Must Photography Books For The Shelf

I’m not the best reader in the world, I find it difficult to finish books, I often get confused and feel I have to skip things all the time which doesn’t help with the confusion. So as you can imagine when I have to read ‘theory’ for university, I’m terribly impatient with a lot of it but I push through and get on with it. The kind of photography books I’m going to talk about here are these beautiful, wonderful books that have been the most accessible and full of excellent wisdom, therefore I have taken away a great deal from these books with less of the hitting my head against a wall. I’m a great fan of simple books which give you the depth of knowledge that  you desire whilst also giving the information that no one thought to give you to help you understand the book and topic as a whole. So all in all when one gets a bit stuck for inspiration or ideas; or in my case when I’ve read too many articles on photography where the writer only considers ‘straight photography’ to be true to the medium, these are the books that can save you.

Ways of Seeing – John Berger

This small book was given to me as a present a year or two before I started art school and I read it the summer before I went, the way that little  book (and the series – fantastic watch) opened up my mind to images, photography and art in general was frightening. I began looking at things in a completely different way. That doesn’t mean to say that I agree with everything that John Berger was saying in the book, it was just how he went through “key topics” (which despite being a few decades old, are extremely relevant) explaining clearly and simply the psychology behind what we are looking at and how others see it. My young fresh-out-of-secondary-school mind began to understand art as I see it today, and it has made a huge impression on me. I know this book is one that is shoved down people’s throats, which is a sad thing as it is completely genius.


  • Extremely Accessible
  • Short
  • Comes with a fantastic TV series
  • Focuses on simple mechanics of seeing, not just art and photography

The Photograph as Contemporary Art – Charlotte Cotton

This book is much longer and slightly less accessible in comparison to Ways of Seeing but none the less it is exceptional. I find with a lot of photography theory books that categorise images, they go for very obvious groups such as landscape, portrait, still life etc, which is unfortunate as photography has grown out of these groups. I would even go on to say that photography has grown out of them and is searching for these new groups. This is where this book excels, it has chapters such as, If this is Art, Once upon a time, Deadpan, Revived and Remade, Physical and Material etc, which out of context don’t make much sense at all but once you see who Charlotte has put in these groups, you start to understand a different side to photography. I felt deep down that I knew most of those groupings in my heart but I just hadn’t realised how important they were. This book is also fantastic as a way of finding a new photographer to research and look at on particular topics as it is extremely varied (within an art context).


  • Accessible
  • Average Length
  • Filled to the brim with a wide range of fantastic photographers
  • Unusual chapter titles, challenging standard photography groups

Criticizing Photographs, An Introduction to Understanding Images – Terry Barrett

Probably one of the most difficult photography books that I’m going to list here, this is extremely theory based but it bounces back from that for me and I’ll tell you why. It is like a text book to me, a brilliant text book for when I want to write my essays or when I want to write an artists’ statement. It goes through the basics at the beginning, moving into the ethics of photography and then into practical advice for you as a photographer. Most topics will have a clearly marked conclusion which helps bunch it all together, plus there are bullet-point summaries at the end of most chapters. Within the text itself it pads out the heavy theory with accessible examples of well known photographers and it is clear how they relate to the theory. I’ve always believed that to teach theory properly, you just need simple and accessible examples woven in, but that’s just me. The book gives you a wealth of questions at a lot of points which you naturally ask yourself and it just gets the mind working and thinking about what you are truly trying to achieve.


  • Fairly heavy theory but examples and presentation is accessible (You’ll need a little bit of basic knowledge in photographic history)
  • Rather long for my taste but full of exceptional advice on photography
  • Lots of key photographers mentioned so you’ll learn a lot about them at the same time
  • Fantastic for University crits/essays and also just plain talking about your work

Art Photography Now – Susan Bright

This is what I like to call my favourite “Picture book”, it’s less about the theory and text but that doesn’t make the knowledge and information you get from it any lesser. It’s a beautiful book and it’s a book like The Photograph as Contemporary Art where it’ll be the first thing I pick up when I want to find a new photographer as it is also brimming with fantastic talent. It’s a fairly large book (in physical size) but the length is about average, this means that it’s not a book designed to pop in your bag and read on the train (believe me I’ve tried). What I find unfortunate about it is unlike The Photograph as Contemporary Art it does not break the standard groups of photography and so it’s titles are Portraits, Landscapes etc. Where it makes up for that is in the way the photographers placed in the groups sometimes seem an unusual choice. The way I see it is Susan was trying to get us to see how badly our contemporary art photography fits into these groups which have been around ever since photography began. Each photographer has two double page spreads with large images (hence it being my favourite picture book), with a fair amount of information about them to get you started and interested. This book helps me remember why I love photography so much.


  • Extremely Accessible
  • Full of beautiful Images, with excellent text
  • Uses standard photography groups as chapters but the photographers chosen don’t always fit making you think again about what these groups mean
  • Just a lovely read with a wealth of fantastic photographers to look and read about

So all in all, these are my book recommendations for anyone interested in photography, especially when starting a degree or when one wants to get more out of taking photographs. There’s more to photography than knowing how to use a flash gun or getting the right composition, and these books are ones that at least scratch the surface of that thirst for photographic knowledge.

Tell me if you like them/hate them or if you just generally read them! Any other suggestions for similar books would be fantastic also!


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