« Digital Lunar Eclipse Photography | Main | Photography Does Not Exist Any More »

Wednesday, 08 August 2007


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Digital B&W: The Expert View:


As a B&W (film) enthusiast, I must say- impressive. But although digital sure makes things more convenient, and precise- I'm not entirely sold on the easier part...

Thanks for this, Rob! You've opened my eyes in more ways than one. And thanks, Mike, for printing it despite your stated doubts about digital B&W: no wonder WTD checks in on your blog every day.

D'oh! I've been using a similar multiple-coversion HDR workflow for a while now in colour, never really thought to do it in B&W. It is truly incredible how much detail can be pulled out of an image this way (assuming the camera could resolve it in the first place).
Time to get back to some of those tricky black and white conversions and see what extra I can get.

I don't really understand the repeated mention of slide film as a benchmark. If anything, it should be compared to b/w negative. And even then, aren't, admittedly carefully worded, statements such as "RAW format elevates [...] into something a comparable film camera, for the most part, can't match, with any kind of film" very subjective indeed?

Silver and digital printing slowly appears to be living side by side now, perhaps time to accept the same for the capture stage without the need to compare all the time?

Here's the best tutorial I've seen for creating digital B&W:

Markus does an excellent job and I really can't tell when he's used TriX or a 5D. And I struggle to spot his P&S photos after he's applied his special sauce.

I'm with Dirk. These statements are highly subjective. We're not told how these photos were exposed: I would recommend trying to align the highlights on about 2EV over the midtone in order to preserve details in them, subject to whatever tone-curve you've uploaded to the camera (or how well you know the default).

You can also get some stunning results off b&w neg film, scanned as "HDR" in Silverfast and then tone-mapped later.

At what point does cramming more range into a photo stop being reasonable? 7 stops? 11 with HDR? Surely one of the appeals of slide film is that it will work wonders on a scene with comparatively low DR but boost it a bit and increase the saturation, meaning you get to use the full range of your scanner to produce your final image.

I'm of the opinion that saying "greater dynamic range is good!!!" is like a driver thinking turning left is good.

Hello Rob,
Interesting article, and glad to hear that you in your mind have or are close to achieving truly satisfactory results with digital on B&W work.
I myself have not. Not from lack of trying.
The subtle tonal range and the delicate nuance of light is notyet equivalent to fine film.
I'm sorry to disagree. It is what it is, and I would love it for digital to replace my use of film. I do continue to work with digital files I guess in the chase for the holy grail. I use film and digital side by side. Really in the final analysis, it really doesn't matter how one achieves ones art.
What I really would wish, and Mike touched upon it many times, is I would love for a mfg. to develop a dedicated digital camera for B&W. Technology is there and bypassing the color process in the sensor would truly (in my opinion) elevate digital B&W to another level.
Best Regards,
J Alan

Very impressive indeed! Now I'm off trying to emulate my Mamiya 7 HP5+ shots in Pyro on my Nikon D80...

I wonder what Bill Brandt would have made of HDR.

Out of curiosity what blending settings are you using with Photomatix? I've decided to avoid the HDR and tonemapping features in favor of blending images together and simply extending dynamic range.

Is it possible to achieve a bracketing effect with multiple versions of a single image by making a variety of exposure settings at the RAW conversion stage?

Is this a viable way of preparing an image for the process described above?

The last two (or three) look greyish, unnatural. on the other hand, red filters are like that too. it's only a matter of time, I guess.

I must admit, I don't fully understand how making multiple adjustments on a single RAW file, and then blending together, can result in an image with a higher dynamic range than just taking a single, well processed, RAW and using curves selectively in Photoshop. As a far as I'm aware, 16 bit RAW only contains 12 or 14 bits of useful data off the sensor. Processing this file will (if chosen to do so) give 16 bits. That is, all the available information that's in the original RAW. Processing the RAW multiple times doesn't give one more information.

Very happy to be corrected on this!

Nonetheless, I'm going to give it a go and prove it empirically to myself.

I wonder about having color slides and Ilfochrome as reference points. With respect to the tonally composited "Oak in Dappled Sunlight" color image, I think I'd much prefer a C-print made from a medium or large format color negative film, perhaps Fuji Pro 160S. Perhaps the shadows might be blocked or the highlights blown a bit, but I continue to admire well made C-prints as views of the world as "a gentler place."

On the other hand, the tonally composited B&W looks pretty good. Hats off to anyone who good deliver the goods in a digital B&W print.

I appreciate comments on the images and musings I submitted to Michael and can only agree with Dirk and Tim here that they are highly subjective. The curse of being human, I guess.

My comparisons to slide film are only because that's what I was familiar with in my business and my own photography.

All this stuff-HDR, bracketed exposures, multiple RAW adjustments, they're just tools. Not every image needs 10 stops of dynamic range, but if you have it, you get to choose how much you want to use. If you only have 4 or 5 stops worth, your choices are more limited. And I prefer to have as much info as possible when I make my choices.

A single RAW exposure can be adjusted at the conversion stage to get three versions-the first five images here were done that way and worked with in Photoshop rather than with Photomatix. My experience with Photomatix is limited and I tend to wing it, pushing sliders this way and that until I like what I see well enough to import it into Photoshop for the tweaking with adjustment layers and masks that are my main tools.

I agree with aizan about the last two black and white images looking a little grayish here. They are better in prints, but I'm also not finished with them.

This brings up another point that is philosophical as much as technical. Our aesthetic of appreciation of rich blacks and pure whites somewhere in a print (especially in B/W photography) has more to do, I believe, with the limitations of the medium than it does with reality, since we seldom come across scenes with pure blacks and whites, other than specular reflections. With HDR images there can be a lot more information in shadows and highlights and if we strive to preserve that, where do we draw the line and say "Everything below this I'll sacrifice to get a pure black"? After all the work I do to get detail in the darkest and lightest parts of a picture, I often choose to lose some of it to achieve those desired pure black and white points. Is that sick, or what?

I agree with John Friar's comment.

The dynamic range of a RAW image file from a single exposure can not be increased. The data "is" (the information content of a single data set can not be increased once the measurement is complete).

The method described in this post is a powerful way to extract all the available dynamic range from a single RAW image. It seems to me layering several versions of one RAW image with different pixel weightings is a versatile way to fully leverage an image's RAW dynamic range content to achieve the desired creative effect. However, this is not a HDR method. The only way to exceed the inherent dynamic range of the system is to collect more data. I think of layering different versions of the same RAW file as psuedo-HDR (pHDR).

While this may seem like a semantic detail, it is important for people to realize the only way to exceed the inherent dynamic range of their camera is to make two images of the same scene with different exposures.

Finally, Lightroom's tone sliders (Recovery, Fill Light, Blacks) are a less versatile, less powerful way to achieve the same sort of pHDR result. I suspect traditional curves adjustments on a single image is less useful than the LR tone sliders, which is less useful than the layering method. But in principle, each should be able to achieve a similar result.

William Hutton

Dear Rob,

I think Rob’s printing background made adapting to digital easier for you. You’re used to dealing with slides, so you’ve already internalized the dictum “expose for the highlights, dammit!” It’s hard to overcome the habit of exposing for the shadows. With my low-end Fuji S6000fd, I need to set the exposure one stop or more below “normal” to get the maximum tonal range. And it just feels so WRONG {smile}.

Still, even my camera will capture 8-9 usable stops in RAW mode at ISO 100, and I know it’s not a great performer. As a reference point for B&W film folks, that’s roughly the same as a 1.3 d.u. range in a normal B&W neg. In other words, something you’d need to print on Grade 1 paper. So, that’s really not too bad!

Better cameras will capture 10-11 stops with no trouble. That’s almost as good as you can expect from B&W film negs; not quite as good as color negs. But printing those maximum-scale negs is a major hassle, and most good printers can’t do it; it takes serious chops. So, again, digital’s not too bad!

This is all without jumping through multi-exposure hoops, mind you, but I think that’s the fairer comparison, rather than comparing heroic measures to the norm.

pax / Ctein

No offense meant but I find these last two HDRs way over-done.

I love the implication of this statement: "Our aesthetic of appreciation of rich blacks and pure whites... has more to do, I believe, with the limitations of the medium than it does with reality, since we seldom come across scenes with pure blacks and whites..."
This seems to me to nullify, in one bold sweep, the entire history of Art across humanity's entire existence since the first neanderthal clumsily scraped the likeness of a mammoth on a cave wall. I've never seen a sky painted in the swirling brushstrokes of a van Gogh either, but naturally this doesn't detract from my appreciation of his paintings.
To portray the purpose of photography as somehow the diligent recreation of 'reality' denies its artistic value - and symptomatically we see in the digital tendency towards 'more of everything' (more megapixels, more dynamic range, more sharpness etc) a gradual disappearance of the aesthetic of drama.
Paradoxically, the woodland images above remind me strongly of aquatints or etchings: not in the least realistic, not dramatic either, but rather the sort of gentle and inoffensive 'art' hanging on many a middle-class parlor wall.

Yes, the world may be a gentler place but surely nobody perceives reality in the way that a HDR image portrays it (unless they're having some drug-induced nightmare ;-)? Our eyes wander across a scene, and we have to peer into the shadows or highlights and let our eyes adjust until we see all the detail there is; the HDR rendition simply exposes everything in a single view and thus, by failing to abstract any of it, appears less natural than a "normal" print.

I can see the benefit of these techniques in, for example, rescuing cloud detail in a shot otherwise exposed for the land, but much beyond that I feel we're into the "excesses" of which Mike originally complained.

Going further, is there a danger here that we're again viewing techniques and choices suitable for one particular genre - landscapes/nature - under the misapprehension that they are a unilateral requirement for all photography? I know Rob isn't suggesting that this is The One True Way to digital B/W, but upfront he declares his history of slide-based landscape photography, and his enthusiasm for this technique should be considered in that light; i.e. it may not work for someone else's style. (I note an apparent bias in photographic tutorials towards landscape techniques: "always use a tripod, ensure maximum sharpness, capture a full tonal range, spend time on your composition, etc." I wonder how many promising talents are smothered at birth by only being presented with one way to take photos?)

Photography and figurative painting are not very different when photographers or artists have to decide how the final image will become. It's all a matter of hierarchy and choice, i. e., which elements are more important in the final composition. In my opinion, the problem of HDR it's not the technicque it self. The only problem of HDR are the choices of the photographer - stunned as he is with the possibilities of HDR, he tends to treat all elements with the same level of visual strenght. The "drama" we always see in "HDR skies" is, most of the time, irrelevant for the integrity of the image. Is maneirism more important than art? I don't think so... We must have a good balance between possibility and choice.

I dont´t think that hdr is the solution for black and white photography, almost today.
I still prefer to adjust a good histogram or i I have burned lights I prefer to blend differents copies from a raw in photoshop, this way I obtain a most natural feel than the hdr´s one.
Anyway thanks for sharing your job.

If I may say so I don't think people are being very gracious to my guest poster here. Mani, is it really necessary to insult the photographer to make your point? How would you feel if someone called your pictures "the sort of gentle and inoffensive 'art' hanging on many a middle-class parlor wall"?

We seem to have surrendered to a common error here, one I've suffered from myself a time or three. We need to keep in mind the context of the discussion. I wrote in my rant that digital doesn't have adequate information in the highlights for B&W, and Rob provided some examples of HDR shots that had good information in the highlights. That means that, for the purposes of the technical discussion, he's gone through his work and selected ONLY examples of pictures with HDR, including two "woodland scenes" that he's said several times he isn't finished working on!! Then we all jump all over him for applying HDR indiscriminately and being insensitive to nuance and so forth. Well, we don't know that. This isn't an aesthetic discussion and we aren't looking at a cross section of all of Rob's work; it's a technical discussion and we're looking at technical examples pre-selected to show the technique we're talking about. So then let's not complain that all the pictures show the technique we're talking about, okay?

(I guess I may be a little "extra miffed" because Rob's been criticized in these comments for a) departing from reality and b) being too fearful to depart from reality, which is cumulatively silly.)

Personally I just want to find out how to retain highlight information better in my prints.

Cranky mode off,


Try this one with a single exposure. Use any capture or processing method you like.


Seven exposures combined using Photomatix.

Mike and Rob,
I appologize. I didn't want to criticize in a negative way Rob's work. When I wrote "the photographer" I ment the "photographer generally speaking". And I think what I've wrote is valid for any other technicque, not only for HDR. But aesthetics wasn't really what this article was about. Sorry again.

Point taken Mike - apologies if my comment came off sounding rather harsh (although my snapshots hanging on *any* wall would be quite flattering, to be honest), but flippancy aside, my intention was not to insult. The web makes it all too easy to make those sorts of unthinking comments, without considering that someone may feel injured by them.

On the other hand, the point I was (probably unsuccessfully) trying to make, was that this sort of attitude to the 'aesthetics' of photography was decapitating it as a 'dramatic' form.
We've discussed the digital approach to image-making here before, and (as someone who works, albeit indirectly, with digitally manipulated images all day) my cynisism for the 'perfectly-rendered' digital photograph must be obvious.

Incidentally, the images that sprang to mind when I saw those 'woodland scenes' was the work of the late Robin Tanner - and particularly the etching on this page:


I actually love Robin Tanner's work.

Having read the post and checked Robs' site several times, I see no mention as the mode of print creation-inkjet or the laser process alluded to with his site.

Well, I've read all the comments about Ron's text.
Nuno de Matos Duarte (from Portugal, our loved grandfather, perhaps?) put it exactly: It's about choice !!!.
I really prefer to go out and shoot...I just love the deep emotion that comes with a good shot. To find ways to express what I feel, what I see, to capture what touches me.
Ron's text, plus other references about "burning oil" in the computer just made me feel apart from art. OK... my own, personal feelings. Your mileage will vary.
I keep returning to this site everyday: I just love Mike's multidisciplinary, open mind and his amusing, tongue in the cheek, intelligent way of expressing himself in writing).
I almost abandoned forums in general; people are most of the time counting pixels, shooting targets and discussing tech details "ad nauseam". Some of us just don't want this in our life.
And most of the really meaningful photos I've seen in my life weren't technically "perfect".
Emotion, composition, beauty, tell or capture something valuable. That's what I'm humbly trying to do. (Not really successful on that, but having a ball trying)
I reincarnated as a purposeful photographer after winning a bout with cancer and early retirement...In digital...I'm in my fourth digital camera, a DSLR...
But film is subtly getting more attention from my heart lately: I found myself more and more chasing the HGPP (Holy Graal of the Perfect Pixel) and less and less shooting and enjoying life. Had to do something about that. As Nuno said...It's about choices...

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Hi, Mike: An interesting analisis I just found: "Photography does not exist anymore!", by Erwin Puts (www.imx.nl)

Great article Rob!

I recently posted another technique


that allows you to look an image from the opposite perspective. The idea is to make the initial exposure for the highlights and then use a "fill in" exposure (usually 2 or three stops greater) to improve the "information" available in the shadows - which give you a base image which can survive 4EV manipulations with no problem whatsoever. In the end the result is actually very similar to HDR without the tone mapping look.

Pursuit of technical proficiency in no way means that one has to overlook the emotions and drama evoked by the images - in fact I think it's quite the opposite. Technical proficiency allows the photographer to focus on the actual image because they are comfortable and knowledgeable about what they will be able to do with the "negative" when they get back to the "darkroom."


Mike, thanks for pointing out what I was about to, that I simply wanted to show that digital B/W didn't necessarily mean 'blown out highlights." I had thought that by exhibiting examples that ran the gamut in terms of exposure and contrast that I could show the versatility of the medium, but, of course, this is the web. Any thing one says or shows will be taken to extremes by someone else.

And I've never been accused of nullifying the entire ANYTHING of all humanity before. Gee, that's kind of empowering!

The bottom line to all this is that digital photographers who shoot in RAW can and are producing great black and white photography, of all styles. The medium is not a limitation and will stand up quite nicely in comparisons to whatever has come before.

Thanks for the opportunity to delve into this stuff.

Fascinating discussion, but I tend to agree with the poster above who said many of the more meaningful pictures he had seen in his life weren't technically perfect. Many of the great b&w shots from 40 and 50 years ago were great not because of their technical merits but because of what they captured and what that in turn made us think about when we viewed the image. Back then photographers worked with the limitations imposed upon them by their optics and film emulsions, and let the chips fall where they may.

We'd all be better off if we just got out there and shot photos and stopped nit-picking about the limitations of digital. It's here to stay; let's work with it and stop lamenting about film and it's eventual passing.

I agree, some of the greatest images in the last 50 years perhaps are not perfect and many of them are great works of art not due to sharpness, tonal density and many other technical reasons. They were great works of art because they brought the emotions from the viewer. Be that as it may, the article was technical in nature and we must all agree that there are technical issues to deal with in photography. We can't get around this.
So we shouldn't on the one hand go from technical article and then categorize the comments as being pixel peeping and all that when in fact this was a technical article to begin with. Generally I find that when technical discussions progress, someone always calls it pixel peping and then say "just go out and take pictures", because the fact of the matter is, I believe from the caliber of individuals commenting and certainly from the author, we all are serious photographers and spend a gazillion hours out with our cameras looking for those magic moments to make visionary photographs.
I believe Rob has made measurable success with utilizing digital technologu on B&W work. I think it's great and it helps us all in better using the available digital technology. There are things stated here which will help me.
It just that because b&W film and chemicals are still available, I personally use film for B&W and digital for Color.
For me it's simple as that. Nothing very complicated, it's not refuting anyones claims about anything, nor is it pixel peeping. It's just what I see in the results of my work that I can appreciate. I did learn a lot though from the article and from all the commenters and will continue to work on my B&W digital techniques.


J Alan

Carl Root: check this http://www.flickr.com/photos/spodzone/1066279206/

It's not perfect. No doubt I could have got more detail into the highlights and shadows with HDR, and I have quite a lot of low-level noise. That said, I'm content with it as a scan using a mere Epson V700 off HP5+ film developed myself, it demonstrates what I wanted it to (namely that the light-fitting is ugly!).

To be fair, I wouldn't have taken your shot either; I don't particularly like the way the metalwork's come out using HDR (always the way when you restrict yourself to "realistic" HDR). But I guess you're content with it for having retained smoothness of tones well into the highlights, which I can respect.

As with most things film-v-digital-v-HDR, it's a fair trade-off: resolution, grain, noise, contrast, tone-placement, dynamic range, sharpness. Pick your criteria that'll enable you to get fastest to what you want, have the control to place the critical tones where you want with your exposures, and go for it.

This has been a really informative article. I've struggled with BW digital photography for some time. This article presents a way of looking forward to solving some of the problems I have had, even though Robs techniques may not translate to what I shoot. I certainly can see the application for landscape photography having come from a similar background of tranny, endless grads and cibachrome.

So thank you Rob and Mike.

Allow me to place the technical discussions of black and white image creation to one side for a moment and suggest a wider observation? I believe digital photography is a wonderful development for the continued health of black and white as a visual medium.

Before digital imaging, black and white was difficult and/or expensive in time and effort for less devoted photographers. We could learn (effort) to laboriously develop and print in our kitchens and bathrooms, or we could pay (expensive) 'professional' laboratories to expend the effort for us. There were no one-hour-photo outlets seducing us with convenience and near-instant gratification for black and white photos. Yes, there were and are C41 black and white films, but they weren't promoted like color, instead passively awaiting discovery by the enthusiast, and the results, when inexpertly or automatically processed, possessed the dissatisfying qualities of a marketing afterthought.

With the proliferation of digital cameras and cheap or free software for editing, suddenly black and white imaging is available to even the most casually curious at little to no extra overhead. We need only visit the most popular photo sharing web sites to witness an explosion of interest in black and white imagery.

Certainly, technically, black and white printing to an exacting level of quality presents particular challenges to digital technologies, but I'm optimistic these will be overcome by market forces, as a new generation, having discovered this new ease of creation, embrace and demand it.

Black and white is no longer the realm of the dedicated enthusiast or professional and that can only mean an exciting future.

I have a few questions about your workflow, Rob. At what stage in your HDR workflow do you convert from color to B&W? (I presume it's after the HDR processing.) Also, what procedure did you follow to convert to B&W? CS3's latest B&W adjustment layer, channel mixing, ...?? Or do you use more than one technique based on the image?


In answer Dave Kosiur's question about at what stage I convert from color to B/W in HDR work, so far it's been after the HDR processing. At this time, I've only done that to two images (the last ones in the essay.) All my other B/W work has been done from single exposures, usually with extensive multiple RAW file adjustments.

After converting this to color, more adjustment layers are used for the B/W tonal adjustments. Often, in the conversion process, I'll do it by copying the picture layer and converting the copy to B/W. That way, I can 'turn off' the B/W image layer to see how those additional tonal adjustment would have affected the original color image. Invariably, they make it too garish, proving how much additional latitude our tastes have when dealing in B/W, a medium more abstracted than color from the beginning.

The conversion to B/W is often by simple desaturation, but I do work with the other tool sometimes. I'm more comfortable with making selections and curve layers for tonal adjustments than spending a lot of time in channel mixing. It's just personal preference. The bottom line-try them all.

The comments to this entry are closed.