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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Don't Be Neutral

When I started printing black-and-white digitally I was delighted that I could make perfectly neutral B&W prints. Rather to my surprise, these neutral prints were disappointing. It took me a while to figure out why. Here’s a perfectly neutral B&W photo:

When I first printed this photo digitally it seemed lifeless, without depth or vitality. When I compared the neutral digital print to a gelatin silver print, I saw the problem. I had thought a gelatin silver B&W print was a neutral print, or at least all the shades of gray were toned the same color, and, it turns out this just isn’t true. Not only do gelatin silver papers have an overall color cast (warm tone, or cold tone), they have shifts in color from shadow to midtone to highlight. That’s part of what makes gelatin silver B&W prints have a sense of "depth." Part of the secret to getting "life" into B&W digital prints is to not make them neutral. Introduce some desirable color shifts to that neutral print, and you get this:

Inkjet printing and gelatin silver printing have different strengths and weaknesses. I think it makes sense to play to the strengths of a medium and avoid the weaknesses, and that leads me to conclude that the best inkjet print won’t look like a traditional gelatin silver print. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the lessons that can be gained from gelatin silver printing. A lot of very smart people worked really hard to elevate gelatin silver printing to its current beautiful state. They were constrained by the limits of the technology they were working with, and now that we’ve got a technology shift, it would be foolish to mindlessly emulate the fetters that they wore. On the other hand, it would be foolish to discard their deep understanding of the art of presenting a monochrome image, too.

The same is true in the world of digital capture. When we say that digital B&W has a "highlight problem," left unsaid is that B&W film has a "shadow problem" and a "noise problem." Why is one discussed but not the other? It’s because we’ve lived with the film problems for decades, and we’ve grown to love our prison. Digital B&W and film based B&W have different strengths and weaknesses, and the highest expression in the digital B&W world will be different from the highest expression in the silver-based world.

Different isn’t synonymous with bad. Instead of viewing every difference between silver-based photography and digital photography as weaknesses in the new technology, it’s far more productive as artists to pick up the new technology and ask ourselves, "Where can I go with this that I couldn’t go before?" The best path forward isn’t to refuse to pick up digital cameras until the results are exactly like those we get with film, and it isn’t to mindlessly adopt the new technology and forget the lessons of the past, either. The best path forward is to pick up the new technology, embrace its different strengths and weaknesses, and extend our hard won knowledge rather than discard it.

Posted by PAUL BUTZI


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd been thinking along the lines of "different" vs. "better" after Carl raised his point about noise. Personally, I've got one digital b/w shot, taken at a high ISO (when it didn't really need to be), with which I was extremely pleased with the impact that the noise made. I have also found that the RAW processor makes a huge impact upon the quality of the noise.

I like the idea of considering film vs. digital as, if not exactly complementary processes, not exactly competing, either. On evaluating and exploring the strengths of a new medium: if we set aside the process questions, and consider only the "final" print, are there any identifiable advantages of digital- vs. film-based printing?

11:45 PM  
Anonymous auspiciousdragon said...

I don't know whether there is a simple answer to this question........but isn't it easier to get great looking subtle tones in a monochrome photograph on screen than it is to transfer those subtleties to paper.

If I use Photoshop's duotone function, or one of the many "sepia" filters available, I find that my printer generates a (usually) magenta cast from the file. Whereas if I keep the screen version neutral and use the RIP (ImagePrint) to add the colour I can't really see what I'm doing in advance.

Is there any advice other than 'trial and error'?

3:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On my monitor the sky looks a lot better on the neutral print.

4:56 AM  
Blogger John B said...

Nice article. I agree with you. I use the Quadtone RIP and whether I go warm or cold I use the 85% blend to achieve this. I also found that if you use the filters in PS on a bw print you must print them as color as the Quadtone treats everything as greyscale.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Uwe Steinmueller said...

>Whereas if I keep the screen version neutral and use the RIP (ImagePrint) to add the colour I can't really see what I'm doing in advance.

>Is there any advice other than 'trial and error'?

Try this:


10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good alternate viewpoint. I was a former darkroom worker who grew frustrated with it's environmental limitations - fresh & different chemicals, darkness, time between tasks and procedural feedback, at certain points, no second chances, etc.

Can digital equal to "wet" B&W? Don't know; don't care. It suits my needs and enhances my creative desires. I have produced more and better work since switching to digital, and more readily fixed my shortcomings (my kids' grades improved in school when they could repair poor work easily on the computer rather than re-copy a paper by hand - did type have the same personality as penmanship? no; but their product was better).

I gain a great deal from reading articles on both digital and traditional techniques; there is always something to be learned and transferred. It's a visual medium and, I believe, the proof is in the product, not the process. I can now achieve a look that I love using fine art papers that I was never completely happy with using photographic papers (they just looked so, so ... photograph-fy);) I like the differences. It's still up to me to have the eye to produce a meaningful image and make it convey what moved me.

I use a DSLR and produce 13 X 19 prints, max. When I used a 35mm film camera, I stopped at 11 X 14. When I wanted bigger prints, I moved to a medium format camera. Digital is no different. Bigger prints demand bigger capture devices. They're made, and they clip right on to your medium format SLR. I also used Pan F film to get away from the graininess of Tri-X and HP5. Grain & noise have their uses, I'm just not sure beauty is one of them.

Software is being improved to facilitate highlight recovery. If you're a Nikon buff, Capture 4.4 can pick up a couple of stops more than before. I believe that future pro digital R&D will go into this type of area.

I hope that we are not entering another "Mac v. PC" war; it's so counter-productive. The masses have decided - it's going to be digital. The manufacturers are going with the flow. For those of us who care about the quality of our work, we must either find alternate supplies of dwindling traditional materials, or find a way to deal with the new digital medium. I think that good technique can overcome, just like it always has.

Al Benas

12:13 PM  

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