Digital took black-and-white away.
To me it's the biggest change about the Digital Transition (which I define as 1994–2011). "Black and white are the colors of photography," said Robert Frank. That "are" would now have to be changed to "were."
I've made the point many times that for some of us—those of us who approach working with a camera by learning to see the way the camera and lens sees—being able to convert a color file to B&W is not the same thing as having a camera that only shoots B&W. If the camera natively shoots color, I see in color. Can't help it. People who look at it like it's only a technical question can't see the point in a B&W-only camera; they'd just convert the file. They don't get it: we see with our brains, and if the way you conceive of making pictures is to adapt your brain to the way the camera and lens are recording the image, then you'll only "see" in B&W if that's what your camera is seeing. So for a long time I agitated for dedicated B&W camera, saying I'd buy one when someone made it.
Then someone did...Leica. Leica was a slightly more expensive brand of camera in the marketplace when I got into photography, costing a modest 10 to 30% more than similar Nikon equipment. Now, Leicas are Veblen goods marketed mainly to the carriage trade and cost many multiples of what similar equipment costs.
The 23mm ƒ/2 lens for the Leica T, for example, is made (or was originally made; maybe Leica has brought it in-house now) by a no-name Pacific Rim OEM supplier, but Leica charges $1,950 for it. If the very same lens—no magic added or subtracted by mystical means—were marketed by Sigma or Tamron, it would cost 1/10th that much.
If a digital B&W-only camera were marketed by Canon or Fuji, it would cost $795. Leica charges $7,950 for the M Monochrom, thus making a liar out of me. I wouldn't buy one, turns out.
I've also been searching for years for a way to make digital B&W look good. It usually doesn't. There are two main reasons for that, first that the technology wasn't good enough, and second, that most people don't have good judgment about tone.
But it's been getting better and better. The first good B&W print I made was shot with the Nikon D700; the first digital B&W print of my work that looked better than a film-on-fiber-base print was the print Ctein made of my photograph "Hands." (Yes, it didn't look quite like film. No, the shadow separation wasn't as good.)
Anyway, I just wanted to report that I am officially resigning from the fray, hanging up my gadfly badge, not gonna complain any more. I've decided that Fuji X-trans files convert well enough, and that I'm going to go ahead and accept the new order: that digital cameras record color, and color photography is the new normal. The shift has happened: black and white are no longer the colors of photography.
Of course, I'm going to continue to make B&W pictures myself, for the simple reason that I like B&W better. It's more expressive to me and I respond (viscerally, elementally, at an emotional level) to tones more than I do to colors. (Always have. Seems to be the way I'm wired. Although of course I can appreciate color photography, my own and others'.)
And Fuji conversions aren't perfect. They don't quite look like film-on-fiber-base. They're...different. A little better in some ways, a little worse in others. But I have officially decided that they're good enough for me.
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Featured Comments from:
Clayton Jones: "By early 2004 I had completed my transition to digital after having shot Tri-X for over 20 years in 4x5, 6x7 and 35mm. For two years I struggled with trying to make my pictures have 'the Tri-X look.' I tried many photoshop tricks and various software solutions that claimed to be able to produce that look. Nothing worked and I was constantly frustrated.
"Finally one day I came to the realization that I was suffering needlessly. Digital B&W had its own form of beauty and I needed to let go of the past and tune into the new. My frustration vanished, my pictures got better, and I began to see the inherent beauty in this new medium. And now I'm in the process of living happily ever after.
"I love the B&W prints I'm making (with the Epson R3000 on Hot Press Natural) and my long time love for B&W photography is as strong as ever. I love working in Photoshop and you couldn't drag me kicking and screaming back to film. I'll always remember how hard it was to let go and what a huge difference it made when I did."
Joe Holmes: "Re 'If the camera natively shoots color, I see in color. Can't help it.'
"One day walking down the street a couple years ago, I spotted a scene I wanted to shoot. So I lifted the camera to my eye and suddenly had a dizzying moment of disorientation. I had been walking along as usual looking at the world through the mental filter of the lens that's typically on my camera—but I'd put a different lens on as I walked out the door, and I'd forgotten about it.
"That was moment I realized that I often walk around in mental-camera mode, framing the world as I'm able to shoot it. When my camera is on my hip, it does me no good to look at the world in a way I can't shoot. I stop seeing other modes when mentally framing.
"Though I love B&W, I haven't shot it for probably 25 years, but I know it's the same. If I carried a B&W-only camera, that's how I'd be framing the world—but not otherwise."
Gingerbaker: "If you could turn off the color saturation of the Fuji electronic viewfinder, would you do it?"
Mike replies: No. I don't have any need to have the camera make the conversion for me. I'm very used to translating the real world to B&W in my head. My problem is that when I know the camera records color, then I anticipate that. When it records B&W, then I anticipate that.
John Krumm: "After over a month of shooting almost all digital black and white (seeing black and white in the viewfinder, importing with a black and white preset) it feels like my brain has changed. Every once in a while I will see a shot, maybe one out of one hundred, that I think might look good in color, so Ill shoot it for that purpose. At the very least, my impression is that I'm becoming a more discriminating color photographer. If I change a photo to color, my usual reaction now is "yuck" and I quckly change it back. It's a strange thing."
marcin wuu: "What I find interesting in this (and previous) posts about black-and-white photography is, how these shots really aren't. They're actually dark gray and light gray. Noticeably the black is absent. It's like there's something inherently wrong with the colour (or actually, lack of it) black. They're smooth and have lots of detail and fine transitions from darktones to light, but no real punch—like they follow a rule of no contrast. Why is it so?"
Mike replies: Because that's what I like. Look at Henry Wessel's prints—they're less contrasty than mine. Look at Ralph Gibson's prints for a counterexample: virtually every one of his pictures has strong blacks. Most black-and-white photographers (the ones who do their own printing) have their own taste, their own aesthetic. Black-and-white allows for a very wide range of interpretation.
For instance, here's an alternate interpretation. I'm not saying this is worse, but it's different. Some people might like it; to me, it's coarse and crude. I don't like it. Since it's my pic, of course, I get to decide.
Bruce Robbins: "Well done, Mike. I'm pleased you've found a way of shooting and enjoying black and white again. I'm sticking with film but not because I think it offers better quality than digital. I just prefer the whole process of shooting with film, from choosing the right film, loading the camera, not having an LCD to bother about, to developing the film and making a print in the darkroom. For most digital shooters, these seem to be inconveniences, but for me and my band of blog readers we'll never give them up. LONG LIVE FILM!"