Education: Gear for Your Brain

A great photo book (whether lighting or otherwise) is an amazing value. You get to rent someone else's brain for the price of a good dinner. And depending on who's brain you're renting and what you do with the info, the return on investment can be hundreds or even thousands of time what you invested.

The Strobist Recommended Book List is small, but well-considered. It includes just four books on lighting, a book on the interpersonal aspects of photography and a massive, magnum opus that for the right people will prove invaluable.

Lighting Books

To think of Joe McNally's The Moment it Clicks as a lighting book is to shortchange it, and you. It was McNally's first lighting book after 30 years of shooting at the highest levels, and as such he had a bit of pent-up info to get out.

His brain—quirks and all—is laid completely bare for your inspection. One caveat: it is Nikon-specific, and TTL-heavy. But even if you don't shoot Nikon (or TTL) the layers of info are just wonderful. For Nikon shooters, it's the book that in a just world would come free with one of Nikon's $500 flashes. Ahem.

A more detailed Strobist review is here. Or check out the hundreds of glowing reader reviews, here. What more could you ask for?

…except for maybe a sequel? Then you're in luck. Because that's where Hot Shoe Diaries picks up. Joe adeptly straddles the line between genius and insanity in what is essentially a continuation of TMIC. If you liked the first part, you'll really enjoy the sequel.

Again, his stuff is very Nikon-centric. And just like TMIC, for Nikon folks it's a gold mine. But Canon (and Sony, Fuji, Panasonic, yada yada) shooters have much to learn from this book. Actually, they are a great one-two punch and you should think of them as sort of an encyclopedia set.

Now, let's get a little deeper. Actually, way deeper. Greg Heisler's 50 Portraits is the Gold Standard for going deep inside the thought process of a world-class portraitist. It's built around, as you might guess, fifty different portrait sessions.

This is very much a 360-degree book, covering planning, idea generation, thought process and, yes, lighting. The full review is here. It's not a beginner's book. In fact, it is ideally suited for the person who is beginning to feel like maybe they already know everything that's important to know about lighting and photo. Because they don't, by a long shot.

This is my current favorite photo book, ever. And it's only $24 on Amazon, which is an absolute steal.

Another fantastic book on portraiture that I highly recommend is Brian Smith's Secrets of Great Portrait Photography. If you are looking for a book that has an equal weighting in both lighting and portrait photography, Secrets would be an excellent choice.

Smith is a long-time, top-level shooter and is exceedingly generous with his knowledge in this book. This is all manual lighting, and is really pretty agnostic with respect to gear brand. (Brian shoots Sony, FWIW.)

Secrets is a soup-to-nuts cookbook, and any photographer will find much valuable info therein. There is a much more thorough review—and a 90-min video presentation—in this earlier post.

On Photography

This book has nothing to do with lighting, so I have never reviewed it on Strobist. But in The Passionate Photographer, photojournalist Steve Simon has written the deepest, most honest roadmap on becoming a better and more perceptive photographer that I have ever seen.

Simon is the consummate compassionate photographer, and it affects everything that he shoots. The internal and interpersonal aspects of being a photographer is a skill that I formerly considered unlearnable, and unteachable. You either had it, or you didn't.

Simon proved me wrong with this book, and I consider it required reading for anyone who wants to let their camera be a bridge to great experiences.

A Mentorship in a Hardback

Dan Winters is a remarkable portraitist, illustrator and documentarian. He's a one-off, and marches to his own drum. I have studied him and his work and have often asked myself how, exactly, one gets to be Dan Winters? How do you forge a path of vision and uniqueness and stunning quality, as Winters so obviously has?

This book is the answer to that question. And it provides great and detailed insight into choosing and traveling a meaningful path, for any serious photographer.

There has never been another photographer like Winters. And there's never been a book like this. It's epic—and nearly seven hundred pages long. It's full of anecdotes and concepts and history and assignments and pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Interestingly, at least half of the included photos were not taken by Winters himself. They were chosen for their value in informing and inspiring him. And the effect is one of a near-perfect balance between the internal and the external.

If you are a serious photographer—pro or amateur—and have ever wondered what your path to creative genius would be, this book will be a treasure for you. You won't have the same path. But digesting Winters' journey in such glorious detail just might point you to your own path to greatness. It's a tremendous resource. But if you are looking a light read/formula du jour thing, keep moving along. This book is not for you.

This book won't be a mass seller because it's not about broad appeal for many. Rather, it's about deep appeal for some. It's $55 on Amazon. But for the right person, The Road to Seeing will be priceless. (Full review here.)

Bear in mind this is not a large press-run book. It, like most of Winters' other work, will go away one day soon. You'll still be able to buy it after that but it will cost you an arm and a leg. If this book sounds like something you might be interested in, don't miss it while it is still at list price.

So that's six books I think any photographer who reads this site should own. Well, make it five books for everyone and an extra book (Winters') for anyone who considered oneself to be a serious, committed photographer. But for those people, Winters' book should be the number one choice on the list.

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