May 19, 2005

The Best Photography Books Of All Time

By Scott Bourne

One of my life goals is to compile a world-class photography book library. My version of world class puts more focus on how-to books than coffee table picture books. It will be a lifetime in the making but the other day I had an idea. What if I could only have five how-to photography books? Which are the top five how-tos of all time?

To answer this question I e-mailed friends for their ideas, and I reviewed my own collection. I am happy to report that I purchased and own all five of these books. (These are not review copies.) Initially, I thought I would list them in order of importance. But I realized that all five deserve top billing. So here they are in no particular order.

"Photography, Sixth Edition" by Barbara London and John Upton 1997

I bought the Fifth Edition of this book six years ago for a photo class and loved it. A few years later I picked up the sixth edition so that I could prep for the Professional Photographers of America certification test. (I passed!)

This book is expensive, thick and anything but casual reading. But if you want to understand the science or craft of photography, the information you need is in this book. The sixth edition of this classic work (the first was published in 1976) includes a companion web site with interactive activities, web resources, and a learning archive.

One thing I like about this book is that there is at least one photograph or diagram on almost every page. "Photography" provides excellent coverage of the major specialties and techniques. This book serves as a comprehensive course that explains the science and discusses the art. If you spend five hours a week really studying this book, you will be qualified to teach photography at almost any level.

"Art of Bird Photography," by Art Morris 1998

If you are a photographer, you should buy this book, whether or not you are interested in bird photography. Arthur Morris knows more about birds than almost anyone. The ex-school teacher spends 300 days a year photographing birds or teaching others.

To say that Morris is the Ansel Adams of bird photography is an understatement. The name of his web site,, says it all. Morris turns bird photos into art. And more amazing than that, he teaches readers of his book how to do the same. This book is destined to take its place among the great classics of how-to nature photography. It is one of the most comprehensive books I have ever read on any subject. It contains more than 200 spectacular color photos and more importantly, the secrets you need to know to make your own.

The reason I think this book will be valuable to anyone, even if they are not into wildlife photography, is that Morris demystifies exposure theory. He has a detailed explanation of how to use your in-camera meter with exposure compensation so that you can consistently come up with the correct exposure quickly, easily, and accurately. If you are having trouble mastering exposure, read this book, and you will know exposure and exposure compensation as well as you know your own name. I love Morris' writing style and he held my attention on every page of the book. It is one of the few books I have ever read that I didn't want to end.

"John Shaw's Nature Photography Field Guide," by John Shaw 2000

Any discussion of nature photography invariably turns to John Shaw. The master businessman/photographer has written a book that you will want to take into the field if you are serious about nature photography.

He covers all the basics including exposure, flash, equipment and close-ups. But where Shaw really shines is his knowledge of composition. I think it is his careful use of proper composition that makes his photos so compelling. You can benefit from this by carefully studying the images in this book.

In addition to providing detailed information, you will find Shaw's writing style direct and entertaining. Shaw gives us a nuts and bolts how-to book, but he presents it with humor to make the read more interesting. At the same time, Shaw explains hard-to-grasp subjects with ease.

John Shaw is well known for speaking his mind and demonstrates that in his book. While some people might find him blunt, (I do) that is what you want in a how-to book. You want the author's opinion and Shaw will give you that hands down.

"Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs," by Ansel Adams 1989

In 1983, Ansel Adams picked 40 of his most memorable and diverse black and white photographs as examples of his work. For each one, he wrote a brief essay that described:

1) The circumstances of deciding to photograph the subject.

2) How he came to prepare for the photography.

3) His companions, special challenges that occurred along the way, how he selected the composition, tricky light and shadow conditions he encountered.

4) Technical details of how the image was captured (equipment, film speeds, settings, filters, lenses, etc.).

5) Technical details of printing the image, and the surprises he experienced.

For those who love these images, the stories that accompany them will broaden and deepen your appreciation of what Adams accomplished. You'll climb with him through snowy woodlands in freezing weather, and suddenly he's down to his last two glass plates. Which filter should he use? Which lens will best frame the subject? What is the goal of this particular photo?

If you want to understand why everyone in the photo business talks about pre-visualization, read this book. You will understand why Adams wanted to know what he was shooting before he tripped the shutter.

"Examples" belongs in every serious photography book collection for several reasons. Not the least of which is having the chance to vicariously sit down with the master to review 40 of his best images is worth its weight in gold.

"The A-Z of Creative Photography: Over 70 Techniques Explained in Full" By Lee Frost 1998

This book is about technique, seeing, and new ideas, but mostly technique. A-Z shows the reader exactly how to take each picture in the book. While I may never want to photograph some of the places Frost covers in this book, I will learn from seeing how he did it.

All of the illustrations are superb and are followed by detailed explanations of the concepts behind the photos. Frost tells you what equipment you need, gives you exposure information, and even tells you how to meter each shot.

The A to Z organization makes it easy to refer back to sections that you think warrant further study. The 70 topics covered include everything from shooting with floodlights, to macro work, and using grain as art.

Frost doesn't cover the raw basics in this book. If you are an absolute beginner, you may want to get something more elementary. If your photographic career has advanced to the point where seeing creatively is important to you, get this book.

A to Z is small enough to even serve as a field guide. I have been known to carry it with me on long trips to give my creative side a boost.


Get yourself copies of these five titles, read and re-read them, then stand back and be prepared to be amazed at the difference they make in your photography.


Scott Bourne is the author of "88 Secrets to Selling & Publishing Your Photography" and "88 Secrets to Photoshop for Photographers." Both are available from Olympic Mountain School Press, His work has also appeared in books, magazines, galleries, calendars, on greeting cards, web sites and on posters.

Scott is a professional photographer, author, teacher and pioneer in the digital imaging field. His career started in the early 70s as a stringer covering motor sports for Associated Press in Indiana. Since then, he has shot commercial, portrait, wedding, magazine and fine art assignments. His new passion is wildlife photography.

Scott regularly lectures on a variety of photo and media-related subjects. He's appeared on national television and radio programs and has written columns for several national magazines. He is the publisher of, an online magazine for serious photographers and also serves as the executive director of the Olympic Mountain School of Photography in Gig Harbor, WA.