Review: John Batdorff’s Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shots

One of my long-term goals for this blog is to do more reviews of photography books (and e-books).  Being something of an autodidact, Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shotsmuch of my photography education has come from the pages of some very good books, so I understand what a powerful tool they can be for a beginning (or intermediate) photographer.  With my primary criteria of high expectations, I’m pleased to kick off a series of reviews by starting with John Batdorff’s excellent new book on black and white photography, Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shots.

While the basic rules and concepts of digital photography apply (obviously) to black and white work as well as color, if you’re looking to produce quality work in monochrome there are some very specific things you need to know and keep in mind if you want to get great results.  Batdorff’s book–his third under the Peachpit Press imprint–is a great tool for getting you there.

While the focus of the book is black and white photography, Batdorff begins with a primer on basic photography (including the always-helpful inventory of what he shoots with, from lens choices to filters) and then leads you through the concepts specific to shooting in black and white.   In fact, his instruction on general digital photography is so thorough the book could easily work as an all-purpose photography guide.

Beautifully illustrated with Batdorff’s own photos as illustrative guides, he shows as much as he tells you how to tailor your shooting for black and white.  All of the photos are accompanied by EXIF data (or, the exposure specifics including ISO, f stop and aperture).  As he leads you through discussions on contrast, tonality, exposure and lighting, that info is enormously helpful in translating concept to reality.  Looking back at my own photography education, perhaps the greatest learning tool for me has been studying the EXIF info on images I liked, so I’m especially pleased to see that information included with all of the illustrative photos in this book.

Batdorff recognizes the enormous flexibility that digital photography has brought to the craft, and he rightly covers black and white photography from pre-visualization, to how you approach your images in the field, to how to handle images in post-processing.  The advantage of such broad instruction is that it gives the photographer options for how to handle his work for monochrome whether he’s going out with the specific goal of producing black and white work, or wants to convert existing images from color to black and white.  He even briefly covers printing images in the final chapter–so this is about as thorough a book as you’re likely to find on the topic.  Printing your own photos is a whole other world to learn (and I note this as I sit here eyeing my own newly-arrived Epson printer, still in its box), but it’s helpful having this cursory info, and a nice inclusion to round out the book.

He also covers multiple photography genres–while my work focuses almost exclusively on landscapes, I found his sections on portraits and photojournalism to be quite informative.  He even includes a basic lighting guide in the portraits section!

But I found the best part of the book–and the most exhaustive–to be his focus on how to approach black and white images in post.  My own biases may be showing here, but I’m greatly pleased with his strong recommendation of Adobe Lightroom and the Silver Efex Pro plugin as the best tools to use in post-processing.  He praises Lightroom 3 as being so thorough an editing tool that he only uses Adobe’s Photoshop about 5 percent of the time for processing; I find that ratio to match my own just about exactly.  The latest version of Lightroom is such a powerful–and powerfully good–processing program that you can get away with using that almost all the time unless you need to do some of the more complicated tasks better suited to Photoshop.  Coupled with its workflow functions and the outstanding Silver Efex Pro plugin, you’ll have all the tools you’ll ever need to produce stunning black and white images.  And Batdorff’s book leads you through black and white processing in those two programs in great detail.  If you’ve been depending solely on Lightroom presets to convert images to black and white, or just played around with the vibrance and saturation sliders to whittle a shot down to a basic monochrome, Batdorff will open up an entire world of processing possibilities for you–and give you control over finely tuned contrast and tone that you probably weren’t aware were at your disposal until now.

Batdorff’s writing style is as approachable as it is instructive, which makes this kind of book even more valuable.  He includes anecdotes of his own experiences in black and white photography (that accompany the gorgeous photos I’ve already mentioned), and each chapter concludes with four assignments–suggestions to practice all aspects of black and white photography, from the importance of telling a story with your images, to how to use filters in the field, to how to handle all those steps in post-processing that may be new to you.

Whether you’re just setting out to take photos with black and white expressly in mind, or are eyeing existing image files as potential good candidates for conversion to black and white, Black and White: From Snapshots to Great Shots will guide you through the steps necessary to produce great black and white images.  If you’re looking for a black and white photography class between the covers of a book, this is one you’ll want to check out.


I’ll be reviewing a few more books over the coming months, and next up will be Guy Tal’s new e-book, Creative Digital Printing, a timely review as I’m just beginning to learn the ins and outs of digital printing myself.