I just love beautiful coffee table books. They give me the unmatched experience of enriching both my heart and intellect. I believe a fine coffee table book is a piece of art by itself.
The visuals, including the colours, font types & sizes, graphical elements, and images, together with the body text, captions, quotes, and notes help quench your thirst for beauty and information.
As for photography coffee table books, you can learn a great deal as well if you want to improve your photographic skills.
The simple formula is this: the more quality work you look at the more quality work you will produce.
By simply looking at great photos, your visual standards and ability to create better images will develop considerably at a subconscious level.
Here are 7 nature photography coffee table books that I have bought over the years and can’t stop enjoying them.
1 – Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs
by Ansel Adams (photographer, author), Andrea G. Stillman (editor)
You’ve most likely heard about Ansel Adams, probably the greatest landscape photographer ever lived.
If you haven’t, it’s high time you had a look at his work.
Many of his black and white images have become iconic photographs showing the American wilderness in an amazingly beautiful, unique way.
This large and heavy book is the only collection that encompasses his entire photographic career from 1916 (from age 14) until the 1960s.
The 400 photos are divided into five periods, following a chronological order.
It is interesting to see how the early talent starts developing in the 1910s and by the 1940s reaches his artistic zenith with such classic images as “Moonrise over Hernandez” or “Tetons and Snake River”.
Adams used a large, bulky view camera for these classic images, but in the early 1960s he changed over to the 6×6 cm medium format Hasselblad system.
For creating exceptional quality images, he developed the Zone System with portrait photographer Fred Archer at the Art Center School in Los Angeles around 1940.
In this fantastic book we can see how the Zone System was applied successfully, resulting in an amazing richness of shades, in many cases capturing a broad dynamic range of light.
2 – Northern Lights: The Science, Myth, and Wonder of Aurora Borealis
by Calvin Hall (photographer), Daryl Pederson (photographer), George Bryson (writer)
I first got to take a look at this book at one of my friends’ after he had returned from a grand voyage in the Pacific working on a cruiser as a waiter.
He’d bought it in Alaska and as I checked it out, I immediately decided to go for my own copy.
If I ever want to create a paper photography book, it will be something like this.
The layout is very simple yet extremely powerful. There are only a few types of pages (or page pairs), with large, wonderful photographs of the aurora borealis.
You have the feeling as if you are in a fairy tale in a magical frosty world surrounded by amazing colours radiating from high above.
The stories, legends, information, and science described in the essays further elevate your fascinating experience.
Since I read this book I’ve been having this unceasing desire to go and see the northern lights at least once in a lifetime. (Not yet fulfilled.)
3 – La mia America / North America the Beautiful
by Galen Rowell (photographer, author)
Galen Rowell is my favourite landscape photographer.
Unfortunately, he passed away too early, at the age of 61 in 2002 in a plane crash.
He appeared regularly in renowned publications such as National Geographic, Life, Sports Illustrated, and Outdoor Photographer.
I mention this book on my About page, at Inspiration 3 (I have the Hungarian edition).
It was this book that opened my eyes to the art of top quality landscape photography.
Galen Rowell collected his best work he had done over the decades in North America (the US, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Greenland) and with superb descriptions he presents a fantastic overview of the natural treasures of this continent in this heavy, large-sized book.
The image captions are not just short location information, but complete sentences with additional details about the subject matter—which I love (and try to follow whenever I show a photo).
If you think, seeing the photos, that he may have manipulated the hues, saturation of colours or contrast of the images, think again.
Rowell always aimed to keep the tones and shades of his original slide film and was super critical about manipulating nature photographs for the sake of achieving more popularity or impact.
Check out his article from 2001 titled “Digital Deliberations” (you can find it in the list) to see how serious he was about this and what a dilemma it was for him when a digital enhancement of the moon in one of his images was in question.
The book solidly reveals that Rowell was not only a brilliant photographer but also an excellent writer.
He nicely blends geographical, historical, and conservational details about the regions and national parks he describes with his own stories and experiences.
4 – California the Beautiful
By Galen Rowell (photographer), Peter Beren (editor)
This sweet little book (19×19 cm; 7.5×7.5 in), also photographed by Galen Rowell, is dominated by the pictures containing brief text blocks of quotes and short captions.
In most cases, each page pair contains a quote and a photo and occasionally there are two-page panoramic images and also some page pairs with two photos. That’s it. Simple but powerful.
The quotes are selected from 55 famous American authors (e.g. Jack London, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, and John Muir).
Rowell’s 83 stunning, timeless nature photos give a phenomenal representation of one of the most beautiful places on earth, California.
As a California native, Galen Rowell spent much of his life photographing his home state, returning regularly to his favourite places such as Yosemite National Park or the San Francisco Bay Area.
This compact book is great for a gift!
5 – The World’s Top Photographers – Landscape
by Terry Hope (author)
This superb coffee table book aimed to showcase the best landscape photographers of the time, published in 2005.
It’s a very good and useful collection if you want to get familiar with “first-class” landscape image creators and some of their exceptional work.
Here you can find Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Charlie Waite, Galen Rowell and 35 others from all over the globe.
Each artist is showcased on 4-6 pages including 3-6 of his or her best photos.
It’s an excellent book for learning since a lot of technical details are revealed about how the images were created.
Each image description includes the story of the shot and also the gear information. If you are an analogue freak, this book can be particularly useful.
But even if you use a digital camera, it hardly makes any difference, because understanding and studying the essential elements, like composition, lens, depth of field, tones, contrast, and exposure are just as important today as they were in the past.
On the other hand, if you just want to see some exceptional landscape and nature photos in varying styles, you’ll surely find it in this book.
6 – Moment and Memory: Photography in the New Zealand Landscape
by Craig Potton (photographer, author)
When I travelled to New Zealand back in 2003 I remember browsing in a bookshop trying to find the best-looking coffee table book about New Zealand.
To my surprise, it was hard to find one that was nicely designed and showed coherence in terms of style and quality.
In the end, I chose Moment and Memory by Craig Potton, a Kiwi photographer residing in Nelson in the South Island.
There’s hardly any sunshine in this book. It’s quite special.
It features a collection of artistic landscape photos, many times representing the “moody side” of this fantastic country—overcast skies, long exposures of water movement, fog, rain, clouds…
It surely has its unique approach and has an uncommon way to show New Zealand’s wonderful scenery.
It has a minimalist design, one photo per page (all in horizontal format) with brief captions, and there are some short essays here and there as you browse through the pages.
7 – Atget’s Paris
by Eugène Atget (photographer), Andreas Krase (author), Hans Christian Adam (editor)
“Eugène Atget is the photographer of Old Paris. Between 1897 and 1927 he recorded the imprint of history as no other photographer has done.”
First of all, this book doesn’t look like a coffee table book.
It has the size and format of a regular novel or travel guide.
The introduction in French, English, and German is followed by some 150 photos of Old Paris in 12 categories, e.g. Streets of Paris | Fairs | Parks and Castles.
Among the books listed here, this one has the simplest design.
It’s similar to a catalogue, basically, you have nothing but a collection of old photographs in your hands.
But that’s enough!
Take close attention: they will reveal stories, memories, characters, moods, and also a photographic style you can learn a lot from.
And hey, it’s Paris after all!
Text and photographs © Daniel Kerek
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