Books on photography are as old as photography itself; Daguerre's own handbook on his technique was published in the same year as his invention.
Today the literature of photography would fill large libraries. The library of the Royal Photographic Society contains 6,000 volumes and it does not claim to be complete even in respect of publications in the English language.
Only a very small proportion of these books consists of original works in the sense of containing information not available from alternative sources. Just as in literature on other subjects there is a large amount of duplication, of mutual borrowing and^of pretension to knowledge.
The ideal book on photography should have as its author a person of sound technological training, practical experience, methodical mind, writing ability and some visual imagination. Such authors are rare. Many books are written by people who lack these attributes and are either too young or too old for the task. The reason for this is that experts of exceptional ability at the height of their career can seldom spare the time to pursue literary sidelines.
There is, however, an effectively compensating factor provided by the selective influence and the editorial resources of experienced publishers. It is by no means accidental that the best books on photography are published, in most countries, by a few specialist publishers, whose imprints serve as a reasonably reliable guide to the reading public.
The average amateur rarely needs an extensive library, but any purposeful and satisfying photographic activity warrants the study of some elementary introduction to the subject to avoid the disappointment of haphazard and accidental results. There are scores of elementary books on the market and the safest way of choosing among them is to be guided by the degree of their proven popularity. In view of its reprint record since its first publication W. D. Emanuel's All-in-One Camera-Book appears at present to be the most widely read independent "first book" on photography in the English language.
Manufacturers' introductions to photography vary a great deal in size, scope and purpose. Their presentation is often more lavish than independent publishers' products. Technically they are very reliable and authoritative within the limits defined by the individual manufacturer's interests and policies.
Books on photography suited to training professionals and serving other serious students are less numerous than they used to be. The older generation of authors who could command and transmit encyclopedic surveys of photography as a whole is no longer with us and keeping their works up to date has proved an almost insuperable task.
Attempts at replacing individual works of this order by comprehensive symposia assembled from the work of a number of experts suffer as a rule from serious editorial difficulties in co-ordinating the material across varying levels of outlook and methods of approach.
The British Manual of Photo Technique avoids the difficulties inherent in multi-authorship by splitting up the subject into a series of smaller but self-contained volumes of which, so far, twelve have been published: H. J. Walls' Camera-Technique, Arthur Cox's Optics, R. H. Cricks's Illumination, W. F. Berg's Exposure, C. I. Jacobson's Developing and Enlarging, O. R. Croy's Retouching, J. H. Coote's Colour Prints, C. L. Thomson's Colour Films, P. Jenkins' Colour Separation Negatives, K. C. M. Symons' Stereo Photography, L. Lobel's and M. Dubois' Sensitometry. Special Techniques. The application to definite subjects like portraiture, scenery, natural history, etc., is covered by many useful books. In these fields of specialization the reader has a reasonable chance of finding the book he wants by basing his choice on the author's reputation or on his skill as a photographer as evidenced in his illustrations.
When selecting a book on special techniques, e.g. lighting, photomicrography, medical photography, etc, the frequency of its reissue is perhaps the most truthful guide to its reliability and completeness. No sizable work of this kind can hope to be entirely free of misprints or omissions at its first publication and so if there is a comparable choice between a book that is well established and one where the merit appears to lie in novelty, the established work is likely to be preferable provided the date of its last re-editing is reasonably recent.
Books which purport to pass on the secrets of photography as an Art form are now less frequently published than in the past. They have, in fact, never been particularly successful; the technically minded reader may be eternally thirsting for further knowledge but people with predominantly artistic interests are apt to be too individual to wish to follow someone else's approach, particularly from books.
The advent of several high performance cameras during the last few decades has also led to the appearance of some fairly ambitious volumes which serve as complete textbooks based on the techniques of the particular camera and its accessories. The genuine usefulness of such works is beyond doubt when they are devoted to sufficiently mature instruments and their authors are in the position to pass on specific and independent information. This is, however, by no means always the case. Some manufacturers are quick to encourage any further addition to the literary background of their merchandise and so the potential reader is often faced with a bewildering assortment of competent technical advice, diluted journalistic hand-outs and glossy pictorial puffs. But here, as always, the buyer can safely let his choice be guided by the standing of the publisher, the reputation of the author, and the number of recent reprints of the work. As the growing pressure of competition propels manufacturers into continually overtaking each other with new models of their products (just as the makers of automobiles do) books on cameras have to be very recent indeed to be fully useful to the owner of the very latest model of that particular camera.
The tendency to specialize within a wide subject has become most marked in the scientific field. Almost the only modern book to offer a wide and yet penetrating view of the subject as a whole is The Theory of the Photographic Process by C. E. Kenneth Mees. This work is the product of a brilliant creative mind and mature experience furnished with the resources available only to the research laboratories of a giant organization for manufacturing photographic materials. Scientific publications emanating from such centers are among the most authoritative and valuable contributions to the photographic libraries.
General Reference Books
Among general reference books offering a wide variety of photographic data the American Photo-Lab Index was the most ambitious and correspondingly elaborate publication. Leading manufacturers of photographic materials in Great Britain, U.S.A., Germany, Belgium, etc., publish their own data books which offer the advantage of the most authentic and up-to-date information on their own products.
Amongst annual publications of reference the British Journal Photographic Almanac (first published for the year 1860) holds undisputed seniority and is known all over the world, chiefly among professionals. The Photo-Amateur's Pocketbook is for more popular use.
Trade directories are provided in Great Britain by The Photographic Dealer's Pocket-book and in the U.S.A. by The Photo-Dealer's Directory.
Pictorial annuals are found in every country but only few of them stay. They are expensive to produce and so have to rely on the fickle support of advertisers. Among the best known are the British Photography Year Book and the U.S. Camera, both representing a revitalized pictorialism following patterns of contemporary illustrative and commercial photography.
Books by photographers are not necessarily on photography and their success or otherwise is no indication of their importance to readers on photographic matters. Cecil Beaton's semi-autobiographical books, for example, have never failed to attract a public, but this has little to do with the fact that their author happens to be a photographer, among other things.
Fine volumes devoted to the work of individual photographers are a publisher's nightmare. They are gladly looked at but rarely bought- unless devoted to a specific subject which commands attention in its own right.
Information, be it general or specific, has proliferated at a phenomenal speed across the world wide web. A quick "Google search" and you'll find plenty of pages providing straightforward answers to practically any problem "the man in the street" using a camera may encounter. Not to mention plenty of misinformation.
The advent of digital cameras and its influence in recent years has been responsible for turning millions of snapshotters into enthusiastic and reasonably successful amateur photographers. For these millions the Internet and its articles, blog posts, review sites and forums have acted as an unfailing source of commonsense information and assistance.
Still though, don't discount the value of the printed publication. It's sometimes far too easy for a person to publish anything online, their views and opinions, whether right or wrong. A book on photography has gone through a process of having been researched, validated and edited. A publisher goes to a lot of effort and expense to bring an idea into being. And many are worth every dollar and more besides. Read them, refer back to them, use them, learn from them. The more you know the better you'll become.