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Monday, May 08, 2006

Paul's Answers

Paul commented: "You've mentioned before your displeasure with digital black and white. What is the root of the problem? Sensors? Editing software? Printers? Is black and white going to be another of the 'losses'?"

MIKE JOHNSTON responds: The short answer is, highlights. Digital just doesn't have enough dynamic range in the highlights. This is not so serious with color, where tonal distinction is not as important as color distinction (and because we're used to color slides, which also generally have poor highlight gradation). But in black-and-white it becomes very obvious in many cases—especially to people who are familiar with good craftsmanship in traditional optical-chemical B&W—because the richness and subtlety of the gradations in the highlights just isn't there.

It's true that we gain on the other end, because digital capture can dig into the shadows more than film negatives can. Unfortunately, the human eye/brain is not very sensitive to shadow contrast and is very sensitive to highlight contrast, so the tradeoff is not exactly a wash.

The effect can be minimized with good digital technique and of course it's case-specific. Recently, digital inkjet printers have been getting better at rendering highlight information, with somewhat mixed success. But this is only half the battle, because the printers can't render what the sensors haven't captured.

CARL WEESE responds: The black-and-white problem is primarily in capture, and with the expectations of experienced B&W photographers.

To anyone used to shooting chromes, digital capture seems wonderful: Kodachrome with earflaps. Everything about it is better than color transparencies, except for enlargement to big print sizes. Real post-exposure control of color and tone, greater tonal range, and therefore less need for supplemental lighting, all done in much less time, for a whole day's shoot, than it used to take to drive the film to the lab.

The improvement is not so great compared to color negatives. Tonal range of existing digital capture is still worse than color negative film; control of color and tone is much easier, but not really better; and color negatives of a given size, despite improvements in the past couple decades, have always suffered more problems with enlargement than similar size chromes. So a 35mm-based DSLR may rival 35mm color negative film, though with some sacrifice of tonal range, but not medium format or 4x5.

Now consider B&W film, small or large format. Digital at this point offers nothing but convenience at the expense of quality. The tonal range is tiny compared to a frame, or sheet, of Tri-X. Someone who worked strictly by available light and considers that to be his style can't take that into digital capture (any more than he could have taken it to chrome) without drastically limiting the situations to be considered photographable. Worse, the tonal range is, for someone who thinks in b&w film terms, "upside down." With negatives, you expose for the shadows, and either let the highlights take care of themselves if you are shooting big sheets of pyro-developed film intended for Pt/Pd printing, or develop the film appropriately for the highlights. You have to be careful to retain the shadow detail, but can be quite cavalier about how far up the highlights go--the film will bail them out. With digital capture (like color transparencies or direct-positive Polaroid materials) you must expose to keep the highlights from burning out, and take what you get in the shadows (or else light them). Positive materials and digital capture have barely two stops of range into the highlights above middle tone, with more reach into the shadows (much more reach with capture). But it is my observation that the world generally distributes the light bouncing off it so that there is a great deal more stuff above middle gray than below it. Film negatives were a natural fit to the luminances of the real world, but digital capture, like chromes, is not. If you want to retain the cloud patterns in an overcast sky, you'll have to underexpose the meadow by one or two stops. You can play with a RAW capture to move the values of the meadow up to where they belong, but it won't end up close to what a properly exposed and developed B&W negative would have delivered.

And then there's grain. The grain in a 12x18-inch enlargement (made with a perfectly aligned enlarger and a superb lens with a glass negative carrier) from a 35mm Tri-X negative is simply gorgeous, and is part of the esthetic of many photographers working in the small format tradition. A noiseless digital file, when enlarged, looks simply empty where the software has interpolated pixels between the ones actually captured. A noisy file (from higher ISO, generally) looks, at least to my eyes, simply awful after upressing. Digital noise may be the technical equivalent of film grain, but it is not visually equivalent by a country mile. (To be fair, there are films that have lousy-looking grain, and enlargements of more than a few diameters from them also look awful).

So, to make a comfortable transition to digital capture in B&W, sensors need to have their range improved so that they can capture at least three stops (four would be more like it) above middle value, so exposures can deal with the real world as it exists rather than as we edit it or light it. Then cameras that we can handle (and afford) must have enough pixels so that substantial-size prints can be made without interpolation. So when there's a 22MP camera body that can record good detail in Zone IX with noiseless captures at E.I. 200 or 400, B&W film in medium and small format may actually be eclipsed. But I hope I'll still be able to get film for my 12x20 inch Folmer & Schwing, because there will never be a market in my lifetime for a digital machine with that capability.


Illustrations: Mike Johnston, Untitled, Scaggsville, Maryland, Nikon F4 and APX 100; Carl Weese, The 13-24, Wabash, Indiana, 8x10 platinum-palladium contact print.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I have an Epson R-D1 for ~18 months now, I still mainly use my Ms precisely because:
- I love B&W, the dynamic range is unsurpassed, especially as you said, in the highlights
- I love the Ms :-)

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, to get this straight in my head... Is there an argument to be made for for "expose-to-the-left" style shooting?

9:00 PM  
Anonymous billwheeler said...

Well, that explains everything.

After years of shooting b&w negative film, I picked up a dslr and tried to use it the same way. The pictures taken with the dslr frequently appear overexposed in the highlights. In exposing for the shadows with the dslr, I was blowing out the highlights. When I dial in negative exposure compensation to capture detail in the highlights, the shadows appear underexposed.

Your explanation helps me understand what's going on.

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you say abou scanning b+w, as long as it pertains to negatives. My 99,99 Dmark (indicates its age; bought long before the Euro) flatbed scanner makes gorgeous scans from A4 size prints.

Christer Almqvist

2:27 AM  
Anonymous joe said...

Carl's comments on grain vs. noise are spot on. I'm afraid unless people start to get out and look at real prints from film negatives, we're raising a generation who won't know what they're missing...

6:50 AM  
Blogger John Sarsgard said...

Fuji's approach, using different sensors optimized separately for shadows and highlights, seemed like a good idea. Does the idea just not work, or did they not implement it well, if anyone knows? BTW, this place has become the most interesting photography site on the internet! Many thanks to Mike, Oren, Carl, Paul, and the others who are making it happen!

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problems with Fuji's extended DR CCD are:
1. The highlight sensor is only 2 stops less sensitive than the shadow sensor. That means the maximum DR improvement is 2 stops.
2. The RAW conversion provided by Fuji doesn't take enough advantage of the extended range - there is no significant DR improvement in raw files.
3. The JPEG files created in-camera do show DR improvement - but only to the level of developed RAW files from other cameras.

For a proper extended DR sensor, you would need a highlight sensor at least 4 stops (preferably 6 stops)less sensitive than the shadow sensor to provide a meaningful improvement in DR. You would also need RAW conversion software that took full advantage of the extended range (possibly by creating 2 separate images -1 highlight, 1 shadow - to be combined in photoshop).

One problem that would be encountered by any manufacturer trying to make a high-DR sensor would be that you can't just make the highlight sensor smaller (a smaller capture/storage area tends to saturate at the same rate as a larger area - fewer photons captured, but proportionally less space to store them) - you have to make the capture area of the highlight sensor smaller, while keeping the storage area the same size. This could be accomplished with a mask over most of the highlight sensor (1/16 exposed for 4 stops, 1/64 exposed for 6 stops), or by making the highlight sensor deep and narrow.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Vesa Metsätähti said...

This post brings Kodak 760m review in to my mind. Perhaps a pure B&W sensor would make it technology wise, but I'm not sure how well would one sell. Now I can claim that I would buy one, but can't be sure how I would behave in store.

I like how C1 and adequate profiles render the B&W, but I often find that I need to make blend of two (or more) exposures to get highlights and shadows in to a some kind of balance (and some times this gets very flat).

Of course I have been mainly comparing results on screen instead of quality prints - in real life (prints) I might be less statisfied with C1 B&W's.

11:37 AM  
Blogger dxphoto said...

I am not a expert on B/W. About a year ago I tried B/w with Canon 20D and the image quality totally turned me down! I don't want to get to detail as the original post said all. I just want to point out the feelings of the looking at a digital b/w are hollow, cold and fake. They are sharp, but they miss the way to convey the mood. That was it and I went back to film.

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What are Carl Weese's views on scanning B&W negatives with a good scanner like the Imacon?

12:22 PM  
Anonymous Frank P said...

For those willing to invest the time and trouble, you can combine multiple exposures, stitch images together, etc. to create longer tonal ranges and more resolution than film. Surely the effort to make multiple exposures and combine them digitally isn't any greater than, say, operating a large format film camera. It's just a different way to make an image.

Blown out highlights doesn't make an image "bad" anymore than ULF Platinum doesn't make it "good." Just like Eddie Weston practiced, use each medium to its strongest potential.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Robin Dreyer said...


Thanks for a truly excellent and enlightening commentary.

1:09 PM  
Blogger paul said...

Mike, Carl,
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. This site is like a clear voice in the crowd.
You have done a great deal to help enlighten a hopelessly confused picture taker.

1:59 PM  
Anonymous unbound said...

Digital B/W is a completely different thing from 'Gelatin Silver' B/W, and the two should not be intermixed. The look is so different at a core level that they should be recognized as completely different art forms. A digital B/W is as different to a traditional print as an albumen image is different froma traditional print.
Digital B/W has based it's history on trying to immitate chemical B/W, to a large extent failing. It's just within the last couple of years that we have started to resolve the metamerism and color shift problems, the uneven fading of color elements (dye and pigment), the look and feel of paper. Add to that the lack of grain that has been mentioned, the far too perfect feel of a digital print, and must feel that it's an imitation that perhaps should not be attempted as a final goal for all B/W photography.
One thing that is rarely discussed is that traditional B/W printing created one-of-a-kind prints, laboriously worked and inspected individually. Digital B/W can produce an excellent image, but to me they are missing that 'soul' that an individual unique image has, since they are all slightly different. It's like buying a poster of the Mona Lisa, perfectly reproduced to look like the original... but not the same as the original. It's the same reason that we go to exhibits to see original prints... because we feel the lack of soul in the most perfectly reproduced book of BW images.

And image capture with film has a very different response from capture on a digital sensor, so I don't know if the concept of film/digital B/W equivalence is even a valid pursuit or discussion.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Will said...

Unbound has it right. Every single print made from a negative is different. I find that wonderful. I think that it is wonderful that you could also hand the same negative to 3 different people and get back 3 very different prints.

Perhaps digital may one day be "as good" as film, but I doubt it will happen, because "as good" is difficult to define when the two mediums are so different. It is far better to recognize digital as something different from film. I think that other areas of art make these distinctions easily and don't get hung up on them. In photography artists keep trying to do the equivalent of making an oil painting using watercolors. The art school that gets rid of its darkrooms and goes digital is, in effect, telling its students that they have to use oil paints and not acrylic. Not to mention the camera stores. What would you think as an artist if you could suddenly no longer buy canvas because watercolor paper had taken over the market and there was no longer any profit in selling canvas?

Thanks for this article as it hopefully opened some people's eyes up to the fact that their digital cameras aren't exactly the be-all and end-all for photography.

5:51 PM  
Anonymous sergio said...

I can retain detail with a Canon 1DsMII at 2 2/3 stop over midtone. If I use highlight recovery in ACR raw conversion in a lot of cases I can recover one additional stop, making that 3 2/3 stops over midtone. Some images won´t allow for so much recovery and max out at 1/2 stop or 2/3 stops. It is not as good as film, there´s no discussion on that one, but it is not as bad as stated. Grain, yes ,that is a loss.

9:40 PM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

Whew! That was some explanation, Carl!

I never got into the darkroom end of things when I was a 35mm shooter, but now that I shoot digital, I love tinkering with my photos in the digital darkroom. I have been working for several months on improving my digital B&W technique, and I have produced a few prints that I am quite pleased with. But explanations like Carl's make me wonder if mine are any good at all! Well, I like them anyway.

Which leads me to another thing I have been working that is a problem I see in many avid amateur photographers. I think we begin to lose some of the real joy of our work because we over-analyze everything. (I know, that's part of the fun.) I think most snap-shooters, who know nothing of the technical side of photography, often enjoy their point-n-shoot photos more than we do ours. They treasure their slightly over-exposed, poorly composed, unsharp photo of Aunt Hilda at the beach as much as we would a limited edition print from Edward Weston. Sometimes I wish I could get some of that kind of enjoyment back, but I may be too far gone looking for the slightest flaws, and fretting about how to fix them next time. Oh well, I'm working on it!

5:23 AM  

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