After grinding ye olde axe, thanks to several readers' comments I spent an entertaining afternoon yesterday checking out the Sigma DP2 Merrill (DP2M) online...reading reviews and looking at all sorts of online samples. You do that sort of thing too, right? I'm not the only one?
I was specifically looking at the camera's black-and-white ability, and I must say I'm impressed.
I'm not going to take the time to collect permissions to reproduce a lot of examples directly here. For one thing, TOP's blog software limits illustrations to 800 pixels wide, which is not very satisfying. But take a look at this picture by Gianni Galassi, this one by "arcaswissi" (an Arca-Swiss is a fine precision view camera, if the name doesn't bring that up in your head), and this one by "junior learner." Certainly looks promising.
It's all in the highlights
Traditionally the big weakness of digital in my opinion is highlight gradation. In far too many pictures I see, photographers are insensitive to letting highlights blast out to saturated pixels—although I will say this has been getting better and better over the years, as equipment improves and as digital photographers improve (both of which are happening, I think). Sometimes this is done on purpose as a valid artistic choice, for instance in this shot by Gwenaël Piaser. In black-and-white printing this was sometimes referred to as "letting the highlights go to paper white," and it was one of those effects or artistic choices that had to be handled carefully because of its, er, often close resemblance to error and incompetence :-) .
This is exacerbated by all inexperienced photographers' tendency (in all eras) to make pictures too light.
Even when digital highlights aren't blown, digital highlights have a disconcerting (to my eye) tendency to look dead or empty. There's just not as much going on in them, tonally speaking, as there should be. The Foveon sensor seems to remedy this. Here's an example, by "Zanckr," in which the highlights are just on the edge of being too bright but nevertheless retain that sense of "aliveness" I'm talking about. Tonally, this looks much more like what I could have achieved on film than something I'd expect from digital. To me the lower part of the bust is right on the razor edge of blowing out too much (on my calibrated monitor—your mileage may vary), yet it has just barely enough detail that it just reads as "bright" and not "oops."
There are also sometimes problems going from specular highlights (areas that should be blown out, such as reflected sunlight, light sources, or bright reflections) to adjacent areas of tone; this also seems to be a strength of Sigma's Merrill sensor, as far as I can tell. For example in this picture by Annie Mallégol or this one by "Tom Hh." Unspectacularly natural.
Here's a picture of selective exposure, where a darker area has been exposed properly and a brighter area has been allowed to go light in the background—this is by Elaine Dudzinski. The tones on the band members are all fine, without letting the shadows drop out, but the overexposed background looks very much like what film could do if properly handled—it looks natural, with good tonal transitions, so it doesn't distract or draw the eye away from the subjects. (I would expect this to look a bit better printed, as ink would banish the slight flatness in the shadows and add a bit more richness.)
In all respects relating to the critical highlights the DP2M looks particularly nice. Looking at random pictures from a variety of photographers you're of course likely to see tonality that's all over the place, but even so, the default with the DP2M looks awfully good tonally. The relationships and transitions seem right.
Here's one last example of a scene in which I might expect ordinary everyday digital to let us down. The picture is by 肖蒙 孙—I hope that name appears right on your computer; I don't know what language it is. I might open up the trouser leg and shoe a bit, although the way it appears is one choice. But we're talking about the highlights. Tonally, the light areas here are great—filmlike in the best sense. There's just no trace of digital ugliness.
Foveons to come
Of course, I'm seeing excellent digital B&W much more often now, and from different cameras, for example from the E-M5 and the latest Fujis. One would expect the Foveon sensors to be particularly good at B&W, of course, just because of the way they work. That seems borne out in the examples I looked at yesterday. Very nice.
The DP2M is on the way out (which may mean discounts), soon to be supplanted by the recently announced DP2 Quattro, which has a new sensor with a completely new architecture. Theoretically, the Quattro should do even better with B&W than the Merrill. It'll be interesting to see if that is borne out in results.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jim Kofron: "I did promise I'd check—and setting the DP3M to monochrome WB does sync the back LCD to grayscale. I've always found it amusing that the camera that was meant to shine with color (which it does under many circumstances, in my opinion) puts out fantastic B&W images as well. The files hold up very well to B&W, and print exceptionally well. Although there aren't many samples out from the Quattro (Sigma USA is trotting around giant prints from prototypes), one will expect it to be a bit higher resolution, a stop better with noise, and another generation advance in terms of speed (which will only put them a couple generations behind... :-) ). In seeing the quattro being handled, they appear to be bringing two top wheel controllers to their very nice ergonomics (the Quick Menu system is great for dealing with setting you care about, custom modes are highly flexible, and manual focusing is surprisingly good). I expect it to be a friendly camera for most photographers to operate.
"I'm loving my DP3M, although I still occasionally jam the camera up to my face in hopes that a viewfinder has magically sprouted. Old habits die hard.
"Also, a shout out to the new SPP software. The monochrome mode they've added into the software is a lot of fun to use, and does a great job. The caveat is that this is not Lightroom, where you're blasting through 1000 wedding photos. Think of it as your chemical darkroom, but much faster—and you'll be happy. Perspective is everything."
[Jim is a longtime Sigma/Foveon maven who showed me a lot of very impressive big prints made with this sensor when it was new. I wrote about that experience in a post called "The Sigma Bigprint Unofficial National Tour" in March of '12. —Ed.]
Steve Pritchard: "I find this sort of article very helpful in furthering my understanding of what makes a good B&W photograph. When I look at my own conversions I can tell there's something not quite right at times, but I occasionally find myself at a loss to identify what it is specifically, and therefore how to go about rectifying it. Information like this really helps. I should have spent less time in the snooker hall and more in the darkroom, I guess. Anyway, thanks Mike. A good read, much appreciated."
Mike replies: One of the great advantages of art school was that we (a class or group) frequently discussed the aesthetic effects of the technical aspects of prints, both B&W and color. That helps both to help you see what is happening in a print—right or wrong—and to help guide you to a personal aesthetic preference. It also becomes easier to learn to match technique to subject matter and to appreciate printing (and post-processing) styles that diverge from your own chosen style.
At the Corcoran, such discussions were deliberately led by two teachers who often had divergent opinions themselves. That helped to defuse students' tendency to accept a single authority as being an arbiter. On more than one occasion I can recall the two teachers arguing. That really made it clear to us that we had to make up our own minds.
The danger of doing it online is that we're possibly not seeing the same thing as we try to discuss it, but I suppose the benefits outweigh the potential pitfalls!
Jim Woodard: "Don't start this! I just bought a Fuji X-T1."
Mike replies: Don't worry, it's not like other sensors can't do B&W. There's already a Fujifilm X-T1 B&W group on Flickr, although there's not much posted there yet.
Oh, and congratulations!
Ian Christie: "Thanks for an interesting piece on Merrill monochrome. After owning a DP2s for a couple of years, I am a Foveon fan and just bought a DP2M—the price reduction makes it unbeatable value now. The results are spectacular and to my eye they match what I used to get from my Mamiya 6. As for the camera body, it is fine—and the menu system is neat and unfussy. ISO 800 and maybe just above are fine with monochrome. I use it with a Voigtlander 40mm OVF and that works perfectly well."
Peter: "It might be simpler (not to mention more fun) to get the results people want in B&W to shoot B&W film. It addresses the technical limitations and mindset issues. Just sayin'. Like a few other commenters, I'm a big fan of a hybrid workflow—shoot on film, develop, scan, tweak and clean up in Photoshop, print the digital file (I like inkjet for B&W and digital C-prints for color). It's not that hard or expensive...."
Mike replies: Actually it kind of is. That's not a reason not to do it, but I don't think it's deniable that it's both more difficult and more expensive.
Zanckr: "Thank you for featuring my photo. This is a first time to be chosen by someone, so I don't know what to say but it's an honor. If you have time and interest, could you edit my photo as you like, please? I've never learned from someone and now I'm feeling that I really have to study to improve my skill. I had been losing the motivation of taking a photo since the loss of my beloved cat, but it's getting back and this post boosts the motivation."
Hugh (partial comment): "I had no intention of buying a new camera. Looked at the examples, ordered a DP2M. There is a quality to the B&W that I really love."
Robin: "The first two photos especially are very nice illustrations of what can be achieved by a good photographer who knows digital development. But they don't seem to be of significantly better quality than what can be obtained in other digital systems, Micro 4/3 for example. Anyone who manages the tonal range of their image can escape without blown highlights, and can massage the actual tone curve exactly as they might like it for the given image. This to me is an ideal result, since otherwise I might be tempted to buy into the most masochistic digital camera system since the days of hooking up an RS-232 cable to transfer images."
A later comment from Robin: "OK, that didn't take me long. I will need to retract my previous doubts. I have now found images that truly demonstrate the potential of this sensor. Quite unbelievable."
robert e: "There's an interesting technical analysis of saturation behavior of Foveon vs. Bayer sensors here. If I understand correctly, the author proposes that highlights in Foveon images look better because the transition to saturation is more color accurate; the accuracy being due to there being much more color crossover in the Foveon, and thus less chance of one channel blowing out much ahead of the others. I should think that in many cases, this more graceful transition (or lack thereof) would translate in monochrome conversion."