Reviewed by Geoffrey Wittig
Mastering Digital Black and White by Amadou Diallo
Thomson, 2007; retail $39.99 / $26.39 on Amazon
Go to any large bookstore these days and you’ll find many books on digital photography; probably four or five shelves of books on Photoshop alone. If you’re looking for something on digital black & white, however, your choices are far more limited. There are perhaps five or six recent “hobbyist” level books on the subject with remarkably similar content. Most contain a review of the basics of digital capture and scanning, file formats and the like. Then there’s a generic discussion of hardware (monitor/computer/printer), paper and ink. Next is a review of image editing technique at a fairly cursory level, and then lots of pages devoted to the digital emulation of toning, hand-coloring and "alternative processes" such as faux-cyanotype or lith printing. There are lots of nice pictures, but you sail through one of these books without ever really coming to grips with the nuts and bolts of producing a really fine digital print. Sort of like cotton candy: appealing at first, but in the long run not very satisfying.
Amadou Diallo’s Mastering Digital Black and White is very different. Deceptively small at about 7.5 x 9", this book appears to cram into its 370 pages almost everything there is to know on the subject.
Its subtle design contributes. The text is eminently readable, with near-optimal line length. Photos and illustrations are just large enough to see what’s going on, without hogging space more profitably devoted to the informative text.
And informative it is. Diallo is a photographer, teacher and master printer who runs his own studio in Brooklyn, NY. His writing is admirably clear and direct without being dull. He doesn’t condescend or over-simplify. This is the only book I have seen that approaches digital black & white photography with the kind of rigor and attention to detail seen in the Ansel Adams trio of books that many of us learned photography from.
The book begins with a sample of Diallo’s eclectic work, though it’s fair to say the small format doesn’t do his images justice. He moves on to a refreshingly specific discussion of what’s required to outfit a digital darkroom capable of producing excellent prints. Books on digital imaging tend to outdate very rapidly, but as of December 2007 his recommendations are entirely current. He frankly addresses the "technology treadmill," dryly noting that while digital has advantages over the traditional darkroom, "sadly, cost is not one of them."
Subsequent chapters delve deeply into the nitty-gritty of digital black & white. "Color Management for the Black and White Photographer" sounds like an oxymoron. Instead it’s a remarkably lucid discussion of the underlying principles and practical application of color management to monochrome work. Ironically, accurate color management is very important to "monochrome" because color casts or crossover problems are easier to see than in a color print. Anyone who has lived through the gross metamerism and color crossover of early digital black & white will appreciate how profiling, soft-proofing, and other tools are finally yielding repeatable, controllable results. "Photoshop in Black and White" includes lots of details about specific settings for optimum control, but it also includes the clearest explanation I have ever read of Photoshop’s blending modes. Diallo gives you a detailed set of tonal control methods to solve most any problem. Yes, many of them are available in those huge Photoshop tomes; but here they’re concisely presented without a lot of filler. "Black and White Inkjet Printing" gets into the specifics of the printing process, with detailed discussion of the options for black & white printing provided by the latest printers from the "big three"—Epson, Canon and HP. This is narrowly focused on pigment ink photographic printers, ignoring the $89 specials at Costco. RIP options are also discussed. Finally, "The Imaging Workflow" uses several interpretive prints to illustrate a repeatable and logical sequence devoted to optimizing quality, from capture to print.
The last two chapters are "The Limited Edition" and "The Portfolio." While a limited edition may exceed the ambitions of digital dilettantes like myself, the concept of a portfolio encompassing a unified and consistent body of work can bring valuable focus and direction to anyone’s work. Diallo spells out what is involved in producing a limited edition, right down to requirements of state law and certificates of authenticity.
As an added bonus, several chapters conclude with the author interviewing well-known figures in digital photography. Included are interviews with such luminaries as Henry Wilhelm (the authority on photographic permanence), Jon Cone (inventor of quad-black printing and the Piezography system), and Roy Harrington (author of QuadToneRIP, the widely used shareware). The print versions are brief, but readers are pointed to a website with free downloadable MP3 versions, some as long as 40 minutes. These are fascinating discussions, often digging deep into the intersection between art and technology. Great stuff.
To sum things up, if your goal is to produce a tolerable 8 x 10” black and white print on your home inkjet, there are a number of books available to help you. If instead you want to consistently produce black and white digital prints of the highest quality, while understanding the controls and tools at your disposal, there’s only one. My copy of Mastering Digital Black and White is getting so dog-eared and battered from constant use, I may have to buy another.
Geoff Wittig is a small town family physician with a passionate photography obsession. He spends most of his free days hiking and photographing—mostly rural landscapes—and sells enough prints to pay for ink and paper.
Featured Comment by wtlloyd: "This is a fantastic book, and not only for black and white printmakers...the early chapters gather together much of what passes as current conventional wisdom regarding digital photography. In this, it is really more of a primer, useful for all. Everyone should have a copy."