this book together. This is neither, then, your usual celeb memoir nor photography monograph, but it brilliantly combines both approaches, and is hugely entertaining and inspirational.
• The best books on street photography