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Monday, 01 September 2014


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Interesting. The three Ansel Adams books were my foundational texts. Actually, before those I got a lot out of the old Life Library of Photography; it was not too deep technically, but useful there for a beginner, and it had lots and lots of very well-reproduced pictures to study. I've got the Vestal but hardly remember what's in it (I'm pretty sure I have read it).

Almost everything I've seen in actual bookstores has been far too cook-book, not deep enough, too much about tech with no understanding of why; all my good photo books have been hunted down or mail-ordered.

Oh, it's a step away, but possibly the most useful book I've actually read relating to photography is Light: Science & Magic (Hunter & Fuqua). Although it's mostly useful if you're controlling the light rather than finding it.

Also, don't underrate (at least historically) the value of the film and chemical data sheets. And all those Kodak pamphlets!

You really need to find a way to get help moderating comments. I know it's a very important job (I moderated the Fidonet SF echo back in the late 80s / early 90s, which was a paragon of good behavior and good community if I do say so myself). It's not a job just anybody can do, but you could fairly easily find five people, say, who could reliably recognize comments that definitely should go through, and find some schedule where somebody other than you was looking at comments several times a day (leaving you to do it less often, and handle the actual decisions still).

Because comments not going through predictably and fairly promptly is quite frustrating to the community following the discussion, and their continued interest is what makes TOP work.

(Of course things have been less good than usual lately in this regard due to your super-extreme level of additional commitments many of which are investments in TOP's future, so I'm writing this from having just gone through one of the more frustrating patches in this regard.)

Like lots of people who had a darkroom, I have got far too many books on black and white processing including the three by Ansel Adams.

The “Ilford Monocrome Darkroom Practice” was a sort of Bible for me. I learnt a lot when starting from “Beginners Guide to Darkroom Practice” by Ralph Hattersley, a book I remember with much affection.

The three books by Adams did not inspire me very much.The Zone system book by White Zakia and Lorenz was much more useful.

Please check out Beyond Basic Photography by Henry Horenstein. When I was struggling with the zone system and film curves, push and pull developing this book made it all very clear. One of the best ever written for B&W photography.

I had to go check my bookshelf to see if I had any of those, but ... no longer. When I sold off my darkroom a couple decades ago, the books went with it. The irony is, I now have that Kickstarter Travelwide 4x5 to plan around, and a growing collection of stuff to use with it. However, no enlarger. Epson Perfection scanner will be my enlarger of choice.

addendum to what I just posted:

And I gave my copy of The Straw Bale House to someone with a greater opportunity to make use of it.

Sometimes, there are just too many dreams to pursue all at once, and too short of a lifetime to do all of them "eventually."

I have The Negative and David Vestal's The Craft of Photography. I'd say the Vestal book is an absolute must read for photographers.

Some time ago, wanting to learn more about digital b&w, I invested in "The Complete Guide to Digital Black & White Photography" by Michael Freeman. The mistake I made on browsing the contents page was to turn first to the section on Nik Silver Efex Pro. So impressed was I that I immediately downloaded the trial version and discovered that with a couple of clicks I could produce b&w photographs far beyond my meagre Lightroom skills. So, thanks very much Mr. Freeman and one day soon I'm definitely going to go back and read the rest of your book!

Lambrecht & Woodhouse "Way Beyond Monochrome" would be a good investment as both an initial exposure to B&W as well as a long-term reference. I've read it from cover-to-cover and frequently dip into it when stumped.

You covered much of the same in an old post…


…including the anti-Picker commentary. I would be interested in the longer story at some point.

Personally, I found Adams, Vestal and Picker very useful, in various ways; the latter encouraged actually trying things rather than just reading and believing them (including his own writings), so in that respect one could do a lot worse in practicing learning principles.

Think Vincent Versace's book "From Oz to Kansas" would be a good recommendation for B&W photography book. Also, as an aside, if you're serious and have an Epson printer, check out the Quadtone RIP. Does very well with Epson UltraChrome K3 inks. As another aside, Tonality from MacPhun is a very nice new package, and is currently on sale at the app store.

I wasn't expecting you to list Mao's Little Red Book as an example of a book many people find inspiring and then I clicked the link.


It is a few years ago now, but I really liked Leslie Alsheimer's Black & White in Adobe Photoshop CS4 & Adobe Lightroom (focal press).

Dear Mike, Many congratulations on your new place. One thing I've been considering recently are the pros and cons of purchasing a Shelby Cobra replica, either used, or to build from a kit, or have someone do it all for you; all compared with buying a modern Corvette. You might like to write about that.(I have made my decision) Best, Max

[Superformance? --Mike]

Mike, In the 70s and early 80s, I followed Picker and several others as I was trying to learn photography, especially black and white. Only many years later did I learn that many disliked Picker, some intensely. I still don't know why? Can you enlighten me?

(You can respond privately if that serves you better)


The best "B&W Techniques" books, IMHO, are:
1) Gene Smith, any work. This is how you move the souls.
2) Hurrell's. This is how to light with Hollywood lights.
3) Fan Ho. This is how you shoot with backlight.
4) Salgado, especially the earlier works such as "Other Americas" and Sahel. This is how you move the hearts.


I was thinking this exact same thing. I like my B&W's, but I'd also like to be able to do them properly too, in a vaguely Mike-endorsed way.

Yes, Mike, there are probably many out there, but I find "Advanced Digital Black & White Photography" by John Beardsworth to be my most used reference especially for toning. I also have Diallo's book and find it worthwhile for other reasons.

Really startled me, and I was sure I was getting the names confused somehow. But not so.

(Clearly two people with the same name! I already knew about the one not involved in photography.)

A good starter is Darkroom Basics ...and Beyond, by Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz. As well as giving excellent advice on black and white processing and printing, there's some good advice on exposure.

My favourite bit of advice in the book is to hang up your film to dry diagonally, across a doorway. The film dries very quickly, with little or no dust.

Their book Perfect Exposure is very good, too.

Mikes call on a superformance sounds kind of wonderful. I wonder how their Daytona Coupe would be?. On the other hand you could take this route and go back to basics but for the cost of a really nice house.


A little rich for my blood but still it is a beauty.

For the last six years or so, I have followed Picker's procedure for for roll film development (found in the Zone VI Workshop) and have gotten cleaner and more consistent negs as a result. The rest of the book is over my head. The Vestal books and Bartlett's Black and White workshop are down in the darkroom, much consulted. But the reason I write is to remind folks about Edge of Darkness, Barry Thornton's magnum opus. The only kind of pixel peeping I enjoy is with a Magnasight and plus 4 diopter. Thank you Barry.

Gene Nocon's book Photographic Printing was one of my favourites.

Mike, thank you for your reply.

I decided to go with "The Black and White Handbook" by Roger Hicks & Frances Schultz for starters.

Lots of good reading in those suggestions I guess.



I have read (at least parts of) many books on black and white technique, including most of the ones identified by Mike. Thinking back on them, two that made strong impressions at the time I read them are:

Horenstein's Beyond Basic Photography. I read this when I started getting serious about careful exposure and development. The book provides a very clear introduction to the relationships among negative exposure, development, negative density and contrast control.

Vestal's The Art of Enlarging. I actually read this when I was starting to do black and white inkjet printing, and I found it very enlightening in that context. Even though it is way pre-digital, I found that the discussions of tonality, how it is expressed in a print and how the eye perceives it, all carried over well to inkjet printing,

One thing that still sticks in my mind is Vestal's point that different papers, even with the same overall contrast, can have significantly different curves, and some papers will fit a negative much better than others, making the printing much easier.* This, I think, is one of the big advantages that digital printing brings: We now have infinitely adjustable paper! Of course, that also means that there are infinitely many ways to mess things up!


* I just checked to make sure that this really is in this book. It is, more or less, on page 253.

Way Beyond Monochrome is a great book. It can provide very deep tech stuff too, iif you like to navigate by numbers.

Digital is taught online via Lynda.com and You Tube tutorials. Workflow changes as Photoshop and other tools rapidly evolve. I haven't seen an up-to-date digital photography book since the old Bruce Fraser "Real World" series back in the lazy days of floppy discs (or were they Zip drives?)

Once you get beyond the Photoshop/Lightroom plug-ins for B&W there isn't a whole lot to write about outside of the back and forth mix of good and bad information on the forums, and a lot of it is mechanical, like clicking checkboxes on print drivers.

Otherwise, what I see being published as artful digital B&W looks an awful lot like monochrome HDR with plenty of low radius sharpening for that surreal sharper than life look. I don't want to follow their "expert" advice.

Say what you will about Picker but his Zone System book was accessible and he drew a lot of new large format photographers in. I miss his newsletters and mimeographs.

I might add Bruce Barnbaum's "The Art of Photography."

Mike, just downloaded an eBook for Kindle
"22 ways to convert a color picture to B&W" by Jim Dittmer. Basic info but revealing. See what you think. I've also read "From Oz to Kansas" by Vincent Versace which I found to be the rationale behind one of the popular B&W conversion softwares.

"Horenstein (Basic and Beyond Basic) was what my teachers had us buy, but I never read them."

Still valuable and full of information organized so as to be both useful and understandable.

I had the best book ever in the history of the world to teach me how to process and print B&W:

Dad, November, 2009

My dad. He showed me how and then let me do it.

Adams's The Negative and The Print are still very useful, but in the age of digital, I'm not sure I would put myself through that (the Zone System) again. His most useful advice is to own a couple of really fine B&W prints—to see what's possible and in what direction to head as one is printing. The Yosemite Special Edition Photographs are $295 and made for this purpose. I bought one and have gotten much use and pleasure from it.

I have the Ansel Adam's set and read through them. Very dry and not great reading! The man was a not a great writer.
We used the Phil Davis' Photography 5th edition in school and I still sometimes refer back to it (25 years later). He does cover the basics of densitometry. It's a great resource for all things photographic (from the film days).
You can find copies on ebay.

I have read Amadou Diallo's Mastering Digital Black and White and there is a lot of technical detail in there. As someone who has never shot black and white film (only colour), and now shooting digital, I have no idea what a "good" black and white print really looks like. I play around with it from time to time, but it always looks unnatural to me. I have some books with black and white images that I enjoy, and have seen some gallery shows of black and white images, but not having seen those same images in colour I don't have a good way of uderstanding the colour->monochrome transition.

Er, ahem...No mention of Ctein's "Post-Exposure"?

And at the risk of alienating Ctein himself, as well as many others, I should mention that the best other guide to printing I've used was a small 2 page cheat sheet on B&W printing written by the late, much reviled Fred Picker that came packed with some minor piece of equipment I once bought from him.

Way better than his book, or most others, on the subject.

And yes, I do treasure and keep my back issues of "Photo Techniques" and "Camera and Darkroom" magazines from the 1980s and 1990s safe with Mike Johnston's writings on the subject.

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