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books on film

February 10, 2009

Over the past 3 years of learning photography, I’ve bought a lot of books on the subject. I’ve even read a few. Since I haunt bookstores anyway, the photography section has become part of the tour (along with science fiction/fantasy, literature, poetry, and computers).

The first book I bought was enormous…like, 500 pages long. It made The Chicago Manual of Style look breezy. We’re talking huge here. It had every possible technical detail you could ever possibly know or want to know about photography. Immense. Did I mention it was big?

It got me nowhere. I think a lot of people start out this way, choosing by heft rather than by usefulness.

I’ve been redefining my definition of usefulness this past year. I’ve been buying books that help with a particular problem, or are focussed on a particular subject, and taking the time to absorb that knowledge before moving on. Immersion is nice, but immersion in a hobby, interest, or activity means part research, part experience. Melding the two together pushes you forward; getting mired in details you don’t understand leaves you stranded.

I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about the books I’ve found the most useful over the last 3 years. I recommend all of these, and only a few are truly pricey. Most are economically priced, useful, and all are highly enjoyable reads.

Note: I’m not an Amazon affiliate, so you aren’t kicking anything back to me if you follow the links and are convinced to buy.

Basic 35mm Photo Guide for Beginning Photographers by Craig Alesse

This is the fifth edition of a classic guide to 35mm SLR’s, and the book is brief, presenting only the most basic and essential aspects of photography. A quick read, this book covers basic composition, camera operation and handling, the trinity of exposure (film speed, shutter speed, and depth of field). All the technical aspects are covered in plain english, with plenty of photographic reference. This is probably the best book on basic photography I’ve come across. Although it doesn’t cover digital photography at all, everything it does cover (aside from film handling) is equally applicable to the digital world. My only real complaint is that it isn’t small enough to be a pocket reference. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

The 35mm Photographer’s Handbook by Julian Calder and John Garrett

Brendan Lynch suggested this to me, and I’m glad he did (check his truly outstanding photography at Flickr…you won’t be disappointed). If the Basic 35mm Photo Guide is for the absolute beginner, this is the intermediate book to move the beginner to advanced amateur. It covers all the material the Basic 35mm Photo Guide covers and adds filters, lighting, flash, other studio equipment, plus a broad range of techniques and guides to photographing different subject matter. Again, most topics are covered with as little jargon as possible. Almost small enough to have with you in the field, with a durable weather-proofed cover.

The Nature of Photographs: A Primer by Stephen Shore

If the first two books are almost completely about the technical concerns of photography, Shore’s book is almost completely about the artistic concerns. Shore deconstructs the basic aspects of what a photograph is, and presents us with a method to ‘read’ a photograph’s meaning, as well as discuss it’s artistic merits. The book is short but the text is dense, to the point, and well-argued. This book provides you with a framework by which to judge your progress artistically instead of technically, which is, of course, the whole point of taking pictures as a hobby. This is a very pricey book, but it’s worth it.

At Work by Annie Leibovitz

I’ve never actually liked her work. This really boils down to not liking studio work or ‘posed’ photographs, which has nothing to do with commenting on her talent and technical mastery, which is extraordinary. She ranks as one of the great working photographers of the twentieth century, and has photographed some of the most important folk and engaging magazine covers of the last fifty years. This book covers her career in segments, and she talks candidly of her equipment, the approach she takes in her work, and how she sets up her shots on the road and in her studio. This is a very good diary/confession/discussion of how photography works in the real world, and one photographer’s journey through it. At the back, all the photos chosen for the book are listed, along with the camera and film used, which is an indispensible guide to how her work has evolved and the technical decisions she was making at each turn.

Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity by Michelle Bates

Michelle Bates wrote the Holga manuals distributed online by Freestyle, a legendary camera shop in San Francisco, which I would love to eventually set foot in. Forget the Lomographic Society books on toy cameras…they are self-aggrandizing marketing efforts with little technical detail and even poorer research. Bates approaches the subject with both, and the book is a stunning testament not only to what can be achieved with the simplest tools, but a cookbook of techniques and approaches to photography outside the mainstream. This is the best book to stimulate creativity and risk-taking in photography you can find. The online and store references are now slightly dated, but searching the internet for the cameras and artists she mentions quickly corrects that.

The Thames & Hudson Photofile series

The Photofile series is a growing library of books that cover a single photographer or photographic movement. They are small, inexpensive, and well-researched, providing a mini-biography and introductory essay on the photographer, a bibliography, and very good reproductions of their work. This is one of the best ways to get acquainted with a large volume of important photographers with almost no barrier to entry. The series is expanding with new titles being added every year. Currently, the series has focussed almost exclusively on photo-journalists and fashion/art photographers, but the 2009 books are broadening this to include nature and portraitists as well. Individual photographers covered include Don McCullin, Edward Steichen, Walker Evans, Man Ray, and Sebastião Salgado.

Hot Shots: Tips and Tricks for Taking Better Pictures by Kevin Meredith

At first glance, this appears to be another Lomographic Society cash grab. It isn’t. Kevin is an exceptional photographer, and this book is a jargon-free cookbook to better composition and technical mastery. Kevin shoots with a large variety of cameras, including SLR’s, toy cams, digital, and advanced point-and-shoots, and he has mastered all of them. This is a great book for those wishing to take better pictures without getting mired in endless debates over technical details and camera features. I read it in a day, but am still absorbing the amount of information this slim book has to offer. Highly recommended.

And the list goes on…

There are hundreds, probably thousands of books on photography. And, even after 3 years, I still feel like I’m at the beginning. I haven’t even touched on printing, post-production, scanning, and other advanced topics. This list will be different a year from now. Your list will be much different from mine. So it goes.

So far, though, these have been the books that helped the most. I hope you’ve had similar luck with your photography books.

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