Most technical photography books—the ones that are more about producing images than about creative expression—deal with pixels and the digital photography medium. These books discuss Photoshop techniques, speedlight setup, working with lenses or any number of other hardware or software topics. It’s pretty rare to read one that discusses denatured alcohol, emulsions and other hands-on techniques that bring back memories of the darkroom.
Digital Alchemy by Bonny Pierce Lhotka is just such a book, and I really enjoyed reviewing it. Digital Alchemy is more about digital printmaking than digital photography, but producing the initial transfer images involves photography, Photoshop and whatever digital tools are needed to realize the artist’s vision. Bonny produces her own print transfer products (such as the SuperSauce medium that is used often in the book) and has done extensive testing and experimentation to formulate the techniques in this book. Her pedigree is a strong foundation for the book.
A lot of the book is made of printmaking tutorials. Most require creating an inkjet print on transfer film, applying a transfer medium and then the actual transferring of the image to one of a variety of surfaces—including metal, wood, stone and even metal leaf (including aluminum foil!). Bonny has created techniques for all of these projects and Digital Alchemy really feels like a cookbook—follow the instructions, play with the techniques, and in the end you’ll have a finished product in your hands. This combination of printmaking craftsmanship and digital creation is very satisfying and fun.
I don’t always view DVDs that come with books because they usually contain images and photos from the book’s tutorials. In Digital Alchemy‘s case, however, the DVD contains an hour of well-produced video tutorials showing Bonny in action on a few different projects. I thought they were clear and well-done, and nicely complemented the book. I have seen worse video tutorials being sold by themselves for a lot more money. Here, you get the video and a book for a fair price.
Digital Alchemy is not for everyone: if working in a darkroom sounds messy and unappealing, then you probably aren’t one to apply smelly solutions to film and materials you get out of the home improvement store. However, photographers who started in film photography or even started out as painters and printmakers will absolutely love it. I highly recommend it.
I was struck by how useful From Design Into Print would have been for me in 1999, when I started my career at a local newspaper. The company gave me a copy of Newspaper Ads That Make Sales Jump: A How-to Guide but From Design Into Print would have been much more pertinent to my everyday work preparing images and layouts for printing. There are also projects and quizzes at the end of every chapter, but I found the projects so broad and intensive that they didn’t hold my interest. One project asks the reader to pick up a magazine and study the dot patterns in printed images, but why not just print some pattern close-ups right there and explain their qualities? Fortunately, project topics are usually explored elsewhere in the book.
One difference between From Design Into Print and a similar production guide from ten years ago is the inclusion of chapters on image sources (digital photography, stock photos and clip art) and some new technologies (PDF, Acrobat and other applications). This book shouldn’t be considered just a book on printing: it encompasses the full production workflow, which I think it vital since designers are called to do much more today than in the past. The only things I think could have been expanded were the sections on PDF/X specifications, which can demystify the whole PDF export process, and color correction, which is vital to print production but is not really discussed in From Design Into Print.
A few mistakes
The information and techniques in From Design Into Print is pretty much free of errors, but there were enough spelling mistakes to make me notice. Ironically, three of them are on page 261 in the paragraphs about errata and fixing spelling mistakes after printing. Sandee tells me one is intentional (read the passage and you’ll know why). I’m not too bothered by harmless typos but there are also a couple product names that are misspelled, and that is more serious. The worst is Apple Aperture, misspelled “Apperture” twice in the same section.
Despite these flubs, From Design Into Print is an excellent book overall—one I would give to any designer new in the field. The tools for print production are available to everyone today but there’s still craft and skill involved in printing the dots and vectors that make up the printed page. From Design Into Print teaches the craft very well.