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Digital BW love. Am I the only one?
Old 12-12-2019   #1
tifat
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Digital BW love. Am I the only one?

Mike Johnston from The Online Photographer recently posted a piece that was highly critical of the state of digital black and white. My reaction is somewhere between angst and outrage. Am I missing something when I look at photography or does he have a ridiculously narrow view of what a black and white image should look like?

When looking at prints I want to see a full range of tones (usually but not always) from black black (but not necessarily ink black) to a clean paper base. I avoid dumping in the blacks or blown highlights. I prefer a clean neutral print with no evidence of manipulation or excess artistry.

A part of my expectation from digital printmaking is the result of a fairly long background in silver and platinum printing. Platinum from a large format negative limits the opportunity for manipulation. This affected my thinking about silver printing and I currently use pyro with VC paper with minimal (none) dodging or burning for silver. When starting with digital, I carried this approach forward and have found the transition pretty easy. I'm finding the look of my digital prints somewhere between silver and platinum but different. I don't expect any process to look like another.

Anyway, I'm not sure where I'm going with this question. I'm almost completely happy with my approach to digital (Leica CL with M lenses, Ricoh GR III, 95% jpegs with Lightroom, Canon Pro-1000, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag). I guess that's all that matters. But I live in rural New England and work mostly in isolation. When I read posts like Mike's I wonder if I'm missing something.
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Old 12-12-2019   #2
Ted Striker
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If you like it, you like it. Me, I loathe digital black and white and note that most of the commercial photographers that I see displaying in art fairs, those that charge (and get) the most money are those who shoot monochrome on film, not digital.
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Old 12-12-2019   #3
crsantin
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I wouldn't worry about Mike Johnston's opinion, it's not important. Tastes are very personal. I quite like digital black and white and I love film as well. If you've found something that satisfies you then that's all the matters. At the moment I am quite fond of a few iPhone apps that I use for processing digital photos. I've also found a workflow on Photoshop that I am pleased with and even some of the presets in ACR are quite good.
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Old 12-12-2019   #4
Ko.Fe.
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Quote:
but different
This is very first thing we need to be agreed on.
Since bw film and bw digital are different it is matter of taste and application.

I print under enlarger and I inkjet from files. I can't tell if one is better than other. All I could say, it is less difficult to get wide range of tones on the negative rather than on digital sensor.

I'm finding dBW to be more finicky. Leica Monochrome is good example. Many raves how good it is. Yet, few, only very few are capable to show decent image from it.
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Old 12-12-2019   #5
tifat
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Thanks Ted. Can you describe what you loathe about digital BW? I prefer the surface and feel of a silver print but if the print is under glass that's much less of an issue.
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Old 12-12-2019   #6
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I quit doing them in 2005. Sorry, it didn't do anything for me. But go for it if you like it.

One of my last:

2005 Peru by John Carter, on Flickr
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Old 12-12-2019   #7
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There is no one "look" to film B&W just like there is no one look to digital B&W. The look is always up to how the photographer manipulates the capture medium via exposure and processing, then rendering.

So to say you love the look of film or digital B&W is just about absurd.

G
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Old 12-12-2019   #8
Larry Cloetta
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Quote:
Originally Posted by tifat View Post
When I read posts like Mike's I wonder if I'm missing something.
People see what they see, people like what they like. It’s two different esthetics. Neither you or Mike is missing anything, and, on the other hand, it might be fair to say you are both missing something, as you are both missing seeing what it is that the other person values.
Doesn’t matter, you are happy. No reason to second guess yourself.
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Old 12-12-2019   #9
tifat
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I don't understand Ko.Fe.'s "range of tone" comment. I find the range of tone limited by the maximum black the printer is capable of and the paper white of the paper itself (and not the camera). Does range of tone reference how an image describes intermediate tones (nuance at the extremes, transitions through the midtones....)?
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Old 12-12-2019   #10
Ko.Fe.
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If I photograph something with sky on the negative I could next to S16 for full tonal range across the negative. With digital I'm finding it to be more difficult, for some reason.
Same for portraits or even street photography. BW film will catch a lot of tones. I'm finding it to be much more difficult with digital.
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Old 12-12-2019   #11
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I am completely ignorant when it comes to manipulating digital files, so I'm not sure what can be done and not done in terms of creating grain. The real magic of b&w film is grain; nice and clean low iso images on even 35mm film have a smoothness that digital emulates with ease. I would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Pushed 400 film (and in the case below, cropped) can create some pretty enigmatic results:


https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-...camera-is-god/


Not sure how you would do this with digital. Not saying this better or worse; just different. There is quite a range in b&w.
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Old 12-12-2019   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by tifat View Post
Thanks Ted. Can you describe what you loathe about digital BW? I prefer the surface and feel of a silver print but if the print is under glass that's much less of an issue.

Sterile, artificial, pretty boring look. Film has far more life to it, in an intangible way. Sorry I can't be more descriptive than that.
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Old 12-12-2019   #13
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I don't really care for full range Ansel Adams style black and white prints. The sort of eye of god perfection zone system whatever. I think if this does float your boat, then digital might be an option for you. It's a bit sterile to me even when done well on film.

Personally I'm more into the Daido Moriyama, grainy, blurry gritty look which doesn't really come across well in digital despite people saying that noise looks like grain it doesn't.

When I started shooting digital I stopped doing black and white. If I want black and white, I put a roll of tri-x in my camera and develop it with Rodinal.

But I realize that my vision of what black and white "should" look like is idiosyncratic. It's the same reason I don't like C-41 black and white or HP-5 for that matter. It lacks the grittiness that attracted me to black and white in the first place.
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Old 12-12-2019   #14
Dogman
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ted Striker View Post
Sterile, artificial, pretty boring look. Film has far more life to it, in an intangible way. Sorry I can't be more descriptive than that.
You just described 99.9% of every photograph done in the history of photography.

I prefer digital B&W to film B&W. But most of the digital B&W I see is as Ted described it. Soot and whitewash, dull murky grays, no shadow detail, artificial grain and a general poorly executed emulation of a "filmic" look. It ain't film. It has a different overall look. Use it, dammit! Stop trying to make it something it's not.

'Course everyone processes the mental image of what they see differently. I like the look of a well done digital photograph. I also like the look of a well done film-based photograph. Good pictures are good no matter how they are done.
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Old 12-12-2019   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dogman View Post
You just described 99.9% of every photograph done in the history of photography.
If you take what I said out of context, then yes that is true.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dogman View Post
I prefer digital B&W to film B&W. But most of the digital B&W I see is as Ted described it. Soot and whitewash, dull murky grays, no shadow detail, artificial grain and a general poorly executed emulation of a "filmic" look. It ain't film. It has a different overall look. Use it, dammit! Stop trying to make it something it's not.
Yes, digital images made to look like film are awful. Not even remotely close to the real thing, and no better than the sterile look that nonemulated digital images look like. I can enjoy a good digital image, but to me, they can always, always be improved had they been shot on film.
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Old 12-12-2019   #16
Ko.Fe.
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Quote:
Originally Posted by nightfly View Post
I don't really care for full range Ansel Adams style black and white prints. The sort of eye of god perfection zone system whatever. I think if this does float your boat, then digital might be an option for you. It's a bit sterile to me even when done well on film.

Personally I'm more into the Daido Moriyama, grainy, blurry gritty look which doesn't really come across well in digital despite people saying that noise looks like grain it doesn't.

When I started shooting digital I stopped doing black and white. If I want black and white, I put a roll of tri-x in my camera and develop it with Rodinal.

But I realize that my vision of what black and white "should" look like is idiosyncratic. It's the same reason I don't like C-41 black and white or HP-5 for that matter. It lacks the grittiness that attracted me to black and white in the first place.
Do you realize he is on digital for some time now?



Oly E-PL1 bw, SOOC.





HP5+ never looks good to me on scans. With grade paper it is different story.

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Old 12-12-2019   #17
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I do realize that.

I've also observed that a large percentage of his more modern work is color.

He tends to exploit the in your face, garish color of smaller format digital in the same way that he exploited the graininess of film and it works for him despite some of his earlier forays into color looking pretty much like cr*p.

However, my point was not about his current equipment choice but rather about the type of black and white images I personally prefer exemplified by his older work in film.

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Do you realize he is on digital for some time now?
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Old 12-12-2019   #18
icebear
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Every medium has a certain maximum of quality that you can reach using it. There are points along the way that might look interesting and exploit particular properties of the process to achieve a certain look. Film grain is an artefact. We just got used to accept it as inheritly "analog" and what you are used to, you typically like better than something you don't know. For me reality doesn't have grain.
Digital b&w is different. A lot of folks think they can get sloppy because you can rescue it in post processing. That's a load of bs.
If you want to achive great results you have to max out what the medium is capable of at every step of the process. It doesn't matter if you work with film or digital. Using in camera jpgs is a waste, get a point and shoot or just use your phone.
If you want to squeeze out the last drop of IQ from the MM, you need to max out the exposure, use a yellow filter, use the best lens you can get, make sure it's matched to the RF of the body, use at least 1/4f exposure times, the shorter the better. Maximize contrast of the file particularly at the shaddow and highlight area to get an even S curve in the histogram.
Get your files printed by someone with a piezography ink set-up on a bright white glossy paper (e.g. Hahnemuehle FA Baryta) ... et voila a "digital" image comes alive.


A lot of digital images look dead and artificial because during exposure, post processing and finally printing quality was left out in the dust. To maximize the exposure with digital is certainly more difficult than with a more forgiving film. This is particularly true for the MM. If you take care of it all along the way, the results can be stunning.
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Old 12-12-2019   #19
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While I mainly shoot digital color these days I do sometimes convert one or other image, in post, to black and white. Usually because the image is just not working in color but I can see it has potential as a black and white image. I think good results (or at least in my case OK results) can be gained using digital to produce black and white images but you must experiment and work at it.

I read the article referred to in The Online Photographer and I agree with some of it - especially what he referred to as the "Chalk and Soot" syndrome where midtones can be pretty much completely missing in some people's work. To be honest I suspect that this is not a problem with the medium (i.e. digital photography) so much as a problem with the people shooting digital who think this is how black and white should look (Look at me - I am an edgy, cool dude, I shoot black and white photographer, aren't I brilliant - see no midtones).

To some extent his other complaints (images too sharp, too much detail, too much local contrast ) can be true too though this is not nearly so objectionable to my way of thinking (or not always, anyhow) although I am myself trying to break myself of the habit of making images look this way by using less sharpness and less local contrast in my images as I process them- though I probably still do it too much for his liking. One way I handle this is to add in some deliberate diffusion effect (e.g. Classic Soft Focus in Nik Color Efex) and or a gentle layer of soft texture with a high level of transparency). These are techniques to learn by trying and discarding what does not work in a given image. The same technique does not always work with every image which is one reason digital imaging can be so challenging when beginning).

Digital does have some characteristics that can be hard to control for and this is a further inherent problem with all digital images but perhaps especially black and white. I am particularly thinking of the way tones in digital images can go to deep shadow, or at the other end of the histogram, to highlights without any kind of roll off or gentle gradation. As I say, this can be a particular problem with black and white specifically because black and white images rely upon images tonal quality for their beauty and this in turn often needs some subtlety in gradations from silver to black or from silver to white. But the problem can be ameliorated considerably by always shooting in RAW to ensure that the image has maximum information in it and post processing carefully to bring these tonal gradations out to the maximum extent possible in the final image.

My preference these days is for my work to be more "painterly" and impressionistic which I suspect would appeal to the Online Photographer author given his comments. As a result a lot of my post processing time is spend in removing sharpness and some detail to produce this effect.

In short though I think analogue generally produces nicest black and white images it is possible with care and work to get images that are excellent with digital (or in my case OK) but you need to be prepared to work at it to build the skills and experience to do this. I am still learning.

You can get good tonal gradations in digital using the above approaches - but focus on your mid tones as much as your shadows and highlights. Examples of some efforts:

Urban Ecosystem 3 by Life in Shadows, on Flickr

Singer at the Pub 2 by Life in Shadows, on Flickr

The Light Shines Through by Life in Shadows, on Flickr

A Moment of Quiet Contemplation by Life in Shadows, on Flickr

Or you can go for something a bit harsher. But the important thing it seems to me is to make sure you are not losing too much image information when you do this and get a good balance between detail and impressionistic effect.

Casual Portrait in Monochrome by Life in Shadows, on Flickr

Casual Portrait in Monochrome 2 by Life in Shadows, on Flickr

Or even very harsh if that is more to your taste - so long as you do not over do it. (Be selective when choosing this approach......it works better sometimes).

Expresso Bar by Life in Shadows, on Flickr
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Old 12-12-2019   #20
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You realize that not only doesn't reality have grain, but it's also in color.

Quote:
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Film grain is an artefact. We just got used to accept it as inheritly "analog" and what you are used to, you typically like better than something you don't know. For me reality doesn't have grain.
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Old 12-12-2019   #21
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PS to my post below.

This reminds me of a video that used to be available free on Youtube and James Ravilious an English photographer and documenter of life in rural villages in the south of England. Sadly he passed away far to young. The film is no longer free to air but this trailer talks about him and his philosophy of black and white imaging in that situation. He shot film of course.

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/ravilious


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Old 12-14-2019   #22
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Quote:
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You realize that not only doesn't reality have grain, but it's also in color.
Things we see certainly don't have film grain, but some things in some light are monochromatic in our perception, even if there are colors there. Be that as it may, B&W Photography exists because for almost a century after the invention of photography, the ability of the recording medium to capture color information was missing. And photographers got used to that lack and made it into an art form—something different from our native perception.

Art lives beyond Reality.

G
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