I'm a little mystified by the decidedly mixed reactions to Geoff's review of Amadou's black-and-white book. Perhaps what explains it is that there's a real hunger out there for advanced information (well, at least in our audience), and the book is too basic for those people.
I got into photography seriously in 1980, and by the time I enrolled in photography school (by accident—now there's a story, but it will have to await another occasion) in 1982, photo instruction books had already reached the point of diminishing returns for me—that is, I already knew most of what the majority of them contained, and each successive title yielded less and less new information. I finally got to the point that the effort just wasn't worth the return, and I stopped reading them. (Actually, I went through a period where I couldn't read them, because my mind would refuse to concentrate. I'd stare at the page like a zombie, thinking furiously about something entirely unrelated.)
I tend to recall most vividly the books that made the biggest impact on me when I was first learning, and then the books that expanded my knowledge usefully after I had mastered all the basics. The former group included David Vestal's The Craft of Photography (long out of print, despite my best efforts over the years to help it get reprinted) and The New Ansel Adams Photography Series vols. 1–3, The Camera, The Negative, and The Print; and the latter included Dr. Richard Henry's Controls in Black-and-White Photography (Second Edition), Image Clarity by John B. Williams, and (although it didn't have much to do with the practice of photography) Norman Goldberg's Camera Technology: The Dark Side of the Lens.
It didn't take me terribly long to completely master traditional black-and-white printing, although perhaps I'm discounting the long hours I spent in the darkroom experimenting—discounting it because I enjoyed it. As my knowledge increased, a number of things happened with regard to my relationship with technical books, aside from what I described above. For one thing, I tended to narrow down into my own major interests, which allowed me to shunt aside those books that fell outside of that interest—so I never really engaged with books about alternative processes, color, or lighting (I learned lighting mainly in the studio). Also, of course, I began discovering sloppiness and outright errors in the books I did read. And I began to be aware of "schools" of thought and theory, many of which were antagonistic to each other. (Richard Henry, a retired chemist, was motivated to carry out many of his experiments by the multitudinous errors—some egregious, some subtle—spread far and wide by Fred Picker of Zone VI Studios, at one time an influential "guru.") This last issue really came to the forefront when I became Editor-in-Chief of Photo Techniques, where I moderated a pseudo-journal that published articles by a number of competing experts, several of whom had a very low opinion of one another! (That's another long and entertaining story, but one that will also have to await another time for the telling.)
That Amadou's book doesn't contain much information on the aesthetics of fine printmaking isn't a surprise, as few books do. I remember being struck by the same absence in Harald Johnson's otherwise fine book Mastering Digital Printing. It's a tough subject to tackle because it's just "soft" enough that it requires a delicate hand, and considerable flexibility, on the part of an author. Ironically, it's just the sort of thing at which I myself excel. That makes me feel low, because it forces me to confront the fact that I just don't have the stamina and energy to write a book on the subject. Not to get all confessional on you, but I suffer from chronic depression and low energy, and there are just some things I can't do (even some of the things I think I can). Writing whole books on speculation (i.e., with no advance from a publisher) is one of them.
At any rate, Amadou's book struck me just about the same way it struck Geoff; I've recommended to many times to many people. However, obviously you should take that with a grain of salt, as it's apparently not making everyone happy. I just assume that most people in need of a technical book are going to be at a certain beginner-to-intermediate level where much of the information Amadou presents is going to be helpful and useful. If that's not the case for some people, it strikes me as not so much an indictment of the book itself as evidence that they've chosen the wrong book; but that's my interpretation, and others have different interpretations.
Here are a couple of comments recommending alternatives, and at the end of this post I'll build a list of Amazon links to all the books mentioned in this posting (please have patience for the fact that several of the books that I've mentioned are not in print). I would promise to dig out Uwe Steinmuller's book and give it a review, except that I hardly see the point in adding one more unfinished task to my long list of unfinished tasks or of making a promise that I won't have the git-up-an'-go to git up and do. And I note that there is a book by John Beardsworth called Advanced Black & White Digital Photography, and the same author also has a book called Digital Black & White Photography, which would seem to imply that the latter is more basic and the former more, well, advanced—but I don't know either book at all, so don't take this mention as an endorsement.
Sorry to be so U.S.A.-centric with the links list, too, but it would take me all morning to build all of these links for every country's Amazon. Our links to Amazons in other countries can be found on the lower right-hand side of this page. Thanks again for using our links; it brings a little income our way.
Anyway, Caveat emptor ("buyer beware")—but there are riches here, too.
Featured Comment by Yanchik: "Suggestion: John and David Collett, Black and White Landscape Photography. 1) It's only Landscape. 2) Its technical content is pre-digital. 3) It's, um, non-intellectual. That is to say, it would be suitable for a motivated sixteen year old or an internet Everyman. If you can talk about vehicular medium specificity, this is beneath your knowledge...however, it does have five pages on landscape photography as art starting from "What is art ?"; 46 pages on Composition Techniques, and only 22 pages on equipment, darkroom techniques, and the Zone System. So for me it's a handy primer/reminder on the nuts-and-bolts of composition, complementary to the AA trio of books. Can anyone do better? Post away; I for one would be pleased to see other ideas."
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: Part of Mastering Digital Black and White's Chapter 5 really does deal with B&W conversions. Chapter 6 discusses printing B&W, albeit at a somewhat cursory level.
The best all-around book on "geting the most" from raw image files is the newest edition of Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS3. With all respect to the late pioneer Bruce Fraser, who authored the first edition, Jeff Schewe has taken this book to a whole new level of information richness and usefulness. If you don't already own this book, just buy it now. [And if you're not up for an entire book, note the ad in the upper left-hand corner of this page, for Michael Tapes' excellent "RAW Without FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt)" video. Much of the same content, much more painlessly. —Ed.]
Regarding books specifically dealing with B&W conversions there are several (including one by Michael Freeman that shares the same title as this one). There are also a few that deal nicely with the topic within the general "digital photography" realm. It seems like there are a ridiculous number of "digital photography" books on the shelves today, most of which are the same ol' same ol'.
Honestly, though, I don't think that you'll find nirvana in any current or future book. There are no dance-step formulas for achieving "success" with B&W conversions or color corrections Today's tools give you remarkable power and precision for such tasks, making experimentation the best at-hand tutor. Take the time to learn your tools. Take the time to learn through experimentation with your images. Success with digital image processing, whether color or b&w, rests largely on FIRST having a vision of what you want to accomplish. I have long suspected that the vast majority of digital shooters miss this fundamental requirement and spend most of their time stumbling through Photoshop "tricks," arriving at a "finished product" only when they tire of working on the image.
While the skill profile for digital darkroom expertise might seem very different than that of the wet darkroom, in fact they're different only in their tools. (Having precedent knowledge in a wet darkroom only helps you envision the potential.) Both require a measure of talent and large measures of practice and failure. Books may promise to offer mastery in 300 pages but it just ain't so.
Books cited in this post (in order of mention):
David Vestal, The Craft of Photography
Ansel Adams, The Camera (Ansel Adams Photography, Book 1)
Ansel Adams, The Negative (Ansel Adams Photography, Book 2)
Ansel Adams, The Print (Ansel Adams Photography, Book 3)
Richard J. Henry, Controls in Black-And-White Photography
John B. Williams, Image Clarity: High-Resolution Photography
Norman Goldberg, Camera Technology: The Dark Side of the Lens
John Beardsworth, Advanced Black & White Digital Photography (A Lark Photography Book)
John Beardsworth, Digital Black & White Photography
John and David Collett, Black & White Landscape Photography
Bruce Fraser and Jeff Schewe, Real World Camera Raw with Adobe Photoshop CS3 (Real World)
Oh, and a P.S. from MJ: "Mastery" does indeed imply someone who is learning; a "masterpiece" was, in the guilds, the final exam of a journeyman who was aspiring to open his own shop. We now widely misuse the term to mean something created by a master, but that wasn't its original meaning. So I think the word "mastering" in a book title does accurately imply the struggle to bring oneself up to a minimum standard of mastery, rather than implying that by the time you're done you'll have all of the knowledge a true master has. Nit-picky, but hey, it's what editors do.
Mike (Thanks to Ken and Yanchik)
P.P.S. This post was way too much like work (smile).
Feastured Comment by Antonis: "We should consider ourselves rather lucky that Amadou has put in one place most of the essential information for making digital B&W prints. Not only is B&W printing a niche largely ignored by the big printer manufacturers but the knowledge and technology necessary for top B&W prints is either scattered across the internet or may even be considered 'proprietary' by some of the more advanced printers who make a living with it. Having a serious book on the subject not only jump-starts the process for newcomers, it also signals to manufacturers that there is a community and a market out there they should not ignore.
"Back in July 2001 when we started the yahoo group DigitalBlackandWhiteThePrint there was a real need to put our collective heads together to figure out how to best use available resources. Now, six years, 9000 members and some 90,000 messages (!) later, besides sharing up-to-the-minute developments in B&W techniques, this group has become a historical record of the rapid evolution in the field and of how people dealt with it.
"Yet, as everyone who tried it knows, to get complete up-to-date information on printing B&W digitally one has to spend hours and days and weeks sifting through messages and posting questions hoping the more knowledgeable would volunteer to help the newcomers. Such is life on most forums, of course, especially those dealing with technical matters.
"So to get a nice book—or two—gathering a whole lot of esoteric knowledge in one place, should offer a much needed solid ground for a lot of people who may be floating out there trying to make sense of all the jargon in those forum messages. Needless to say, no single volume will fit all tastes and all expectations, neither will it magically update itself by the hour—which is what it would take to keep up with the latest.
"For that we are back to life online as usual. And for those willing to invest the time, there are now far more forums and even more messages to wade through than there were less than a decade ago. The idea then is to learn from the printed page without losing sight of that bigger context which will always be in flux."