Best photography books: How to make sure you capture the art and industry of photography in the right light

Don’t leave the coffee table bare—cover it with the best photography books for enthusiasts, experts, and everyone in between.

One of the great things about the art of photography is that if you want to engage in it, it can be as easy or as sophisticated as you want it to be. You can get a basic, quick-shot camera or you can invest in high-end professional gear and the best photography books. And if you care more about the final product than the process, you can study composition and technique and history…or you can just appreciate a pretty picture. It’s an egalitarian art form in a lot of ways, and it transcends language, location, and background. 

So if you’re looking to encourage someone’s interests or attempt to spark a new one, a book about photography can be a great gift—whether it’s a collection of a famous photographer’s work, a themed book of likeminded photographs, or even an instructional manual to inspire a budding hobbyist, there is a broad range of books to choose from. Here are our suggestions for the best coffee-table books on photography.

The big picture on photography

The basic concepts behind photography date back centuries. Ancestors of the photographic camera—both camera obscura and the pinhole camera—can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Chinese. Chinese philosopher Mozi, who lived during the Han dynasty (between 468 and 391 BC), was the first person to write down the principles of a natural optical phenomenon where an image on one side of a wall—or screen—is projected through a hole onto a surface opposite the opening, where the resulting image is upside down. Camera obscura, a term coined in the 16th century, also refers to a box, tent, or room set up for such projections. 

But in the 17th century, German author Johann Zahn, an expert on light, wrote extensively about the camera obscura, magic lantern, telescopes, and lenses. In 1685, he proposed a design for the first handheld reflex camera—but it would take another 150 years before his invention became a reality.

Photographic societies—whose members were both professionals and amateurs—began to form in the mid-19th century, giving rise to the consideration of photography as an aesthetic medium. In 1853 the Photographic Society, parent of the present Royal Photographic Society, was formed in London and, in the following year, the Société Française de Photographie was founded in Paris. Toward the end of the 19th century, similar societies started forming in other countries as well. Along with these organizations, journals promoting photography as art also appeared. Photography is somewhat of a self-documenting history, so if you’re looking for coffee-table books, the best photo books offer plentiful options.

Related: Just starting out? Read our selection of the best DSLRs for beginners

Inspire someone in a flash

No matter what the art form in question—painting, sculpting, film, etc.—those who truly love it always go back to appreciate the work of great or even forgotten masters of the medium. When it comes to photography, the list of greats is long, distinguished, and incredibly varied, so it’s difficult to say that there is one definitive book that “everyone” needs to have. 

That said, there are certain things you can look for to narrow down your search for the best photo books. Such as, does the book focus entirely on the photos themselves? Is it more of a biography with intermittent photos? Is it a celebration of one specific artist’s work, or a collection of an era, a movement, or a group of peers? A lot of the decision-making comes down to who you’re buying the book for and what their interests are, so consider carefully what might resonate with them best when selecting the best books on photography.

Best photography books for inspiration: Behind the Camera: Creative Techniques of 100 Great Photographers

A Masterful Viewpoint

Part photography collection, part instructional guidebook, all pleasure. Paul Lowe

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Featuring the work of photography greats such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Joel Meyerowitz, Nan Goldin, Weegee, Man Ray, Robert Capa, and others, this book not only celebrates their creative work but distills lessons from each piece that the budding photography can work into his or her practice. Part coffee-table book, part textbook, it’s a great place to start or go back to for ideas.

Seek and ye shall viewfinder

There are, of course, those instances where someone in your life may be looking for more than just inspiration. They may be looking to turn their enthusiasm into practice and may want a more concrete, tactical book that will give them tips, hints, and instructions. For those people that want to learn photography, you’ll want to consider their familiarity level, how likely they will be to invest heavily in equipment, and whether they are just looking to improve their everyday snaps or pursue something more professional or artistic.

Best photography books for beginners: Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People

Get Started In A Snap

A classic book of photography tips, tricks, and lessons. Henry Carroll

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The title says it all. Focusing on portrait photography and drawing on the works of masters like Richard Avedon, William Klein, Cindy Sherman, and others, the book speaks plainly about the art form, with an emphasis on real takeaways for those looking to learn photography.

Working for (food photography) tips

Although everyone can (and everyone seemingly does) just snap an Instagram pic of their lunch, there’s a whole professional discipline around food photography. If you’re looking for the best photo books to inspire a budding culinary visual artist, you can find options that focus solely on making food look as amazing as possible. It could be a huge help to someone maybe looking to start their own online business, or do more to promote their existing restaurant, or just as a way to make those shared recipes pop. 

The best books for food photography tips will have plenty of examples on display, but will also have tactical advice and techniques so that they can serve as a reference time and again. Soon they’ll master the perfect, mouth-watering syrup drip, a refreshing squirt of lemon, and steaming plate of veggies.

Best food photography books: The Food Stylist’s Handbook

Images Good Enough to Eat

A handy guide to making food look as delicious as possible. Denise Vivaldo, Cindie Flannigan

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As the title implies, this is a handbook of food photography tips designed to give the reader practical advice on taking delicious images. Taking tips from well-known photographers from the advertising and culinary worlds, “The Food Stylist’s Handbook: Hundreds of Media Styling Tips, Tricks, and Secrets for Chefs, Artists, Bloggers, and Food Lovers” is something that a food photographer will reach for again and again as they hone their craft.

You’ve got picking inexpensive photo expertise in your pocket

Luckily, an interest in photography no longer has to be a prohibitively expensive endeavor. Thanks to high-resolution digital cameras on smartphones, a person can dabble and find their eye without having to invest a ton in film, development costs, and equipment. There is also larger room for trial and error as bad shots can be easily deleted or even edited as you go. 

Access to information and advice is equally easy to come by, with a lot of resources available that aren’t expensive or otherwise exclusionary. You can find many options in the $20 range if you are looking for an inspiring gift for a new photographer.

Best budget photography books: Digital Photography Complete Course

Don’t Just Phone It In

A comprehensive textbook about digital photography. David Taylor

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At around $20, the “Digital Photography Complete Course: Learn Everything You Need to Know in 20 Weeks” packs a lot of useful information for a reasonable investment. The best part, it’s geared toward the digital photographer (obviously) so anyone with a smartphone can pick it up and start applying techniques without having to acquire new equipment. A great, reasonably priced starting point among the best books on photography.

Best photography books FAQ: people also ask

Which type of photography is most in demand?

Portrait and family photography is probably the most common type of freelance photography. This type of photography is constantly in demand, as families grow and change over the year—think births, milestone events (graduations, etc.), and other excuses to take a formal family portrait again and again.

Who is the No. 1 photographer in the world?

It’s a subjective question, but many agree that UK-based photographer Jimmy Nelson is one of the most popular and in-demand photographers in the world right now. If you are talking name recognition alone, then most people suggest that Ansel Adams is the most recognizable in the field. 

How do I start photography?

The simplest way is to get to know equipment inside and out (digital cameras vs. film cameras, for instance), watch tutorials on the subjects that interest you the most (portrait photography vs. nature photography, for example), and then get out and indulge in simple trial and error. Oh, and pick up some of the best books on photography!
Related: Here’s a list of even more books that every photographer should own

The final word on choosing the best photo books

Photography is a widely appreciated art form, and thanks to digital technology it’s become more and more accessible to more people. Budding photographers have a much easier way to test the waters and find their style without the burden of expensive film development costs or equipment. There are also overwhelming resources both online and in books to help guide them as they learn photography, so grab one of the best coffee-table books from our selection and start them on their journey.