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Friday, 14 July 2017


Thanks for the interesting exercise and insights. I prefer the "lighter" version but my wife chose the original. Horses for courses.

with this article you've earned the right to 10, no, 100 more articles on snooker, bmws/mazdas, coffee and any other non-photography subject matter you may want to write about. just make sure that after that hundred you come up with another one like this.

Thanks for the example and commentary, it makes what you're saying so much clearer. Here's my take on it.
First, there's the usual caveat about monitors (which you mentioned). I have my cheap laptop screen and a more expensive and calibrated external monitor. The tones look quite different on each.
Second, I think your comments on how to judge tonality are good but I think you've perhaps chosen the wrong cause to blame. I don't think it's about the "default conversion processing". Take my workflow, shooting raw and using Lightroom. When shooting, I don't worry about exact placement of midtones or exact exposure, I just make sure the histogram doesn't touch the sides. That means any default conversion won't look right. So the first job in lightroom is to place the tones - highlights, shadows, middles, and contrast - where I want them. So immediately it becomes a matter of judgement, my own judgement. It's nothing to do with digital default conversions, or at least not for me.
However, perhaps I take your point that maybe much of what you are looking at has been taken as JPGs on iphones and the like using some defaults and the people just post them without any adjustment. In that case I wouldn't be comparing them to the best BW film prints but to what americans might call drugstore prints. These have always been terrible whether film or colour. If you're going to compare well shot, well developed and well printed film BW with digital, it has to be with well shot and well processed raw digital, in which case I believe the digital results will be entirely down to individual judgement and nothing to do with default conversions.

Hmmm.. you might be overthinking this. Looks like fairly normal post processing of an image

[Some people aren't sensitive to B&W tonality --Barney R.]

Very nice example and discussion, Mike. I'll add that I often like to make the curve convex upward at the very left end (it can add some snap or life to the deep shadows).

If you want to bring out detail in the highlights (like bright clouds in a bright sky), you have to steepen the curve at the very right to get more contrast there. Then you have to bring up (which automatically flattens) the curve in the midrange to compensate. Just where you bring it up will have a strong effect on the feel of the picture.

I'm following this with interest, because I do a bit of digital B&W and I come from a B&W film/print background. The standout item for me was the comparison of high end and low end. But I'm not 100% convinced on the middle values part.

Mike, you said "...the way digital tends to shift the middle values downward." My question -- and I hope this doesn't sound flippant -- is this: is it *digital* that shifts the middle values downward, or is it *digital photographers* who shift the middle values downward?

By that I mean I wonder if it's primarily an aesthetic trend.

Anecdotally, I see that people who have little or no B&W film experience tend to convert downward a lot, or they go super high contrast with blown highlights and blocked-up shadows. Occasionally you see digital B&W where the black point is barely darker than the grey background (behind the yellow) on this blog.

Basically the same mistakes we all made when starting out in the darkroom. The difference (maybe) is that when most of us darkroom people were starting out we were in school or otherwise surrounded by people who would teach us. Today you get people spinning dials in Photoshop or Lightroom and the only "teaching" they get is how to spin the dials, not so much about the aesthetic values. I can't back this up with any facts; its just a feeling.

I suspect the most common problem with digital B&W is that many photographers settle for the default settings provided by whatever software they're using instead of rolling their own conversion (as I do) or at least tweaking the default settings.

I mean, can you think of (m)any instances where using the default settings for anything ultimately lead to expert-level results? Off the top of my head, I can't.

That's not only a necessary step (that both enlivens and opens up the entire shot considerably), but also an easy one, as digital manipulation goes. The continuity of tonal values in open shade is impressive at the very least- now, if that shot was taken in direct sunlight... that's where digital B&W really reveals its flaws- and such easy fixes hard to come by!

I'm very slow to comment. I have think about what I want to say, and many times , what I want to say seems trivial, so I don't bother. Especially since there are commenters who are more knowledgeable and articulate. In this case, my comment is referencing the post about "fixing the black and white nasties". I may not have got the title exactly right, but you know what I mean.
I like black and white, though I don't necessarily prefer it. I am of the opinion that sometime black and white is just better; it represents the subject of the picture better. I'd go so far as to say that a particular image doesn't need color. By the way, I'm talking in terms of my own work.
When I've made conversions, I'm just winging it. I know I really don't know what I'm doing, which is why I really appreciated the post. Thanks Mike.

Interestingly, I've been lifting midtones and softening harsh highlights in most of my photos lately, color and B&W. It goes against what I used to do, add contrast (the opposite S-curve) to make things pop and I find that I need to push the deep shadows down and punch of the clarity to give the image some bite.

But five years from now I'll probably have other ideas about what I want in a photo and look at this era and wonder what I was thinking...

Thanks Mike for the example and explanation! The look you mention is one I associate with the use of the Clarity slider in Lightroom or whatever else raises the midtone contrast in a photo for other processing programs. And appropriately (for your intent), your correction curve decreases the contrast in the midtones.

A little bit of Clarity goes a long way, and I think too many people use too much of it. I've certainly been guilty of overusing it too!

Control over the emotion of the image is why I always shoot in RAW mode. The JPG default curve isn't necessarily what I want the image to look like. What I want is an exposure that results in the most information to work with after exposure.

I have always cringed at the "get it right in the camera" philosophy because while that worked for transparency film (you really didn't have a choice) it left out a whole range of control over the image with B&W film and the same is true with digital.

It is also true however that there is a problem of tonal consistency between systems and monitors when viewing images online. My monitor is calibrated but most aren't so there is no way I can assure that everyone is seeing the same tones that I intended.

This does clarify a lot! In terms of terminology, I would say that your curve flattens midtone contrast, which has the side effect of raising the brightness of low midtones. I agree with your assessment; the picture communicates to me drama and a certain sombre mood. This may well reflect the intent of the photographer.

But I wouldn't say that this look as a trend is the fault of digital as a recording medium, I would say that this is a trend due to people wanting more contrast and saturation to emphasize photos more (I believe Ken Tanaka was saying this in a comment to the previous post on this topic). Digital makes it much easier to do these adjustments and retain detail. The distribution of pictures on the Internet also seems to have a certain feedback effect, where certain effects tend to be used more and more after initial exposure (I'm referring to both color and BW).

Digital technology, however, has reached certain maturity in that properly done BW can look really good and is not that hard to. Frankly, I rarely do BW on my iPhone (previously 6+ now 7+) because I feel the files do not have the tonality needed to make adjustments. But on bigger sensor this has not been the case for a while and it's gratifying to simply adjust sliders to change spectral response and tonal curves, something that was far more laborious with film (mind you, I'm primarily a color shooter).

Finally, I must add that this topic and the discussion that has followed has been very interesting. I keep checking back for comments.

"It's not a matter of film v. digital with one or the other being better or worse."

FWIW, I think analog or digital B&W in open shade is basically a draw; in contrasty/direct sunlight, one has to fight to draw out what is in B&W film to make it shine- in digital, one has to fight to suppress what it does to B&W.

Mike, In reference to Paul's image and your application of a reverse s-shaped tone curve, you commented: "Note that this has nothing to do with "contrast" in the conventional understanding of it. With the curve modification the black and white points stay in exactly the same places. It's merely the distribution of tones in between".

I respectfully disagree. Those "tones in between" have everything to do with perceived visual contrast, much like a graded traditional photo paper system where Dmax and Dmin remain the same but the "tones in between" are being remapped to different tone values by the different paper grades.

There's good reason to break down the tone scale into quarter quadrants or more..from dark to light, ie., shadows, dark midtones, light midtones and, highlights. The contrast variations within an image are the bedrock of spatial object recognition. No contrast, no recognizable object! High contrast, harsh edged objects!

Many imaging experts consider spatial frequency modulation (sharpness and resolution) as distinctly different system attributes from color and tone reproduction. Yet, near neighbor elemental tonal gradations define our perception of object shapes throughout the whole tone scale from Dmax to paper white. Indeed, it is these frequency modulated tonal relations that dictate how humans perform pattern recognition (e.g., think about how broad lighting versus short lighting techniques in classical portraiture affects the viewer's perception of fullness of face).

Your reverse s-shape curve is one I use routinely with digital camera original files because it's so necessary to impart "old school" traditional film-to-print like character in digital image reproduction, both color and B&W. For many of us, it's simply a more natural look than the OOC tone curves produced by todays digital cameras. Your advocacy of a reverse s-shaped curve is highly relevant, I'd dare say even necessary, for nuanced refinement of the final tone reproduction in a majority of digital images, but it can also be complicated for novices to master, because it routinely needs to be employed with dodging/burning masks or more sophisticated luminosity masks to achieve its full potential.

It also helps to have looked long and hard at traditional wet process photographs and how they reproduce tonality in shadows, mid tones, and highlights. Many old photographs are actually pretty atrocious when it comes to tone and color fidelity, but the master printers in the analog era succeeded in overcoming inherent limitations of analog tone reproduction. When you can identify "the look" you want, then the image editing tools are readily available in digital photography to cultivate traditional analog print reproduction character, but first you have to know what "the look" looks like before you can achieve it in a digital image workflow.

That's something I've noticed, but couldn't put my finger on. Your explanations make sense to me, any I'm sure will find use in the future.

I'm really learning a lot from this recent series- thanks! But if I understand the curves you show, the centre of the curve, which I associate with the midtones, hasn't moved. What has been lightened are actually the tones "beneath" the midtones. If I understand correctly, the contrast of the midtones has been reduced, and the contrast of the "extremes" increased. I see how that would give more room for the highlight tones to separate and be seen, and bring out "hidden" shadow detail. You're really helping me to see with these articles!

Hi Mike,
Thanks for the clarification. As you may have noticed, telling dedicated photographers how to expose will send comments into meltdown, unleash the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and rain scummy pond water and poodle poop down on the author.
But fear not, there is a silver lining to the apocalyptic storm clouds. Regardless of which camp one is in (ETTR, ETTL, etc), at least most people are titivating themselves with curves and sliders in software to digitally process their images. It's just how we titivate that matters, and was one of the points of your original post :)
Please keep up the good work.

No need for all the excuses, you are totally right. Brilliant observation.
I'm sure I can use that.

I've sometimes done virtually the opposite, to the point where I even lost a lot of detail in the shadows. Zone-system devotees would kill me, but I found that the Expression of certain images was dramatically boosted by that.
It was hard to learn to do that, I was so brain-washed by my old photo club days (in my impressionable teen years) that you *had* to have detail *everywhere* in a photo, and you *had* to have both pure black and white also. Says who? Ansel who?

It's similar to the Big Rule in painting that you *never* use any black. Which god decided that?

I see what you mean. You've "opened up" the mid-tones. Seems to me even more apparent in the woman carrying the two shopping bags, and the man farther behind her.

They both stink digital. The first one is standard digital B&W horribleness, while the second one reminds me of what happens when an Adobe junkie religiously tries to extract info from the shadows and inadvertently pushes everything to the middle. Imagine an 24x36mm Tri-X frame exposed as per the dump meter of a 70's SR-T (or similar), and developed/printed following manufacturer recommendations (no experimentation). Would it look as bad as any of these two? No way! And let's not forget the elephant in the room. The convenience of digital allows us to photograph utterly mundane scenes like this, to the extend that we lose the ability to distinguish between these and the photo-worthy moments.

You say this has nothing to do with "contrast". And yet you're changing the contrast, even though the black and white points might be the same.
Look at that tone curve: where the slope is steeper the contrast is greater, where it's flatter (e.g. in the middle) the contrast is lower.

This where the Leica monochrome really shines...

The essence of b& w is in the mid tones. The life of b& w lives in the mid tones.
Expose manually. Add ( part of) stops if main subject is very bright and do opposite if it's dark. Learn from experience. Don't depend on histogram all the time, just shoot and learn
For some, routinely under exposing by 2/3 or whatever stops may help.
Gradual nd filter could be used.

It seems that you are advocating the use of gamma adjustments.

There's a slider in Photoshop (hidden in shadow highlights) called "midtone contrast" that does the same thing. So yes, it's contrast.

If you want all of your B&W pictures to look like this (lower midtone contrast) you can save the curve settings in Camera Raw or Lightroom and it will be applied automatically for you.

The default conversions no doubt intentionally boosts the midtone contrast to make a more pleasing contrasty-looking image which creates the impression of great shaprness, more "pop" etc. People like that look.

However, thanks for making me think about what settings I want to use next time I do a b&w conversion.

I think this puts a very clear finger on what I've been doing wrong with my B&W conversions on some pictures. I'm quite happy with what I did with a lot of the photos I've made, but some of them (particularly those with lots of midtones) I've never been pleased with. Gonna keep this in mind going forward...

I've always been confused by the term 'tonality' as applied to B&W images. In colour theory, a 'tone' is any colour (including grey) that contains some amount of all three RGB colours. Which is every colour except pure primaries and complementaries.

Strictly speaking, grey tones are in fact 'shades' (as in 'shades of grey'). I suppose shadeality doesn't sound right, but it still irks me.

[It's the standard term. I think we just have to accept the fact that words have different meanings in different contexts, and usage varies. For example, "chemicals" were always called "chemistry" in photographic processing. It was muddled, but universal. Value in B&W photography is called tone, and there it is. --Mike]

When I was young I would have printed it like Mr. Grubb. Now, I would have printed it more like the lower version, still lighter, likely, but rolling off the top and the bottom with blend-if.

All that said, I like the photograph. I was fortunate enough to see Ansel Adams prints made when he was younger and some of the same made when he was older. He changed from lighter and more open to darker and contrastier as he aged to my eye and limited exposure. Perhaps, Mr. Grubb will change with age, but the other direction. Many of the rest of us have.

Perhaps not enough people making black and white photographs from digital have had enough time to mature in their printing and presentation and with that maturation change from the stark drama of the original to a more nuanced silvery tones. I think digital is fully capable of delivering those nuanced silvery tones. Half the available tones are available in the highest stop of exposure.

And some of the others doing black and white are more than mature enough. Revisiting black and white with digital is a bit of reliving their younger years without the hassle of a wet darkroom. Some will likely find how to make a look they were striving for with great difficulty in the wet darkroom and be happy. Others may want to continue to explore and enjoy the evolution of their prints until the end of time.

The popular "dynamic" b&w setting is really not to my liking. It's truly that: black, and white. Return grey to its proper place (or gray, if you insist) in the monochrome image!

The picture you used as an example was well selected and your treatment, of course, exemplary.

I think it would be worth mentioning that you need a powerful computer to do this sort of work, at least if you have a dozen or more large file pictures that need to be worked on at a time.

My new fully loaded iBook Pro arrived last week and I shall now rework all the images that I left half done because proper processing (like you did above) took so long with A7r2 RAW files, Capture One and a mid 2012 half loaded iBook Pro.

These darkish pictures with garish highlights - could that be due to some default processing in the raw converter? It's my impression that there is some preference towards "punchy", contrasty pictures with "rich" colors. When converted to monochrome, they will look like what you pointed out in the article. Case in point: The curve you applied to the picture enhances separation in shadows and highlights, but reduces midtone contrast a bit.

I have a Nikon and use ACR/Lightroom. As a default, this raw converter applies a profile called "Adobe Standard". Shadows go black quickly, and highlights are glaring and ugly. Colors come out garish and oversaturated. A complete eyesore. For this reason, I changed this default to another profile called "Camera Neutral", which provides a much better starting point. This profile is shipped with Lightroom, but I believe that they offer it only for Nikon. Probably they have comparable, neutral profiles for other cameras, which are then named differently.

Best, Thomas

Very informative and interesting couple of posts, Mike. Thanks for taking the time to find a good illustration and writing the them up.

You seem to be saying that depressed middle values is an inherent flaw ("default conversion processing") in the digital process when it comes to B&W imaging. I don't see that.

In the example, why is this not simply a conscious decision on the part of the photographer? Your "fix" to the image demonstrates how relatively easy it is adjust the midrange.

That said, I agree that the original in your example does look a bit dark to my taste. But as you acknowledged, it that was the photographer's decision I won't say it's invalid.

Going back to the "default conversion processing", perhaps your point should be that we shouldn't just hit the "Black and White" button and call it a day. We need to actually look at the result and ask ourselves whether we can use any of the many adjustments available to make it better.

That's an interesting demonstration, but I'm still a bit puzzled that "this has nothing to do with "contrast" in the conventional understanding of it. With the curve modification the black and white points stay in exactly the same places. It's merely the distribution of tones in between."

Perhaps you could elaborate a bit on how a more contrasty lens (like the Fuji 23mm f2), or Xtrans files, might (or might not) lessen the need to tweak things in this way.

[Lens contrast and image contrast are different things, despite sharing the same word (like "light" as illumination and "light" as lack of weight). See the article I linked for more about lens contrast. --Mike]

Hmm this doesn't look like an S :)

An S curve increases contrast; this curve on the other hand lowers contrast.

Also, the curve did not lift the midtones. The midpoint is right where it was: in the middle of the diagram. What you did is lighten shadows and darken highlights.

I don't use LR, but COne has a "shadow intensity" slider that produces the lower part of your inverse S curve, producing an effect that seems a bit like having someone hold a reflector below the camera facing the subject. It leaves the deepest shadows unaffected, while brightening downcast faces. Video grading works with level shifts (and other modifications) that are separately applied to the shadow third, the midtone third and the highlight third of the intensities in a scene. So the controls and the way they work for you are important in this discussion.

Nice demonstration of how a pretty minor adjustment can dramatically change the emotional feel.

The challenge of B&W has always been translating the levels of brightness in the actual scene into the tones of the final display (print or monitor) in a way that expresses the photographer's feelings about the scene. The range of the display is almost always more limited than the original scene. Detail comes from the difference between nearby elements of similar tone - the greater the difference (steeper the curve) the more contrast and more sharply defined detail. Problem is the there's a finite range between pure white and pure black, and no free lunch. If you increase contrast in one range of tones there has to be a decrease in contrast (loss of detail) somewhere else. In your example pulling up the curve to brighten and increase contrast in the dark tones results in a decrease in contrast in the midtones. With a classic S-curve you increase contrast in the midtones at the cost of reduced contrast in the dark shadows and highlights. Seems like the way to get the best control is to be aware of the trade-offs and consciously decide which things you want to emphasize, what tone you want them to be, and what is less important and can be sacrificed. A lot like Ansel's concept of previsualization, except he had to carefully control exposure in the camera, carefully adjust developement of the negative, carefully select the type and grade of printing paper, carefully burn and dodge during the printing process... We're more fortunate - as long as we don't botch the original exposure we have all the other controls in software. Except an Ansel button to automatically provide the artistry.

Great post. I think I read here one time that you thought that the majority of the BW conversion work was on the tone adjustment sliders -- this post really expands on that thought.

Thanks for sharing.


Responding to what Andre Y wrote about the Clarity slider in Camera Raw.

Yes, that does boost midtone contrast, but it does so locally and not globally, and too much of it creates an obvious and tacky overdone HDR effect.

Yes, I'm sure that slider is being overused. Every slider that gives images more punch (or what I like to call a more jacked-up look) is being overused because that's what gets a lot of likes on Flickr and Instagram and wherever else you post photos.

I think the interesting thing about this example is that to me the "before" image is very similar to what a straight work print from a negative might look like before you decide the right multi-contrast filter to use ... and the after is exactly the sort of manipulation you'd have done in the darkroom to open the picture up and make it look nicer.

This lends credence to the idea that this is not really a digital vs. film issue but more a "knowing how you want the picture to look and how to make the tool give that to you" issue.

I guess I've been doing this for a long while and don't really even think about what I do ... but the more open longer final tone curve is usually what I am after.

Great stuff, Mike- how about an example of this trend/tendency in landscape photography?

"Note that this has nothing to do with "contrast" in the conventional understanding of it."

True, but it has a lot to do with the contrast curves supplied in Lightroom and Photoshop. With a text editor it is easy to export, modify, rename, and import tone curves. With a little math it's possible to reverse Adobe's Medium Contrast tone curve, and the result is very close to the curve you used.

I've been using "Anti Medium" as a tone curve for years, along with a milder version of the same curve.

Well, I had to try it myself, of course, and I like what I see. The curve is something I've used before, but now I understand it better. Two handles, on on the highlights, one on midtones and shadows. With this photo I used your curve, but lifted the upper point slightly as well to emphasize the backlight.

While I agree with what you are saying, I think you need to be very careful about conflating the effects of two changes as you've done: changing the curve in the image and adding some slight sepia toning to it. People may think that they are responding to just one of these changes but they probably are not.

I am completely sure that you are correct, but I think that if you want to demonstrate that changing some factor x in a print makes it better (or changes its mood anyway), then you should change just x, and not some other factor, y as well, especially when that other factor also tends to change how an image appears to people (I spend a lot of my time obsessing over the colour of certain Foma papers, for instance, for my darkroom prints).

Do we need to develop/adapt our understanding of a B&W aesthetic? I had developed a look I liked with digital monochrome a long time ago; however, as technology has improved, I've had to change the way I look at monochrome images as they are much clearer as they used to be on film at high speeds. I shoot a fair bit of drama that is converted to monochrome, I like the grainy effect of high ISO but when I can shoot a nearly clean image at ISO3200 on my X-T1, it leads me to think that need to change how we
view B&W images.

Such a small number of words with so many meanings.

I think no small part of the problem is using terminology from chemical photography that applied to the realms of lenses , chemistry , film , light sources , and paper. In digital where terms like resolution, acutamce, microcomtrast, sharpness , clarity, contrast, tonality, noise, grain, diffusion, vignetting, tone mapping, highlight recovery, shadow recovery, and openness could all be lumped into different bands of spatial frequency response in contrast* to terms specific to the different realms of chemical photography listed above.

The user interfaces that separate all those controls and give them the old names without a lot of thought is almost as bad as Fender guitars that have a "tremolo bar" that controls vibrato, and Fender amps that have a "vibrato knob" that controls tremolo.

*that word again

It seems to me that this conversation is missing some vital elements.

First, all the conversation has revolved around examining an image on screen. An apples-to-apples comparison requires both printed and on-screen versions of both traditional B&W and digital conversions. For one thing, a film B&W image will suffer on screen for the fact of having to be digitized, which is lossy unless digitized at high rez and from the negative. For another, most people haven't a clue as to what their digital conversions look like printed. Personally, I think prints are the best way to compare.

Second, not one person has mentioned the impact of hue and saturation. Monochrome images are of course all about brightness. However, they are also all about contrast, both local and global. One of the problems with digital conversions is that many photographers mistake local chroma contrast for brightness contrast. On screen, a green may contrast beautifully with a red, but when converted to B&W the contrast can disappear almost entirely. No amount of stretching or compressing brightness values will fix this problem if the colors are of similar brightness. This is especially true for skin tones, which is why many photos of people look dark and muddy.

Finally, I find that much of my trouble with modern monochrome conversions stems from sharpening the holy hell out of the image. My preference is to avoid that crunchy look, as it makes the image very modern and "digital."

I'm probably a barbarian but I *hate* the low contrast, silvery, compressed highlights, look of the second version. It looks dull and flat to me.

The first version doesn't do it for me either though. The highlights and upper mid-tones are too mashed together but the transition from lowest shadows to lower mid-tones is ok. It really needs some dodging and burning and the overall exposure is a bit too low.

Of course, I've never shot or developed film. Everything I've ever done photographically has been with a digital camera.

If I ever think of images that were shot on film when I am processing black and white images, it's nearly always tv shows and movies up through the early 70s or so.

I'm practically illiterate of photography (which is one reason why I like this website so much, so much to learn!) but, like nearly everyone who grew up in the 20th century, I speak movies and tv fluently and so that is where I turn for inspiration and for study.

Also, I can watch the work of the finest film makers of the 20th century on demand but gaining access to the work of the finest photographers of that time period is significantly more expensive and difficult.

On my fuji cameras I typically underexpose by about 2/3 of a stop from where the meter thinks things should be.

I would love to see a more in-depth exploration of this topic though and I'd be happy to volunteer a few of my black and white images to be savaged. Quality feedback from people that have experienced and discerning eyes is incredibly hard to find.

Hell, maybe I'd learn to be less of a barbarian! It's probably all that old TV I watched as a child.

Being very honest here but oh my gosh those are just not great tones to sell me on how good digital B&W has come. I'm sorry but if I made a living selling or trying to sell B&W photography I would be shooting Verichrome Pan in my Hasselblad. We have become accustomed to mediocre B&W in the digital age and it's sad. What happened to our standards of excellence when it comes to B&W photography.

It just boggles my mind how good this blog is. Consistently. Great work, as always. I appreciate the effort to put these subtleties into words, and you do it well. Thanks!

What a pleasure to read a post by Mike in which
the former editor of Camera and Darkroom and Photo Techniques magazines returns to teaching us about tone values in images and how they affect their expressiveness-something he has always done superbly.

Thanks, Mike. You should do this more often. It has been too long...

as many have said before, being a "good" photographer ( yes subjective and all that ) largely comes down to having "good" taste , and as the best chefs tend to say, at the end of the day, one should " season to taste ".

Mike, great post and an area that I have much interest. I believe I may have messaged you privately a year or two ago regarding the tonality of Yousuf Karsh prints that I have seen?

A quick bunch of his greatest portraits can be seen here: http://karsh.org/overview/

My comment to you a while back was that his prints seemed so dark! Yes, they are mostly low-key portraits so the overall frame can appear dark. But I am referring to the general tonality of the skin tones. And I think that the digital renderings on the web page are much "brighter" than the prints I've seen in person. The Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Taylor are probably best representatives of what I am referring to in terms of skin tone value. The highlights aren't actually that light, but appear so because of the overall dark values around them. He almost always uses this edge light, but the value from his main light is usually quite low.

He is obviously one of the greatest ever and this was all done with great attention, but I'm curious to hear your thoughts on his choice of tonality? While this is all intentional, I feel this style is a bit guilty of the tonality you are critiquing? And I actually agree with your taste on this I believe. While Karsh's portraits gain a certain amount of weight, drama and mood with the dark tones, every time I looked at a print I sort of just wanted it to be brighter in the same way you are asking - keeping the white and black points the same but raising the mid-tones.

My question to you a couple years ago was regarding the changing tastes of the eras. Was this taste in tonality more in style at this time? Thoughts?

(Who am I to critique these prints, but we each do have a right to our own tastes right!?)


Re Mr Tanaka's "Rightness can only be judged against communication intentions, not against technical standards."
I strongly agree with that. I would also like to add to that, the picture's ultimate use, ---when I shot for newspapers I quickly learned that newsprint makes mush out of nice long scale 'tone poems'
Or when shooting events for clients, if faces were not open and recognizable, the picture was considered a fail.
Great photographs have run the gamut of Bill Brandt's 'soot and chalk nudes to Irving Penn's long scale platinum still lifes.
What I absolutely agree with Mike about is that we should know how to control our tools to the point where we can create the exact look we want in our work that we want to create.
As someone else stated, I keep a couple of different Cyma Reversa curves as single action pre-sets as a starting point for editing, because I too prefer a tonal rendition that allows you to "see into" the picture. But it's a personal preference, not the moral high ground.
I do agree that whatever look appeals to us , we should get there "on purpose' --understanding the options and choosing the one that appeals to us.
The most we can say about other people's work is that it resonates with us , -or it doesn't.
Defining it as bad is pretty much a waste of time.
It's a 'Big Tent'

In Photoshop, I created a curve that's the exact opposite of Photoshop's "Linear Curve" preset in a curves adjustment layer. Then I saved that as a preset I called "Cyma Reversa." (Thank you, Al C.)

Now I can apply your middle tones modification with a quick menu selection.

Thank you for this interesting and thought provoking post. It inspired me to revisit some of my images, with (mostly) satisfying results.

Thanks for the really good and helpful post and I think that the example used is perfect. I'm still working on my TriX camera copy project and I went into over twenty images from various shoots and simply raised the tone curve in the middle and every image was improved in a substantial way. I like the thought that this is adding light to the image and I feel a little closer to getting back the original TriX tonality. I have learned a lot from this.
Thanks, Bill Shannon

Hmm, thanks to this article I am now questioning all of my (very few) black and white efforts (mostly shot monochrome in camera, some on film). I feel the need to go back and edit everything...

Several of my comments on the previous post apply here as well. That is, Paul Grubb's interpretation of that image looks to me like a preference for images with 'pop', i.e higher levels of contrast, combined with the effect of editing on a monitor that is overly bright, leading to an image that appears dark on a calibrated and profiled monitor. Of course I have no idea whether that is Paul's preference, or how well his monitor is adjusted, but I encounter those two things often enough that I can't but help wonder.

There's something else that I try and do when producing a challenging monochrome image - either for on-screen viewing or printing, and that is I edit the image in stages. I get to a point and then leave it for a while and come with back fresh eyes, sometimes several times. Not always, but often. In this way I am less influenced by the starting point and the default conversion. In the comments on the other thread someone suggested having reference prints for viewing, and that can help, but I'm wary of producing images that have been edited to all look the same. My way of settling on an "emotional representation" is to keep coming afresh to the image until I can do just that. That would be my main advice to Paul, and perhaps your post will encourage him to do just that.

For me, emotional representation comes from the light. A dark and gloomy day is different to a bright and sunny day, and we have to resist editing such images to try to match them, but in both cases what I'm looking in those images is a sense of the light. I believe that it's possible to be faithful to the original scene while providing the viewer with that sense.

Although I wasn't there when Paul's image was taken, I think your edits are closer to doing that, but there's till a bit of work to be done. If we were there when that shot was taken, I suspect that we would have seen into the shadows more clearly than Paul's initial rendering suggests, but I also suspect your edits may have lost the sense of gloom that would have prevailed. Of course I concede that these things are all in the eye of the beholder, and the intent of the photographer.

Found this similar article: http://barbano.com/2017/07/old-pictures-dynamic-range-acros/

My standard initial attack on all my digital photos is to boost the gamma by 20% which has a very similar effect, lifting the midtones.

Fascinating. I see the original image (I almost said "print", but somebody might object here) as emblematic of a style of B&W printing that I see everywhere and did going back to before digital. I don't like pushing the midtones that far down usually, but all the cool kids were doing it for a long time, maybe still. So I don't associate it with digital at all. I see it particularly in crowd shots, where the faces are not being printed as faces but are being suppressed to become just part of the general shapes.

I might be late to comment, but here it goes:
This B&W conversation is very timely for me, I just finished to prepare a 400 page photo catalog for print, with mostly old B&W images at the graphic design studio where I work. And on a personal level I'm currently starting my first venture in B&W with a new project of mine based on panoramic B&W urban photographs, so I'm still working on a good and consistent workflow that meets the mood/look I want for this project.

I'm sure I will use Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 and I just came across this video that made me realize how superficial was my usage of this powerful tool:

Either you like the end result or not, the practical explanation of each tool is very worth watching the almost 1h tutorial.

Nice thread you have going here Mike. Digital had been an amazing trip so far but I am still trying to reconcile black and white conversions with the prints I have made in a darkroom. I don't know if the problem is inherent in the processes or if it is a lack of skill on my part. I'm leaning heavily toward lack of skill.
A couple of years back I had a bit of an eye opener. In high school in the mid 1960's I learned to print from a local photographer who was also a photography collector. He had half of an Adams portfolio and two vintage Weston prints and they were on display in his studio.
I worked part time printing for him and those prints both instructed and mocked me. They rewired my brain to automatically go for keyed prints that also had good separation throughout the mid tones and naturally they had to be neutral to slightly cold toned in color.
I suspect I am not the only TOP reader who sees things this way. Do I need to mention that this kind of printing is difficult as hell and will lead to a full trash can and empty wallet in a hurry but I felt like that was the only way.
Jump forward to a few years ago. My son came home from college with a fist full of Palladium prints he had done. He took over my darkroom making Ziatypes which are a printing out variant of the Palladium process (I think). It took a while for me to “get” the prints. They didn't have a deep black or a bright white but the mid tones were glorious. There was a gentleness to the prints that just knocked me out.
I realized that a lot of the energy I was spending on printing went for checking boxes as opposed to checking feelings. But when I picked up the Ziatypes my technical predisposition to a particular look was overwhelmed by how moved I was by the pictures I was holding in my hands.
A big frustration I have felt in digital conversions is the inability to replicate that F64 Group look I struggled and generally failed to achieve in the darkroom. I don't feel that so much anymore.
I am trying to go more with my gut and for the record my gut prefers your reworking of Mr Grubb's image but either one is charming.
This borders on being OT but here goes. If you want to see exceptional black and white photography get your hands on a copy of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. You will see everything from crisp shots with every zone on the dial in them to soft veiled long lens images that almost melt away. Each a perfect match to the mood Kurosawa was trying to achieve.

Just one more consideration.

In the olden days, B&W photos were viewed as prints. Today we work on (and usually view) emissive displays. And many people keep their displays quite bright. This may well have the effect of creating the trend that Mike is seeing. The midtones are not looking dark to the photographer because the display is bright enough to make them lighter.

I'm not sure it's digital vs film style, but the dynamic range and brightness of the display that has shifted the tonal presentation we often see today.

And since we're all looking at different displays, we're all seeing different tonalities as well. A good curve for one display can be the wrong curve for another. There's no winning this one :)

Mike, if you'll allow me a follow-on post, I wish to add a hifi analogy. Mid-tones is like the mid-range. A system which gets the mid-range right (i.e. natural, flowing etc.) will adequately reproduce the emotions of the music. A slamming bottom end, a scintillating top end etc. are nice to have, but not necessary to the emotional experience of the music -- as long as they are naturally rolled off, not exaggerated. This has been the message behind the tube revival and the "British" sound, notably Linn gear and the BBC monitors (LS3/5A and variants).

When I was printing B&W in the darkroom, I actually had a weird little light meter that I used, and I calibrated it for my papers. Turns out what I did was set it for facial skin tones (of white folk; and that occasionally caused me problems, yes), meter that way, and then pick a contrast filter (VC paper) to bring the shadows to where I wanted. Completely useless for landscapes of course, but I so rarely shot landscapes it hardly mattered.

(Can't remember the maker of the light meter. It was a weird cheap little thing, rather clever. Ran on AC, vaguely 3 inches by 6, portrait format. The top third was a white field with a small sensor in the middle. There was a knob with calibrations, and a neon lamp. I used it by pre-setting the knob to my calibrated value, then reducing the aperture on the enlarger lens until the lamp extinguished; that then duplicated the light intensity I had originally measured, so if I used the exposure time I had originally recorded on the same paper it would reproduce the density in the print at that point. It's still in the house somewhere, but not sure which box, so does anybody remember what this was?)

Your posts usually demand careful thought and 'reading round the subject'. This one, about monochrome pictures, has been a good example. I suppose by now everyone has moved on to the boat show, but for what they are worth, here are a few thoughts.

I don't think the way the tones originally captured in analogue or digital pictures, before the photographer gets to work editing them, have much to do with the final versions of pictures which you dislike. I think what you are really complaining about is fashion.

Take the picture you discus above. As you show, it's not very difficult to present it in a completely different way. That would be true of any digital outcome, whether you start with a negative being scanned, a darkroom print being scanned or a RAW file straight from the camera.

I think for some time there has been a desire to present monochrome pictures in a way you don't like. I don't either, but that's by-the-by. That fashion is quite evident in, just as examples, recent issues of the magazine you used to write for, Black and White Photography, and also the Leica fora.

By no means all photographers are following that fashion of course. And, at a guess, not all of the work presented like that was digital before it was sent to the magazine printers or scanned for the Web.

Perhaps blaming everything on the limitations of digital technology may be going a bit far? You demonstrated above, very clearly, how flexible that technology is. People move on from fashions, nobody has to follow them.

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