Mastering Film Photography–Finding the Right Books

In February, it will be two years since I bought my first Maxxum, a 7000i. I’ve made it past the basics of understanding exposure and seem to be getting a handle on composition, but there is much more to master. Drawing and finding the best ways to light still lifes have given me a greater appreciation for how shadows and light affect or even make a composition. I want to learn more, to develop a deeper understanding. The main problem that I run into, since my focus is film photography, is the lack of useful educational resources. Everything seems to assume a digital outcome.  

Since film scanning is much more common than darkroom printing, educational materials focus more on correcting an image using a photo editor rather than on how to capture the image in the camera. I want to master the craft, not Photoshop. My time working in a darkroom made a deep impression, and that is how I want to bring my images to life. Darkroom work is messy and smelly, and that is absolutely fine with me. I have no deadlines to meet and no clients to appease, so I have the luxury of experimenting to my heart’s content. What I lack is detailed guidance.  

Learning the deep things of film photography in the digital age is like trying to learn how to write a B+ tree algorithm from scratch in an era when code libraries make doing so unnecessary. Books that contain what has become arcane knowledge are hard to find. I like to get to the bottom of things, to know how and why they work. Thankfully, used books are available.  

Mastering film photography requires understanding concepts such as exposure latitude and reciprocity failure sufficiently well to apply them. Blogs are helpful, but few bloggers address these topics in depth. I’ve managed to find old, out-of-print books that have the exact information I need. Even better, they have pictures and examples!

In a prior post, I mentioned a textbook, Photography, Sixth Edition, by Upton and London, which is an excellent introduction to the deep things of photography. But it is a 101-level guide. It doesn’t cover advanced skills in much depth. Searching for out-of-print books is tedious and chancy. I hate to think of how many hours I have spent slogging through Amazon, and lately eBay, looking for a specific book, only to come away empty-handed. But, I’ve had some success, which is why I wrote this post. 

A couple of days ago, I added two books written by John Hedgecoe (1932-2010) to the General Photography resource page. Hedgecoe founded the Royal College of Art’s photography department in 1965, and the tone and structure of his books reflect his teaching instincts. My editions are from the 1990s, which is the era of the most advanced film cameras. These books are great as references and for the practical advice they offer with film in mind.  

The Complete Guide to Photography offers the usual introductory basics followed by a series of 65 projects. Each project provides tips on lighting, metering, composition, and other useful information. There is no post-processing section, so the goal is capturing the shot in-camera. I like the range of subjects Hedgecoe includes. My interests lie mainly in landscapes and still life, for which he offers plenty of examples and advice. Portraiture holds no interest for me, and so many books and websites seem heavily vested in portraits. It’s nice to find a more balanced subject selection. 

Too many books that purport to teach photography have many more words than pictures. Pictures are crucial to learning photography—the more, the better. Hedgecoe offers a wealth of images to illustrate concepts and suggestions, as does the text by Upton and London. 

The Photographer’s Handbook is a reference manual with topic-based entries and an extensive glossary. This is the go-to book for looking up obscure photography terms and techniques (at least, obscure to me). It is basically a mini-encyclopedia. Entries are not exhaustive but offer enough to satisfy curiosity and provide enough information to know what else to look for. It is a handy reference. My goal is to learn how to do whatever is possible with film, to master the medium. I like Hedgecoe’s approach to teaching photography and will seek out more books. As I continue to explore, it’s nice to have books like these. 

The third resource I’ve come to appreciate are “book-a-zines,” published by Future PLC in the UK. These are large-format magazines or picture books that cover photography topics. They are focused solely on digital, so some are less useful to me. That said, they are loaded with pictures and step-by-step examples. My most recent purchase is The Black & White Photography Book. Discussions of lighting, lens selection, and composition are loaded with sample images. One caveat—they are expensive, 30.00 per issue. However, many issues can be found on eBay for half, or even less, of the newsstand price. I don’t know how this is possible but I’m glad I found out. Another tip: many used books on eBay are priced lower than on Amazon–I now search eBay first. Even better, some eBay sellers offer book bundles, so building a library can be much cheaper than is possible using Amazon.  

Well, those are my most recent additions. If you have recommendations, please send them.  

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