When I think back to all the books that I feel helped me progress through the beginning stages of my photography, one title always comes to mind: Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson.
There’s a reason that this is one of the most popular and best selling photography books ever written. In a style that’s very easy to understand, Bryan clearly explains the basic technical concepts that ever photographer needs to know. I’ll say it again: “Needs to know.”
Starting with the basics of “Exposure” and what it means in the context of photography, he explains the basics of how a camera works. He goes through things like f/stops, shutter speeds, light meters and ISO with incredibly clarity. Even if numbers and technical concepts aren’t your strong suit, Bryan’s writing is so straightforward, you’ll come away knowing this stuff. I promise.
The next two sections cover the relationship between aperture and shutter speed and how to use them in both technical and creative ways. He covers all the essentials: depth of field, how to soften the background and create bokeh style effects, freezing motion and the creative variations of sharpness vs. soft blur.
He also touches on macro photography, panning, implying motion, and how to use the correct aperture to make sure that the “story” of your image comes across.
Then he talks about light and the role it plays in photography. He compares the visual and compositional effects of sidelight, backlight, front light and soft overcast light, and again, touches on how to ensure the proper exposure for any kind of light.
Finally, he touches on filters, flash photography and special techniques, such as multiple exposures and HDR. Even though the original version of Understanding Exposure came out in 1990, which is right when I bought my camera, the 2010 3rd edition has been updated to reflect the modern advancements of digital photography.
Part of what makes Understanding Exposure so good, especially for beginning photographers, is the fact that Bryan’s style of outdoor, travel and people photography is so wonderfully graphic and simple. New photographers often have a hard time narrowing down their subject matter and creating bold images that avoid compositional clutter. Immersing yourself in a style like Bryan’s early on will train your visual eye to see and compose more simple imagery that has a much stronger impact.
Looking through his book 20 years later, I can see that his style definitely gave me a head start and helped fine tune my own compositional eye. Having taught photography workshops for nearly 15 years, I firmly believe that a book like this will do the same for you.
I’ve seen some reviews and criticisms that this book is too basic, but the truth is that if you’re just starting out that’s exactly what you need. I think that such statements are made by people who have forgotten what it’s like to be standing at the dawn of your own photography and being overwhelmed by all the creative and technical aspects that you realize will take years to master. It’s exciting to start exploring the wonders of photography for the very first time, but let’s face it, some of the stuff we have to deal with can be a little hard to understand at first.
There are indeed many great instructional photo books out there, but for it’s straightforward writing style and clear, effective illustrations, I think that Understanding Exposure is the number one best photography book for beginners. Everyone should read it.
Let me know if you’ve read it and if it helped you. Or, tell me if there’s another book that you’d recommend to beginning shooters.