How Practical is a Kindle for Reading Photography Books?

Why I bought a Kindle

A couple of months ago I took the plunge and bought a WiFi only Kindle.  As a self-confessed geek and gadget freak the Kindle had been on my radar for a while, but the release of the third generation was enough to coax me to open my wallet and purchase one.  What made the decision for me? The price drop and native PDF support. 

As an amateur photographer I was hoping I could use my new Kindle to catch up on my ever increasing backlog of photography ebooks and electronic editions of my paper books. My research into its suitability for this purpose didn’t find much to confirm its usefulness one way or the other so it was hard to make an informed decision. But at that price I only had to buy a few books electronically instead of physically and it would have paid for itself so the gadget lust eventually won out. 

I’m sharing my experiences here to help others make a more informed decision when considering purchasing a Kindle. I’ve included plenty of photos so you can see for yourself the points being made and decide how important they are given your reading habits. Just click on a thumbnail to see a much larger version of the image.

What makes photography books different?

Kindles are great ebook readers.  The E-Ink screen is perfect for extended reading sessions because the underlying technology mimics how we read paper, via reflected light bouncing off the screen (page) rather than using a backlight to transmit through the screen and directly into our eye.  The result is a screen that works better in varied lighting conditions and reduces the user’s eye strain when reading for extended periods of time.

That doesn’t automatically mean they will be suitable for reading about photography.

What makes the reading requirements of photography books different from the typical Kindle fare?

The average Kindle is intended to read books or newspapers with few (or no) images, natively in black and white, and delivered in document formats that can smoothly adjust their layout to suit the limitations of the device.  This is a far cry from most photography books and it would be unwise to simply assume the Kindle will be suitable for reading that type of material.

There will obviously be some compromises required. The real question is are those compromises workable or will readers resort to more familiar modes of reading the heavily graphical material?

How much of an impact is the Kindle’s novel sized screen?

The base Kindle resembles the size of a small novel, which is significantly smaller than the average photography book.  To get a sense of the difference compare the size of my copy of “Vision and Voice” with its ebook equivalent (40% discount code: EBOOKA-PP) .

When viewing the ebook in portrait orientation the screen is much too small to be usable, at around a quarter of the size of the physical page.  Pictures give a reasonable impression of the original material but the text is too small to be readable.

Viewed in landscape orientation the situation is much improved.  “Vision and Voice” is wider than most books and yet the Kindle’s screen still manages to cover almost two thirds of the page width.  The display shrinks the text size to compensate but I still found the results quite readable even though my eye sight is far from perfect. As most ebooks available online (e.g. Craft and Vision, ProPhotoPublishing) are laid out according to standard paper sizes (A4 or letter), viewing in landscape orientation brings the screen width even closer to the intended page width. This improves readability even further and allows text and images to be displayed at close to original size.

The trade off of using landscape orientation is a single page is displayed in two or three fragments.  From a navigation point of view this is fairly transparent but it does impact how the content is experienced by the user.  More on that later.

More intricate images will require magnification to be able to interpret their finer detail.  Unfortunately viewing the screen at anything larger than the “fit-to-width” setting does significantly impact navigation on the Kindle. Multiple key presses (Aa key, then the 5 way navigation pad to activate “Actual Size”) are required to enable magnification, and once in this mode you navigate within the current page using the 5 way navigation pad. On the images below you can see a shaded area on each of the scrollbars indicating the current viewable area.  For this particular book viewing at “Actual Size” means there are eight separate viewing areas per page.  When reading left to right, from the top of the page to the bottom, that means we require at least 10 navigation controller presses (right, down, left, then repeat…) to navigate a full sized screen. At this point the user interface is no longer transparent to the end user and noticeably impacts the reading experience. Personally I would find it unworkable to read a book this way.

The verdict? As long as the text size remains readable in landscape orientation, and the file doesn’t contain too many detailed images that require close examination, the Kindle’s form factor didn’t overly impact the reading experience.

How does the Kindle cope with graphical layouts?

Photography books tend to make heavy use of graphics and page layout to support their points.  This layout can be maintained on the Kindle by using the Portable Document Format (PDF) to store the document, as PDF is purpose built for maintain integrity of the displayed content regardless of the device rendering it.  The problem here is the interaction of form factor and layout, and more specifically how much of the page layout must be seen at once to help support the overall message.

Take the “The Magic of Black and White Part I – Vision” ebook from Craft and Vision as an example.  The content is designed to be viewed a whole page at a time, or preferably a two page spread at a time, and so uses a one and a half page image to help demonstrate its point.  When zoomed out to view a full page at a time in portrait orientation you can make some sense of the image, but when viewing in landscape orientation with “fit-to-width” enabled the image loses much of its impact.  The reader will need to assemble in their mind’s eye four screens into a single image to fully understand how the image supports the concepts described in text.  Part of the message being conveyed by the layout is lost or impeded due to the limitations of the technology.

Textual photography ebooks with supporting images, such as the Lightroom 3 Mini-guide ” from X-equals, tend to be more forgiving.  In this example the text size is almost large enough to read in portrait orientation, but the layout is equally acceptable when viewed in landscape as the images are less than a single page in size. In addition the image detail is sufficient when viewed in landscape to not require magnification beyond the “fit-to-width” display mode.

In some cases layout does not necessarily contribute to the underlying message but can still impact readability.  A case in point are ebooks that use a multi-column layout and the example I’ve used here is Ken Rockwell’sNikon D90 User’s Guide. The document needs to be viewed in landscape orientation for the text to be readable, but thanks to the multi-column layout you need to navigate down the page to read the first column then return to the top of the page to begin the next column. This visual flourish does little for the content but does impact its usability when viewed on a smaller screen.  This issue does not lessen the value of the ebook content, and I personally own copies of useful multi-column ebooks from Ken Rockwell, Craft and Vision and others, but serves as a reminder to view a sample online before purchasing content to be read on your Kindle.

In rare cases the design is such that the display device doesn’t impact the message at all.  The only case I’ve come across is the "101 Inspiring Poses" by Christopher Grey.  What makes this book different?  It contains no text, and the images themselves don’t need to be interpreted in detail so viewing these in portrait orientation, a full page at a time, is perfectly adequate.

The verdict? Graphical layouts can be acceptable on the Kindle provided the reader is comfortable mentally reassembling larger images viewed a piece at a time. In my experience this only became a problem where books use full page (or larger) images which can tend to lose their impact when viewed on the small screen.  Books that use multi-column layouts are too tedious to navigate on the Kindle and should be read elsewhere. 

Is PDF a suitable document format for the Kindle?

Given photography books rely heavily upon graphical layouts they are usually supplied as PDF to maintain the integrity of the displayed content. PDF support is a relatively new feature introduced in the latest generation of Kindles and prior to that documents had to be converted to a native document format to be readable on the device. Would photography books be easier to view on the Kindle if they were available in a native format rather than PDF?

Ebook formats, such as the mobi format often used for distributing material for Kindles, tend to assume the content is primarily textual. They are designed to allow resizing of display fonts and reflowing of the text to suit the size of the current screen. This is important for typical Kindle content but it is near impossible to support both the design intent of a heavily graphical layout and this type of device display flexibility in a single document format. Referring back to the earlier ”The Magic of Black and White” ebook example and its one and a half page image spread, how should this be resized and the text flow adjusted to cater for the display size of different ebook reader screens? There is no simple answer and it would be difficult for any ebook reader to make intelligent decisions about what the author would consider most important to retain from the original design.

Some authors are providing ebook reader friendly versions of their documents in addition to the more graphical PDF version. Victoria Bampton’s “Adobe Lightroom 3 – The Missing FAQ” is one such example, and comparing the two versions demonstrates some of the trade offs required to take full advantage of the display device’s capabilities. In this case the loss of some visual flourishes does not overly impact the FAQ content, and the increased usability (and ability to read in portrait orientation) more than makes up for the trade offs.

One limitation of native ebook reader document formats is you have less control over displaying (or magnifying) images. This may be partly due to authors choosing to drop image resolution to reduce the size of the document, but regardless of the cause it makes more detailed images harder to view than with PDF versions of the documents.

There are products available that will let you attempt your own conversion from PDF to ebook reader native formats. Calibre is one of the better known solutions for this. In my own attempts I found the conversion of graphical layout intensive books problematic and ultimately futile. There were two main causes for this:

  1. Large images, whether background or standalone, were difficult for the software to intelligently place
  2. Using PDF as the source format for a conversion reduces the quality of the result. PDF is focussed upon the display of the content, and not the semantics of the content (paragraph structure, etc), so results are better if a Word document, HTML, or similar source format is used.

The verdict? Displaying PDFs on an ebook reader may not be ideal, but ebook reader native formats cannot maintain the graphical layout of photography books so normally PDF is the better choice. Only consider using ebook reader native formats for books with fewer (and smaller) supporting images. It is not recommended to attempt conversion of a photography ebook to a native document format unless you have something other than a PDF format to use as input to the process.

The verdict: How practical is a Kindle for reading photography books?

The Kindle can be quite practical for reading photography books, as long as you adhere to a few do’s and don’ts:



It will require some effort by the reader to work around the limitations of the device, and it will not be suitable for reading every book in you photography library, but it is still practical if you are willing to work within the device constraints.

Ultimately the decision comes down to personal preference, whether the user’s reading habits are compatible with the guidelines provided above, and whether your budget could extend to one of the alternatives below that provide a larger viewing area and a less constrained viewing experience.  I’m willing to work within the Kindle’s constraints for now, but will keep an eye on the alternatives and may reconsider my position in another year or so.

How would I expect other ebook readers or tablets to compare?

The base Kindle isn’t the only ebook reader on the market, and there are alternatives (namely tablet devices) that are also useful for reading books. Based upon my experience with the Kindle, and the publicly available technical specifications for some alternatives, I’ve made observations about how I’d expect a representative sample of the competition to relate to my experiences described above.

In summary the physically larger Kindle DX and iPaddevices have the potential to be used in portrait mode, and render usable multi-column and multi-page image spread documents that would otherwise be impractical on 6 and 7 inch screen devices. They have a lot of potential for reading photography ebook content and some authors (namely Craft and Vision) have recognised this and have started releasing iPad specific versions of their content to take advantage of this format.  If your reading habits support it and your budget can extend this far you should consider a Kindle DX or iPad device to give you greater flexibility in your reading choices.  Otherwise colour and E-Ink screens are the only significant differentiator between the remaining devices, and once again your reading habits will be the deciding factor as to which is more important to you.

Ebook Readers

All alternative ebook readers listed below are physically larger than the Kindle used for this article, and also have a higher resolution vertically though only the Kindle DX has a higher resolution horizontally. That means the text being read will be larger provided the 7 inch screens are being used in landscape orientation. The trade off is the 7 inch screens will require you to read a single page in smaller fragments (e.g. three to four fragments, instead of the Kindle’s two to three fragments) because the horizontal resolution has not increased to match the vertical resolution.  So it is possible the 7 inch screens will make the photography book reading experience more difficult because of excessive page turning and less of the page being displayed at any given time.

The Kindle DX has a 50% larger screen in addition to the larger horizontal and vertical resolutions. This may make the ebook text readable in portrait orientation, and if so this would significantly improve its usability with photography books. Multi-column documents could be read without constantly navigating around the screen. Double page image spreads could be viewed with a single page turn. This would make a much wider range of ebook content usable on the device and would resolve most of the qualifications made when recommending the smaller Kindle.

The NOOKcolor is the only colour ebook reader device included in this list. It has obvious benefits when reading heavily graphical photography books, but at the expense of being usable in fewer lighting conditions (e.g. LCD screens are difficult to use in full sunlight) and less suitable than E-Ink screens for longer reading sessions.

Product Price * Screen size
Screen Resolution
Screen Type
Kindle (Wi-Fi)
(included as baseline for comparison)
$139 6 inch 600 x 800 E-Ink, b&w
Kindle DX (3G) $379 9.7 inch 1200 x 824 E-Ink, b&w
NOOKcolor $249 7 inch 1024 x 600 LCD, colour
Sony Reader Daily Edition $259.99 7 inch 1024 x 600 E-Ink, b&w


One of the main attractions of a tablet is it is not a single purpose device like the average ebook reader. This increased utility means the user is more likely to have it with them when a reading opportunity presents itself, and the greater usage can make it easier to justify the additional upfront expense. For photographers they can even serve as a legitimate business tool to display their portfolio, amongst other tasks.

The iPad, as with the Kindle DX above, has the potential to be usable for a much wider range of photography ebook content than the 6 and 7 inch screen devices it is being compared with. The physically larger screen and pixel resolution should support reading in portrait orientation and be suitable for the types of photography books not recommended for use on the Kindle evaluated in the main article. The iPad also is able to display the books in full colour, though with the same reading trade offs as with other LCD screens. It will be usable in fewer lighting conditions (e.g. can’t be used in full sunlight) and is less suitable than an E-Ink screen for longer reading sessions.

The Galaxy Tab, and other 7 inch and smaller tablets, will suffer from the same issues as the remainder of the smaller ebook reader and tablet devices being considered here. It should not be purchased solely as an ebook reader, but it should be usable as an ebook reader if you purchased it for its general tablet capabilities.

Product Price * Screen size
Screen Resolution
Screen Type
Apple iPad (16GB, Wifi) $562.98 9.7 inch 1024 x 768 LCD, colour
Samsung Galaxy Tab (T-Mobile) $869.95 7 inch 1024 x 600 LCD, colour

* All prices are indicative and were recorded on December 9, 2010

Posted on December 7, 2010 at 10:35 pm by Matt · Permalink
In: Equipment, Review · Tagged with: , , ,