There's no way to quantify such a thing, of course, but I believe I have seen more fine-art photographic prints than 99% of photographers or imaging professionals or 99.9% of the public at large. Although I don't see many now, for many years I made concerted efforts to see a broad range of original contemporary and historical prints. I have held in my hands thousands of original prints, including examples by a majority of history's greatest photographers, and seen tens of thousands more framed on walls.
And, strangely enough, there is a prejudice I first expressed in the pages of Photo Techniques in 1997 which I have not yet felt any reason to modify. It has two parts. The first part is that traditional photography beats digital hands-down when it comes to black-and-white. (By "traditional," I mean fine-art prints made from silver halide B&W film on high-quality fiber-based paper, with an optical enlarger, by an excellent craftsman who has expert judgment. What I said back then was that traditional black-and-white "doesn't need improving").
However, the corollary of my 1997 prejudice holds even more true today. Then, I said that digital was the "coming of age" of color photography. Now, I am willing to state the following: I think color prints made from digital files with pigment inkjet printers—again, assuming excellent equipment, fine materials, and an operator who is knowledgeable and skilled and has a fine eye—can be the very most beautiful color prints in the history of the medium. Other color media do have their felicities, their special beauties, and their places in my heart. But I think pigment inkjet prints come out #1.
While that's just my opinion, I will claim that it's an informed one.
ADDENDUM: I should say first of all that back in '97 I was strongly influenced by Carl Weese's ideas, and I should credit him here as well.
Scanning the comments, I note that a number of arguments have come up that do typically come up when the topic of digital vs. traditional B&W is discussed. In the post above, I defined two of the three terms I used, but I didn't define "digital B&W." What I meant was "pure" (as opposed to "hybrid") digital B&W, meaning an inkjet print from a digital capture.
To summarize a few of the comments (in this and other, similar threads):
1. Hybrid methods work well, especially scanning from film negatives to be printed by inkjet; one person wishes we could have the opposite and make darkroom negatives from digital files.*
2. If you work really hard at every aspect of digital B&W (our friend Glimpse calls his odyssey "a hard slog") you can plausibly imitate silver prints.
3. The quality gap is narrowing and it's hard to tell the difference with prints under glass.
4. Digital B&W achieves greater Dmax than silver.
5. The situation is changing.
6. Digital is here to stay.
7. You can use many more fine papers with digital B&W and there are fewer baryta silver papers all the time.
8. Give it 2/5/25 more years and digital B&W will surpass traditional B&W.
9. Traditional B&W is more work (tell me about it).
10. A preference for traditional B&W is all, or partly, nostalgia.
I don't really disagree with any of that, but I also don't think any of it negates my current conclusions. "Pure" digital B&W is indeed a) workable (if you work at it), b) sometimes almost as good and maybe a little better in some ways, in some cases, sometimes (although one great print at a booth at a photo show doesn't validate a whole medium), and c) improving. But so what? I was talking about what's best. My judgment from an holistic viewpoint—looking at the whole gestalt of the one vs. the other—is that digital is limping along in second place. It's more compromised, requires too much effort and expense, and hasn't yet achieved its own distinctive aesthetic or integrity. The rare success doesn't mitigate the fact that success is rare.
For one thing, not until we get native luminance-only sensors is digital even competing on a so-called level playing field. What we do now is typically to take four photosites, filter two of them for green, one for red, and one for blue, take the luminance information from the two green photosites, extrapolate intermediary colors and values using computer algorithms, reconstruct four colored pixels, and then convert the colors back to shades of gray using one of a dozen or more apps, plugins, or Photoshop strategies. How Rube Goldberg can you get?
As to the nostalgia charge, guilty, if you consider "nostalgia" to be a profound appreciation for the accomplishments of the medium's greatest practitioners over a hundred-and-seventy year history. In fact, the absolute best B&W prints I have in my own collection are platinum prints made in about 1910 from glass plates. That, for the record, predates my own youth, and I have never exposed a glass plate or made a platinum print.
Finally, as to the "wait a few years" precaution: probably correct, but not a valid argument. I'm sure I read in 1973 that cars would be routinely getting 150 mpg by 2000, and that seemed a perfectly reasonable prediction back then. Some predictions are wrong, some predictions are right; but they're all just unfalsifiable speculation when you come right down to it. Maybe digital B&W will be great in a few years—or, maybe it won't be. We'll see.
Color me hopeful
I had hoped that rather than draw attention to my contentions regarding B&W that the topic of this post would be seen to be my contention about digital color. Martin Doonan says, "I would be interested in understanding the qualities that you...are looking at when making this assessment. Whilst not necessarily quantifiable, there must be specific features of prints that lead to such an assessment." Well, yes, but the plain answer is also the most profound: I look at the prints and the prints look better. The qualities? I think pigment prints are helped by the range of superlative papers they can be printed on and by their rather limited gamut (which prevents know-nothings from goosing the bejesus out of the colors, like they do with dyes and try to do with everything if they can). Pigment prints have a richness, depth, and subtlety that I find very pleasing. Picking up on what Carl Dahlke said (and on what Carl Weese said a decade ago), digital color printing is inherently more repeatable, more controllable, and more malleable than traditional color ever was, and that enables more people to make finer prints more easily. Carl D.'s point that it also encourages more focus on the picture as opposed to what he called the "janitorial" work is also an advantage.
Most of all, what I respond to is color purity. The late Bertram Miller did a great deal of experimental work with what he called "arrastres"—roughly, Spanish for "drags" or "that which gets dragged along"—by which he meant the tendency of dye layers in color materials to cross-contaminate. He demonstrated the problem in both reversal films and chromogenic papers. Previously, the undisputed champ for color purity in color media was dye transfer, and I will have to defer to Ctein, who is of course a master dye transfer printer, to tell us how dye and digital stack up against each other with regard to color purity. But there is a practical aspect to technology that can't be denied. It's all well and good to say you can get marvelous B&W digital as long as you shoot with a $25,000 digital back, but that's like saying you can get 150 mpg as long as you're willing to drive a car made of balsa wood on the salt flats while wearing a Spandex suit. I.e., it's nice to know it's possible, but it's still not practical. Dye transfer is a tremendously difficult process denied to all but a few adroit and dedicated practitioners—in fact, you can fit all the dye transfer printers in the world into a large living room (they've pretty much done that, too). Whereas color purity that is either slightly better, just as good, or almost as good (again, I'm just the Line Judge—I defer to the Umpire, Ctein, to make the actual call on that), is available to anyone with a decent DSLR and a good $650 pigment inkjet printer.
To say I am astonished by the progress of both color digital sensors and inkjet printer technology over the past decade and a half is an understatement. Then, the technology was barely tolerable and hugely expensive. Now, it is widely accessible even to fairly casual users, and it achieves results that virtually define a new pinnacle of color photographic technology. "What's next" is a tantalizing prospect, but what we've got now is what's really amazing.
*Actually, this was already done, in the 1990s, by Rob Steinberg of Palladio. As I recall, he had a separate company that printed digital files to mylar on an Iris printer for traditional platinum/palladium printing. Although not unsuccessful, it sapped too much of his time and he had to kill it. I remember that Paul Schranz was also working along these lines in the '90s, although I don't recall his methodologies.
Featured Comment by MikeF: "I think one point that's been overlooked in most of the comments here is the affordability in both money and time that pigment inkjet printers now allow. I'm unlikely to ever be 'the best' printer nor can I realistically aim at producing the 'best ever prints.'
"Nonetheless, I have just purchased a lower-end pigment inkjet printer (the Canon Pro9500), some paper and ink, and taught myself how to use it. I have produced what look, to me, to be very nice prints indeed. I'm quite happy to frame them and put them on my wall and have done so.
"Until now, I've never really been happy with largish-sized prints from my photos as I've never been able to find a lab (traditional or digital) that's proved able to print to my satisfaction at a price I can regularly afford. I've had some very expensive good results and innumerable infinitely more expensive bad results: cheapish, but unusable, despite multiple iterations with assorted labs each one of which cost further (wasted) money.
"Resolving to address this, I took the money I'd budgeted for a DSLR upgrade, decided to buy the printer instead—and with a few week's study and experiment I've been able to regularly and consistently produce prints that I find pleasing and that others do as well (judging by the number of people asking me to make prints for them).
"That, to me, is just wonderful! Really good prints, at decent sizes, on a variety of excellent papers and that is affordable to anyone with a budget (in time and space and cost) affordable by most enthusiastic amateur photographers.
"For mine, that's a technology well worth having.
"As to color versus black and white: I've had great results with both, but have found that my black and white from film scans works a lot better than B&W from original digital capture. But that's just me, in my current state of learning. I'm sure if I worked at it I could do a lot better from digital capture. However, most of my black and white would be captured on film anyway, for other reasons. (I like rangefinder cameras but my old M3 fits my budget, while a new M8 just doesn't.)"