6 books to improve your photography

All photos: Author

Matador staff writer Jeff Bartlett shares 6 photography books that help him break out of any creative rut.
1. The Hot Shoe Diaries, by Joe McNally

Joe McNally has been a National Geographic contributor since I was born. He’s also been a staff photographer for Life Magazine and has shot cover stories for TIME, Newsweek, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and Sports Illustrated, among others. His work is easily identified because McNally is the master of creating light with hot shoe flashes. According to his blog, he often has more than 10 Nikon SB-900 flashes in his camera bag along with enough light modifiers — colored gels, soft boxes, Lastolite trigrip panels, umbrellas, and grids — to create quality light in any situation.

In The Hot Shoe Diaries, he shares the recipes he uses to create shots in a cookbook-type format. Instead of being broken into chapters, the book is divided into three sections: “One Light,” “Two or More,” and “Lotsa Lights.” Because I only carry a single Speedlight in my kit, I spend my time in that first section.

The recipe for the image above came straight out of the book. I asked singer/songwriter Charlene Birkbeck to sit on the counter of a closed fish and chips takeout joint in Victoria, British Columbia. I slapped an orange CTO gel onto my flash and zoomed it to 105mm to make sure the light had lots of punch like a good sunset should. The flash was on a light stand behind and to my right. I racked my lens out to 20mm and made the shot.

2. Visual Poetry, by Chris Orwig

Chris Orwig is a professional photographer and teacher at the Brooks Institute for Photography in Santa Barbara, California. His first book, Visual Poetry, mimics his teaching style, in which he encourages students “to reduce and simplify, participate rather than critique, and capture a story.”

He also pushes the two most overused pieces of photography advice — think globally and photograph locally, shoot what you love — in a way that makes both infectious rather than cliché. While I do not care for the artistic rhetoric he writes with, I return to the book because each chapter ends with an assignment that challenges me to grab my camera and make new images.

In the “Adventure and the Great Outdoors” chapter, Orwig suggests going to a new location to shoot sunrise. Instead of capturing the saturated sky colors against a silhouetted foreground, he says to turn around and shoot in the opposite direction. The image above was my result.

3. eyePhone, by Al Smith

Al Smith claims he is more an entrepreneur than a photographer. I suppose it’s true, as he is the only author on this list who founded an aerospace engineering firm and software company.

At the same time, he has built a solid reputation as a photographer in Victoria, British Columbia, with both editorial and commercial clients. He isn’t shy about what camera he uses either, stating that he uses a Nikon d3s for professional work, a Fuji x100 for everyday life, and an iPhone more than anything else.

He managed to turn that third obsession into an eBook on Craft & Vision alongside books by David duChemin, Darwin Wiggett, and Andrew S Gibson. eyePhone might be a play on the Apple device, but Smith’s tips are broad enough to apply to any smartphone.

What I enjoy most about eyePhone is how it encourages, rather than questions, instagram-style photography and its place in today’s online community.

4. The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 Book For Digital Photographers, by Scott Kelby

One of my instructors in college said that whenever he upgraded his edition of Lightroom or Photoshop, he always bought the corresponding Scott Kelby book. That message stuck in my mind and I’ve made it my habit, too. Nobody teaches the fundamentals of editing photographs in the same manner.

Scott Kelby is the leading voice behind Kelbytraining.com, Photoshop User Magazine, and Kelbytv.com. He’s also a killer photographer who manages to photograph NFL games regularly and supply all the images used in his own books. And there are a lot of books — whenever Adobe builds a new photography program, Kelby writes the how-to on it.

I favor Lightroom 4 simply because it’s the fastest program to manage, edit, and export my photography. Whenever I notice my editing is getting lazy — when I’m not trying new techniques, relying on presets, or batch processing images — I return to The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 Book for Digital Photographers to learn or refresh my workflow. The results are visible in every image I publish.

5. Within the Frame, by David duChemin

David duChemin claims he is a world and humanitarian photographer, yet he has recently turned more towards adventure and landscapes. No matter what he shoots, it draws an audience. All four of his books are found on my bookshelf but it’s his first title, Within the Frame, with worn pages. I have found no book does a better job of blurring the line between the creative and technical side of photography.

It could easily replace the textbooks I used while studying photography in college. It touches on every subject — from selecting different lenses, to composition and personal vision.

As a photographer, I tend to live in the technical side of the craft, and I find duChemin’s writing is a direct voice telling me to take more risks, break more rules, and shoot by feel rather than technique. The results are images that are less technically perfect but often more emotive.

6. Simply Beautiful Photographs, by National Geographic

While this list mostly features tutorials that have helped improve my photography, I sometimes find it more beneficial to simply look at great photos. And Simply Beautiful Photographs from National Geographic is my go-to source because it features the best images from what I consider the best photographic magazine on the planet.

Over 100 photographers, including William Alberta Allard, Steven Alvarez, Bruce Dale, Joel Sartore, Flip Nicklin, and Annie Griffiths, appear in the massive 500-page coffee table book. I’ve flipped through countless times, but every time I crack the cover a new image captures my imagination.

Related Articles

Tips from the pros: Best apps for your Instagram travel photos

How to improve your iPhone photography

How to safely store your photography 12

  • Otto von Münchow

    This is an excellent collection of books to get inspire by. I have read all of them except eyePhone, by Al Smith, so I might just get that one, too. Thanks for the tips.