By Rob Reiter
I'm surprised to still hear people knocking the highlight capabilities of digital cameras. Good luck ever getting anything useful from JPEGs, but a good DSLR in RAW mode does a very good job indeed for B&W work, if you're willing to roll up your sleeves and learn how to use it. And if your shooting style allows for bracketed exposures to create High Dynamic Range images, you can easily come up with images whose dynamic range is limited only by the paper/ink/software used to print it.
I've been shooting for 40 years and until making the switch to digital in early 2005, had been primarily shooting 35mm slide film using Nikons and a Hasselblad XPAN, although in the '70s I also shot 4x5 B&W and some 6x7 stuff, mostly Tri-X.
Before the switch, my enthusiasm for photography, which was mostly landscape work, had waned considerably, mostly because of the contrasty nature of modern slide films. For years, my business was custom Ilfochrome (Cibachrome) printing, and even with contrast masking, I was frustrated with getting good prints. Scanning film and making inkjet prints, first on a ColorSpan Giclée Printmaker and then Epson 9600/9800 printers, was a big improvement, but I was still limited to what was on the film, although I could at least get more of it digitally. Color negative film never appealed to me, but I was appreciative of the better dynamic range it offered.
Although it was not something I was especially looking for when I first bought a Canon 20D 8-megapixel DSLR, its increased dynamic range in color work was the most apparent improvement over 35mm slide film. Resolution was better and the lack of grain was nice, but the estimated three stops more dynamic range that RAW files gave me over slide film was an unexpected revelation. There was a creamy quality to everything I printed that made even the duplicate test shots done on slide film just look harsh in comparison.
All this was apparent immediately, using single exposures in RAW, but making multiple adjustments of that one file for highlights, midtones and shadows, that were then combined in Photoshop with adjustment layers and layer masks. Later I began experimenting with bracketed shots and Photoshop's HDR capabilities, which are improved in CS3. Now I've gone further, running bracket shots through HDRsoft's Photomatix Pro first before doing the final tweaking in Photoshop. And one pleasant surprise was to discover that single RAW exposures, made into three versions as before, could also benefit from a run through Photomatix, just as I did with in camera bracketed shots.
The images make very nice prints. I can honestly say that in color or black and white, I simply don't have blown out highlights or blocked up shadows any more, unless by intent. I've got a long way to go honing my own techniques, and there are areas in these images I'd like to go back and tweak further, as my skills and the software's capabilities increase (the curse of the digital photographer—there's always one more tweak....)
So here are a few images, with some commentary...
Badwater, Death Valley. One of my first with the 20D. Printed with ImagePrint software, there is a wealth of dark detail in the foreground and only a few pixels in the brightest clouds are pure white. From one RAW exposure.
Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite N.P. One exposure with my Canon 5D. Wet, black rock and direct sunlight on the spray. No loss of detail in the water.
Fog at Big Sur. Toned image shot with the 5D. In a print, the brightest water shows detail of the wave lines.
Sierra range by light of the full moon. A Canon 5D shot. The RAW exposure is as bright as daylight. In darkening it, I got to preserve as much dark detail as I wanted. None of the reflected light on the mountains lacks detail, either.
Mono Lake with snow. Probably my first black and white conversion from the 20D. This is actually stitched together from four frames. Because of the limitations of Photoshop's merging feature at the time, this had to be done as an 8-bit image. Everything I do now can stay in 16 bits.
Pines, Hat Creek, CA. Canon 5D, 5 bracketed shots combined in Photomatix, with extensive work in Photoshop. Originally done in color. This is the kind of lighting I wouldn't even have taken a slide film camera out of the bag for. Extremely bright highlights. Looks good in a color print, but I will work more on the B&W version.
Oak in dappled light, Sunol Ohlone Regional Park, CA. Like the previous shot, no slide film could have done this justice. Five brackets and Photomatix for starters. The last image is the color version of this, which I have printed 16x24. It looks "unreal" in the sense I never could get this kind of look using slide film.
Well-known digital photography pioneer Stephen Johnson has commented that "...the world is a gentler place" than we are used to seeing it in pictures, referring to our photographic aesthetics that have been, in part, formed by the limitations of the medium. I agree. I think the expanded dynamic range of RAW files from good DSLRs and digital backs for larger formats will change the way we perceive photographs in this regard.
One of things I like about doing black and white is the freedom to exaggerate contrast, since the image has been abstracted from the beginning. But I hate blown-out highlights most of the time, and I want control over how much detail I keep in the darkest shadows. I'm pretty darn happy with what I've got in that regard since switching to shooting digitally.
I don't claim to have mastered black and white work with a digital camera, but I do work eight hours a day with digital images and Photoshop, for myself and my clients, and I can draw on 32 years of professional experience when I say I believe the RAW format elevates whatever level of camera you're shooting into something a comparable film camera, for the most part, can't match, with any kind of film. But if you shoot and print JPEG files, the dynamic range of your pictures will be about the same has you can get with slide film, maybe worse.