My Love/Hate Relationship With Photography Books
I admit it. I have a love/hate relationship with photography books. There are a lot of books on photography published these days. Some are obviously better than others, but none could possibly tell you all you need to know. Photography is an art form that relies on tools that tend to be fairly complex. But being good at photography requires both technical knowledge and applied skill.
Reading photography books can potentially teach you the technical fundamentals of photography. While you'd be hard pressed to buy a camera today that won't at least attempt to determine proper exposure, you can generally get better results if you understand a bit of exposure theory to allow you can take matters into your own hands. Books excel at explaining the arcane math of aperture, shutter speed and the square root of two. Books can also teach you about the history and mathematics of photography, so you can understand why that whole square root of two business is even part of learning about photography.
You can also buy books specific to most popular camera models so that you can learn about what all the various controls on your camera do. The number of settings on a modern camera can be a bit overwhelming without this kind of information. Few cameras today come with printed user manuals. But you'd be hard pressed to buy one that lacks downloadable pdf documentation of course. Yet few go into much detail beyond the basics. They may tell you what the camera controls do, but rarely offer any details as to when or why you should make use of most. Not all photography books do a good job of providing these sorts of explanations, but at least some can. Even after being involved in photography all these years, when I buy a new camera body, I still tend to buy a third-party book to augment the Nikon manual. I figure if I can pick up even a few useful tips, it's money well spent, especially when put in context with how much the camera itself costs. It just seems that buying a new camera yet using it as if I already know fully how to somewhat puts a dent in why I bought a new camera in the first place. If I want to make the most out of the new features it offers, I need to fully understand those features.
Photography books can also provide inspiration in terms of what is possible. After all, they say a picture is worth a thousand words. In my experience, some have been worth far more to me, but since some seem less valuable, perhaps this is meant to be taken an average. I'm not one of those people who feel that images in photo books need to have the exact shutter speed and aperture as part of the caption. To me, I find more value in studying the composition of such images, especially when put in context with the body work represented by the book as a whole. If photographs represent the point of view of the photographer, I want to study other images shot by the same photographer, too.
But there are some things that are difficult if not impossible to learn from photography books. Indeed, I've found that photography books can sometimes actually create a barrier to learning. As I said at the outset, photography can be seen as both an art and a science. As an art, what ends up matters most is what you can only figure out for yourself. It's your own experience that matters. I wouldn't go so far as to say that practice makes perfect, but it does help to deepen your experience. I've talked with more than a few photographers over the years that felt that all they needed was an even better book on photography to learn what they didn't know yet. Rarely is this the case though. But a quest for that missing piece of information can all too easily become a shiny object, distracting you from what you are lacking. Information helps, but hard-earned skill and experience ultimately matter much more.
A camera is a tool. You need to know how to use that tool effectively. But ultimately, there's really no substitute for time spent using that tool if you want to create great photographs.