Photographic Material and Processes

a review by Philip Greenspun; created 1998

Site Home : Photography : Photographic Material and Processes

Big Island, Hawaii Photographic Materials and Processes by Leslie Stroebel, John Compton, Ira Current, and Richard Zakia (1986 Focal Press, 608 pp, was $64.95 hardcover but is now out of print, ISBN 0-240-51752-0; a stripped down 400pp version is Basic Photographic Materials and Processes, $54.95 softcover, ISBN 0-240-80405-8, order from .

This book is the basis of a one-year course at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the world's premiere school of photography. It is comprehensive and nearly every page contains useful information that will affect the way you take pictures.

Control of contrast and density is the sine qua non of great photographers and that's where Stroebel starts. If you wanted to know how the curve that defines a film's sensitivity to light gets turned into a single ISO number, this is your chance. There are plenty of graphs and formulae to satisfy the technically-educated, although I imagine the non-technical will find the book self-contained.

Film isn't much good without a camera and lens so the authors move into techniques of exposure and metering. An example of the focus on professional photographers is the coverage of leaf shutter efficiency (the fact that a leaf shutter at 1/500th of a second will overexpose by a full f-stop if the diaphragm is stopped all the way down; this is because the shutter is calibrated with the understanding that it will take awhile to open fully but from the perspective of an f/64 "pinhole", the shutter opens almost instantly).

The coverage of optics is unsatisfying to my taste, but it is probably the best that could be done in 50 pages.

Photographic Materials explains photographic chemistry, the structure of film emulsions and bases, and obscure printing processes such as Platinum, Diazo, and Carbo. Upon this foundation, the authors build an understanding of formal evaluation of image quality given postulates of human visual perception capabilities. The last portion of the book is given over to color, colorimetry, and color printing.

This is a formidable, serious book that will satisfy the scientist or engineer who is interested in becoming the best possible photographer in the minimum amount of time. It will come as a revelation to those who've struggled with camera owner's manuals and photo technique written for the lazy and/or stupid. If you can get through this book, you will know more about how photography works than the vast majority of working photographers.

A non-technical person can get a lot out of this book in a few evenings. There really isn't a painless non-technical way to learn this material, although some photographers seem to absorb it viscerally after exposing thousands of rolls of film and spending years in the darkroom.

Photographic Materials and Processes gets my highest recommendation. My only wish is for a newer edition (or at least a reprinting of the old one).

[Note: If you are truly frightened by things technical, an excellent book is Photography (6th Edition) by Barbara London and John Upton (ISBN 0321011082, available from ). This is used as a textbook for many introductory courses.]

Comparison of big old version and thin new version

Hawaii. I gave both versions of Photographic Materials and Processes to my friend Rob. He loved them both and had the following to say...

"the new version is a tiny bit smaller in scope. 1/2 the stuff missing is because of better editing and writing, and 1/2 is genuine missing information. Of the missing information, only 1/2 of it matters. So, the paperback is missing a few useful things, but not much. It is interesting to note that the page number difference is mostly because of reformatting which allows greater text/page. So, the size difference is much smaller than you think. The paperback is an excellent book -- a must read. I would suggest they have a new two-book edition where they split the material into 'basic' and 'advanced.' They should add back what they deleted, and put in a new section on digital stuff."

There it is.

You can order this book from .