How do you really get better at photography? Have you found that buying new gear and spending hours reading up on camera specs have you no closer to mastering your craft? You may have, because those methods aren't going to get you there. Spending time out in the field actually making images will surely do it, but what else can you do? The best advice that has helped me improve my images is this: study photographs. Browsing websites and downloading eBooks is absolutely fine, but a well-designed, printed book is my preference - something I can hold in my hand and really study within the context of a selection of carefully curated images (often with a nice whiskey in the other hand). I study every element of the images that most connect with me, the compositions, light, perspective, mood, use of lines, and contrasts and I try to incorporate anything I can gather (taking notes helps) into my own work. It does help, tremendously. Spend hours studying photographs by your favorite image-makers instead of those sharpness charts and new camera specs. Below is a list of books from a few of my favorite photographers. Their work inspires me, and I apply the techniques I learn from them in the field.
ARCTIQUE - Vincent Munier
Vincent Munier is a French photographer, Nikon Ambassador, and was BBC Photographer of the Year in 2000, 2001, and 2002. He travels to some of the most remote and extreme locations on earth in search of elusive, rarely seen wildlife. His images are pure poetry. Often, instead of showing us illustrative, straight-forward shots of wildlife, Munier employs a more abstract and minimalistic approach, showing intimate glimpses of his subjects. In my humble opinion, Vincent Munier is one of the best of the best at his craft. His beautifully designed book, ARCTIQUE, explores the desolate white arctic landscape and the hardy creatures that call it home.
Chased by the Light - Jim Brandenburg
Jim Brandenburg is one of my all-time favorites. In fact, it was seeing his work in National Geographic Magazine that first inspired me to pick up a camera. He's done it all in 30 years with Nat Geo, and even now at age 70, he's still making waves and creating meaningful work. CHASED BY THE LIGHT was a personal project by which Brandenburg took only one photograph each day for the 90 days of Autumn in the Minnesota Northwoods surrounding his home. These were the film days, and he didn't know exactly what he was getting until the film came back from the lab. He tucked the project away for two years until the Geographic contacted him for an assignment. Brandenburg, instead, gave them Chased by the Light, which the Geographic published (I have that 1997 issue by my desk). The story contained the highest number of images ever published in a single story in the magazine's history using the least amount of film.
Looking for the Summer - Jim Brandenburg
LOOKING FOR THE SUMMER is Brandenburg's follow up to Chased by the Light. For another 90 day marathon he photographs his Northwoods home. This time, armed with digital gear, Brandenburg doesn't limit himself to one shot each day, and instead shoots many, selecting only one image to represent each day leading from spring to summer. This is a must-have book for nature photographers!
Soul of the Camera - David DuChemin
David duChemin has been writing passionately and eloquently about the photographer's inner struggles for over a decade. His many well written and well-designed books are available in print and digital formats and are published by duChemin's own company, Craft & Vision. THE SOUL OF THE CAMERA is David's latest release. Laced with a series of beautiful black and white images, its pages provide honest advice on how to improve your craft beyond thinking in terms of equipment and technical abilities.
Mountain Light - Galen Rowell
Galen Rowell is a household name and possibly America's best known landscape photographer (somewhere up there with Ansel Adams). Unless you've quite literally been living under a rock, you've seen his work. MOUNTAIN LIGHT is one of my personal favorites, and I reference it often for inspiration before heading out into the mountains. The images are stunning, and the stories behind them are inspiring. Rowell tragically died in a plane crash in 2002, but his vast catalogue of images with subjects spanning the globe is still with us. Rowell wrote several awesome books in his three decades of traveling the globe for Nat Geo, Sports Illustrated, and the Sierra Club (among others). I'd also recommend his books High and Wild and Galen Rowell's Inner Game of Outdoor Photography.
Portraits - Steve Mccurry
Steve McCurry's best known image, "The Afghan Girl" graces the cover of his simply titled book PORTRAITS. You know his work, just as you know Galen Rowell's, even without realizing it. If you're into natural light travel portraits, McCurry is the photographer to emulate. I saw an installation of his life's work at an art gallery last year that blew me away. It's inspiring to discover that most of the images in this book were made using manual 35mm cameras during the 70s and 80s that were much less advanced than the gear we rely on now.
Polar Obsession - Paul Nicklen
Paul Nicklen has been documenting the great white north for decades. He is a frequent National Geographic contributor and has given us a wealth of images documenting the plight of wildlife and sea life affected by climate change. POLAR OBSESSION contains a collection of Nicklen's most stunning images. (The swimming polar bear on the cover is my current screen-saver).
Bonus Recommendation for All Creative Types:
How to Feed a Starving Artist - David Duchemin
Ever wonder why nobody talks about the business stuff? Isn't that really the most difficult, yet essential, part of becoming a successful pro-photographer? Well, David duChemin's HOW TO FEED A STARVING ARTIST provides a generous amount of advice for creative types for only $10. duChemin tells all, even things that make him feel vulnerable like his own bankruptcy and how he learned the hard way to avoid debt. Complete with tales of personal financial struggle and sound advice from accounting professionals, this conveniently priced eBook provides priceless knowledge for, not only photographers, but anyone in any creative field looking to make their passion a successful business.
In writing this post I realized that I have listed only male photographers. As is the case with many industries, photography is male dominated, but that doesn't mean that there is a shortage of talented female photographers. My favorite is hands-down Ami Vitale. She is a master, and her contributions are invaluable. Unfortunately, she has no book release yet (as of this writing), though her images are used internationally and by the highest profile publications on the planet. Follow her amazing work here: http://www.amivitale.com
Update 2018: Ami Vitale's book Panda Love will be available this summer! Check out the details by clicking the image below.