Home Cinematography 7 Books That Will Enhance Your Creativity As a Cinematographer

7 Books That Will Enhance Your Creativity As a Cinematographer

written by Shane Hurlbut, ASC

Creative inspiration is absolutely essential for an artist. Up to the age of 35, all of my inspiration had to be visually based. I did not absorb well by reading. I grew up in a very rural area in Aurora, New York, a town with maybe 500 residents. The school was very small and I think that there were about 92 students in my graduating class. Many great things came from this rural area. I met my wife of 25 years there and Lydia Kuenkler (her maiden name) lived four miles from my home. We started dating in 9th grade and the rest is history. Growing up on the farm gave me my common sense knowledge and the ability to think on my feet. In school, I had a learning disability and was a very slow reader. I was taken out of the class and moved into a small classroom where a teacher would help me with my reading problem three times a week. I remember hating books, never wanting to read and wondered why anyone liked doing it. Lydia was just the opposite! All through grade school and high school, I leaned on my friends for assistance. In college, when a book report was required, I just asked a classmate what the book was about. He or she gave me a synopsis and I would write my book report based on that. The classmate who helped me got a C and I got an A+. This was how I survived, but I still never understood why people liked reading.

“When I Saw The Light”

When I was 35 years old, I was heading to Spain to be the gaffer on a Hennessy Cognac spot. I grabbed a book from the gift shop to entertain myself on the long journey overseas. It was called The Perfect Storm. Even though this book was at least two years past being on the Best Seller’s list, many of my colleagues had been talking about it on the set. I boarded the plane and turned to page one. I skipped all that introductory information. I looked at it like I always did, the fewer the pages, the better. After six pages, it was like a shaft of light from the Heavens blasted me in the face. For the first time ever, the book came alive with visualization. Before that moment, all I had ever seen were words on a page, never visualizing anything. When you start to analyze it, that would not be something that would motivate anyone to read. With this book, for the first time ever, I saw the Green water, the Black water and the White water that Sebastian Junger described. I became a voracious reader!

“Making It Personal”

Many of you have told us that one of the reasons that you like our blog so much is that it is personal and intimate. I write from the heart and pull from over 20 years of experience of being a cinematographer. This post is very important and personal because this is a glimpse inside what has shaped me as an artist.

I have spent some time talking about understanding WHY you should make a creative choice, not just HOW you do it. These seven books take you on my creative inspirational journey. Before, all I could use in my arsenal was what I could see. It was how I examined light in different environments, from still photography books and art museums. Now the written word was added to my tool box and this is when my creativity expanded exponentially.

The books that I am about to describe will blast you in the face with freezing salt water, capsize you on the Bering Sea, take you to Rome and inside the Vatican, give you a glimpse into a magical world of Barcelona during the early 1900s, send you into a tragic tailspin with no recovery, take you on a journey to find your Personal Legend and discover an artist’s life ambition that was never appreciated until after his death. These are the words on a page that continue to inspire me, to help me visualize and generate unique ideas and ways to light. If you go down this road, hard cover is the only way. Keep these books and use them as resource material.

The Perfect Storm

My First Book The Perfect Storm
This book changed my life. By reading the pages of this incredibly descriptive book, I was able to expand my visual portfolio. The description of life at sea was incredible. I could taste the salt water, feel the roll of the waves and I gasped for air. This is what reading is all about. I had missed so much growing up. I have to make up for it now. However, it could not be just any book. It has to be books that are visual, exciting and describe light.

Lost at Sea

Lost at Sea
After reading The Perfect Storm, I was fascinated with sea tragedies. I wanted more. I stumbled onto this book in the airport gift shop as well. It worked once. Why not again? It depicts King Crab fishing on the Bering Sea, like “Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery channel. Very descriptive and immersive, a page burner.

Angels and Demons

Angels and Demons
One of the few places on the planet that I have not been is Rome. Through Dan Brown’s description, I was transported to this incredible place and taken back in time. The first ten pages had me riveted to my seat and I did not put the book down until it was completed. This is great storytelling. That is what we are, RIGHT? We are Storytellers, so reading these books hones your skills on how to tell stories in engaging ways.

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind
Of all of the books on my visual storytelling journey, this is the best. The way Carlos Ruiz Zafon describes light, tone and the mood of Barcelona will transport you immediately into this magical time and space. Never before were my eyes opened as much as after reading his book. I wanted more, but at the time, he did not have any others. This book was written in Spanish and this incredible woman, Lucia Graves, daughter of the poet Robert Graves, translated it into English for all of us to enjoy. One word – WOW!!!!

The Angel’s Game

The Angel’s Game
Eight years later, Carlos wrote the prequel to Shadow of the Wind. It was the book I had been waiting for. It was spectacular in its mood, tone and palette that was so rich and engaging. The descriptive tones that Carlos uses to describe light and shadow are spectacular. It is dark,. It will take you to that place that very few live and breathe. Make sure you come back. Take in the visual landscape and get out. HA HA.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

I stumbled onto this book recently. I have been infatuated with this still photographer ever since working in New Mexico and traveling to Santa Fe on the weekends. I would salivate over all of Edward Curtis’s North American Indian gold prints, so much so that I purchased a couple of them. One is titled “The Storm.” The other “The Vanishing Race.” His life, his work, his vision, his forward thinking, his work ethic were all extraordinary. He was one of the first motion picture pioneers who no one really knew about. He made his own camera. Edward Curtis was extraordinary. This book includes so much amazing history about our country at the turn of the century. It also teaches you about an artist who could not balance his creation, his family and his creditors. This is a great life lesson.

The Storm
The Vanishing Race

The Alchemist

The Alchemist
This book has been around since 1988. I had heard about it for years, but nothing drew me to the flame. I was recently heading to Zihuatanejo for my 25th wedding anniversary and grabbed it. This book is an inspiration to the soul. It is about following your dreams and never giving up. It’s about listening to your heart because it will always guide you. What an incredible journey. You can read it in less than four hours.

What books inspire you?
What books have shaped you as an artist?

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Nathan Lee Bush December 4, 2013 at 1:09 PM

Cormac McCarthy’s writing is really poetically visual. His language is not descriptive really, but strangely visual, like an impressionist style of writing, and allow the imagination to create its own interpretations. The Road and Blood Meridian are recommended.

Shane December 12, 2013 at 3:12 PM

Nathan Lee Bush, I agree, thank you for sharing

Laurence Zankowski December 4, 2013 at 1:31 PM


First, this quote:
“Sufficient time is rarely taken to study light. It is as important as the lines the actors speak, or the direction given to them. It is an integral part of the story and that is why such close coordination is needed between director and cinematographer. Light is a treasure chest: once properly understood, it can bring another dimension to the medium… As I worked with Ingmar, I learned how to express in light the words in the script, and make it reflect the nuances of the drama. Light became a passion which has dominated my life.”

Sven Nykvist
December 3, 1922 — September 20, 2006

Post traumatic head injury, I found it very difficult to read, still do at times but these following are my favs.

From Paulo Coehlo :
Veronika decides to Die
The Valkyries

Richard Bach:
Jonathan Livingston Seagull
Illusions: teachings of a reluctant messiah

Then authors, i forgot,
The Hagakure, which with illusions, traveled with me for decades
Zen and the art of Archery

Robert Lawlor
Voices of the first Day, the culture and rituals of Australian aborigines.

Assorted Art tomes, shamanic books and books that help keep my harley from vibrating apart.

Be well


Fellow upstate NY ‘er.

Shane December 12, 2013 at 3:10 PM

Laurence Zankowski, great to see this quote. So good. I love him. It is so important to expand your creative vision through all aspects. Thanks for sharing

Spencer Weaver December 11, 2013 at 1:42 PM

Shane, thanks for sharing some books / stories that have meant something to you and helped shape your creative expression as a storyteller. Your post is an inspiration to me and encourages me to do more reading again myself 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing!

Shane December 12, 2013 at 2:58 PM

Spencer Weaver, you bet, it is my pleasure. That is what we do, share more than anyone else. Pay it forward baby!!!!

John Nichols December 13, 2013 at 2:55 PM

It’s so refreshing to read that my peers are reading outside of the “box”
Rock On

Shane December 27, 2013 at 8:50 AM

John Nichols, absolutely!!!!!

Ricardo avila jr December 17, 2013 at 7:17 PM

Well, I was told something very similar last night. I had just submitted my first film that was totally my own creation. I wrote it, shot it, directed it and produced it! It came out ok. One of the criticisms of me was that I need to read more. While I believed these people, it was hard to reconcile this with my visual style of learning/creative energy. But this blog has confirmed it for me, it’s time to READ!!!!!

Shane December 27, 2013 at 8:45 AM

Ricardo avila jr, It has expanded my creativity and my vision ten fold. It is so important. I am glad that this hit home for you.

Gerard Juarez February 6, 2014 at 12:09 PM

Thanks for sharing these books Shane…and it was great meeting you again at Masters in Motion ’13! I just wrapped up The Shadow of the Wind on your recommendation and I must say it’s probably the best book I’ve ever read! The way he describes light is indeed marvelous! It seems everything I’ve read after pales in comparison…maybe I should read The Angel’s Game next. 🙂


Shane February 15, 2014 at 7:59 PM

Gerard Juarez, you are so welcome, it is our pleasure. I loved that book, it opened my eyes so much as a cinematographer. No do not read Angel’s Game next. I made that mistake. Read Prisoners of Love, then read Angel’s Game. It will make total sense then. Angel’s Game is the masterpiece even though Shadow of the Wind got all the street cred.

Jose del C M July 31, 2014 at 3:52 PM

Hi Shane
I think Angels and demons is my favorite. Is like having a storyboard in your hands.

Jose NY

Timothy H August 17, 2014 at 5:23 PM

Whilst the visual aesthetic is important, character within space is also paramount to storytellers. I still remember the day I received The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the post, many years ago. I was just going upstairs to get dressed—with a cup of tea in hand—I heard a thud on the door mat. I tore open the packaging and sat at the bottom of the stairs reading the first page in absent curiosity. I didn’t move until I had finished the entire book. That had never happened to me before, but the mood, tone and sense of character in location really struck me.

As a side note, semi-related to literature, talking of character within space. For those who haven’t seen it…watch Last Year at Marienbad.

Carlos Melville December 29, 2016 at 12:19 AM

Hi Shane, I remember working with you on the Hennessy shoot with Joseph Yacob, I’m still a Gaffer, but unfortunately unlike you I have still to unlock the love of reading books, maybe now at 52 it’s time to give it a whirl? Have a happy new year with your family, Carlos Melville

Shane Hurlbut, ASC December 30, 2016 at 2:09 PM

Hi Carlos – great to hear from you. It’s never too late to start reading more and sounds like a new year’s resolution in the making! Read on my friend and Happy New Year.

James December 29, 2016 at 4:22 PM

My literary knowledge isn’t as broad as I would like it to be , so I’m always appreciative when I get these helpful tips that help with the art of cinematography. There have been books from Robin Cook that I couldn’t put down and others, but one that I loved and finished the day I got it was “Footprints of Thunder” by James F. David. This book had my imagination soaring, and its one book I would love to see made cinematically by someone as good as Shane.

Shane Hurlbut, ASC December 30, 2016 at 2:10 PM

Thank you for the kind words and your comment. Happy New Year.

jose February 14, 2017 at 1:22 AM

Hi shane pretty good stuff

alahyane March 2, 2017 at 5:01 PM

how can I get this books without paying money


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