Free Digital Versions of Old Photography Books That Are in the Public Domain


Project Gutenberg is a digital library volunteer effort that takes old public domain and converts them into freely available eBooks for the benefit of the general public. Founded back in 1971, the library now has over 42,000 items in its collection.

Among the books in its collection are a number of old books on the subject of photography. One such book is the 1881 title, The Art and Practice of Silver Printing by Capt. Abney and H. P. Robinson (shown above).

That book was announced today as the 25,000th public domain book to be scanned, put through optical character recognition, and meticulously proofread by Distributed Proofreaders, a volunteer effort that helps add public domain books to Project Gutenberg.

A quick search of the Project Gutenberg library for the term ‘photography’ reveals a number of other public domain books — 37, to be exact.


Some of the books feature photographs shot centuries ago — color photos of birds, for example — while others are about the technical aspects of photography.

One of the big names you’ll find in the collection is William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the fathers of photography. The collection includes his book The Pencil of Nature from 1844:


A search for “camera” also returns a handful of results.

Most of the photography-related stuff you’ll find in the digital library probably won’t be very applicable to the imaging you do nowadays, but if you’re interested in history and old photography techniques, it’s definitely worth spending some time poking around in the collection.

‘Photography’ Books in Project Gutenberg (via Reddit)

  • nate parker


  • herzco

    Just what we need: a digital version of something that clearly should be physically experienced and touched.

  • leliela

    Oh I’m sorry herzco that the distribution of free formation for everyone around the world bothers you. Maybe you can buy us all copies instead.

  • lee-o

    sometimes the information is more valuable than the “experience”

  • Bruce Alan Horn

    Cool. It is interesting to see the detail of the Talbotypes (calotypes) he includes in this book. Most of the photographs of his that I see in photo history resources only include some of the earliest works which don’t have near the amount of detail of some of these (I believe the broom by the door and bridge are two more commonly seen works). Most comments on early photography point up the great advantage in detail that Daguerreotypes had over Talbotypes and it is evident that they would be far more desirable for portraits. But looking at these, I think I would have been quite happy with them for landscapes or still-lifes.

    Yes, it would be nice to see some of these books in person some day, and I hope to visit more of the museums where some of the original photos reside, but the likelihood that I or most other people will see them in person is very slim so having this resource available online is fantastic. Also, the fact that they have been OCRed means that it should be possible to do some interesting searches on specific topics within their text.

  • Dave Engh

    I love the physicality of hardcopy books (the smell of the paper and ink,the act of turning a page, etc), but come on – most people couldn’t afford to buy copies of these books if they could find them. People that can afford them and want them can still do so.

    This is a Good Thing.

  • herzco

    Maybe people can BUY things instead of expecting everything for free. (Also the word is “information”, not “formation”. There are lots of free sites where you can find the correct spelling of words.

  • herzco

    I totally agree, however I feel that a majority of people ( many of whom have not even been around archival materials such as this) will never make any effort to check them out in person. Many libraries have archival materials and it is very helpful to see books such as these in person. Not everything benefits from being reduced to shortcuts.

  • leliela

    As I said, maybe you can BUY them for all of us since you’re so keen on that, and tell the people from the Project Gutenberg to not even bother with all their work because you don’t want free stuff, even if there are things that can’t be bought in extreme locations of the world.
    And excuse the autocorrect, I’m sure it has never happened to you because you have bought lots of books with correct spelling.