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Thursday, 04 December 2008


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Mike, I had a question about a B&W digital sensor: Wouldn't it have better detail/sharpness/resolution than an RGB sensor of the same megapixel spec? RGB sensors have to "de-mosaic" or interpolate each colour plane separately, thereby "making up" some information. Your thoughts on this?

It's good to hear somebody else likes the 6x9 size. It is also my favorite. I print about a dozen 6x9 pictures a week on 8.5x11 paper on my Epson R280, which, IMO, makes the best color prints I have ever seen (yes, I know it's lowly Claria ink, and the printer only cost $100, so how could it possibly compare to an R1900 or an R2800 or an R2880, but try it yourself, the prints are awesome).

I think for most of TOP's readers, this is a hobby, not a profession, and we should do what makes us happy.

I don't feel the need to print big: once you put all that money and effort into a big print you end up treating it so carefully that it can't be enojoyed. I like to hold my prints and write on them and pass them around and let people get their fingerprints on them, and hold them up close; and if the print gets mussed up no big deal, it's worth less than a buck, I'll just print another.

You may want to try Nik Software's PS plug in Silver Efex Pro, a great B&W conversion tool. You'll create even better B&Ws.

Hi Mike. I'm finding exactly the same thing with the D700. I underexpose two thirds of a stop to hold highlights and then recover the shadows.
Some samples are on my blog Dec 3 of rocks and water and sky.

Thanks, Mike. Just when I had decided I really could get by with the image quality of my D200 for a while longer you go and tell me this?

Black and white is by far my favorite thing to do when shooting for myself. You just cost me $2400. :)

starting to look like the D700 is the camera we've all been waiting for. I've been very happy with mine. And it shoot a lot of stuff that gets printed black and white. Nice to read something that goes beyond the graph paper evaluation and speaks to how we'd like to actually use these cameras.

Thanks MIke.

Kirk Tuck

My experience with B&W printing somewhat follows your own progess. At first I printed full frame on 8x10 with a black border. After a while, I decided that was an affectation--I ain't Cartier-Bresson and really don't want to be. Then it was slightly cropped full frame format size with the image centered on 8x10. Then I went up a size to 11x14 paper using the same format proportions. Now I'm doing digital prints and the largest I can print is 8.5x11 inches. Maybe someday I'll buy a larger inkjet.

I still wonder who dictated that photographs have to be BIG these days to be good. And who the hell has the wall space to hang all those BIG pictures anyway?

I've gotta say that I think B&W out of the normal digital camera today is prefectly fine for everyone but the most demanding printmaker. I realize there are limitations in tonal range but, what the hell, I can live with it. I'd rather have an interesting photo of an interesting subject than a perfectly printed photo of a perfectly boring subject. (Unfortunately, most of what I do these days turns out to be dull photos of dull subjects.)

Mike, regarding your comment of prints not fitting on the scanner: Why don't you scan the negatives? Or were you shooting large format...?

Regarding B&W from digital, while your idea of a B&W sensor seems appealing, I would rather enjoy the flexibility of postprocessing a colour image into B&W by playing with the levels of each colour channel. Pick you poison, I guess :-)

You make it ever harder to stave off the purchase of this camera. I like my D70s, but the D700 just sounds better all the time.

I'd like the "B&W only" camera, but I'm not at all sure I could afford to dedicate a body to it, unfortunately. I like the idea a lot, but not sure I'd be an actual customer. Depends of course on exactly what was offered. I don't think I like it enough to give up color for it, so it'd have to be an *additional* camera for me. This is one of the reasons why I'd so much like to see interchangeable sensors.

Ought to be a stop or so faster on the same sensor, yes? And higher real resolution by a bit (Bayer is well-matched to how the human eye/brain perceive images, so it doesn't hurt useful resolution much really).

Mike - Your experience pretty much exactly matches mine with the D700, which I've had a little over a month now. The in-camera black and white jpeg conversions are OK, nothing really special (the "old" Olympus E-500 did a better job of that). However, working with NEF files and converting these to greyscale using Lightroom's sliders is dang near magic. To my eyes, the D700 at ISO 3200, properly converted, beats any ISO 400 film when it's properly developed in both "grain" and tonality. Yes, even my beloved Tri-X. The D700 brought me back to Nikon for my digital capture, and has improved my ability to do my job with available light, always a plus... - Will

Mike, Are you using color capture and converting to B&W in Adobe Camera Raw?

Still using the B9180? If so what paper are you using?


Find some fairly even light or make it yourself, get some black velvet to hide behind (for the prints under glass) and you've got the scanner in your hand. Use that D700 to make nice tight copy shots of your BW work. It'll work great.

Hey, that's a nice black and white picture of a black and white picture.

What are you waiting for Mike? Place an order for the D700 right away! :)

I like that picture, and what I can see of the picture inside the picture, too.

You've been posting some nice photos lately, Mike, going back to "Smash" at least, maybe longer. And you've still got a way with low (and now even lower) light. Some of the best "test shots" I've seen. It's refreshing (and informative) to see an equipment test driven primarily by a personal and offbeat aesthetics and curiosity. Maybe better to call it a "workout" than a "test". Anyway, you seem to be enjoying these workouts, and so am I.

- robert e

P.S. Some day, someone will curate an exhibition of camera and lens test shots, and a new genre will be born. Alas, I doubt yours will qualify.

My feeling is that if you like the D700, you'd be astonished by the D3x. I've been wandering around the net looking for sample shots since the D3x was released, and I have to say that I've been most impressed not by the resolution (which is terrific, of course) but by the smoothness of the ISO3200-6400 (equivalent) shots. Nikon is asking an absurd price for the camera, IMHO, but I'm beginning to think that the quality might almost justify it -- and I also have the feeling that the quality might be most surprising with B&W, in its ability to hold subtle tonalities in lower-light shots.


The notion of a B&W sensor pops up every now and then. People either claim that it would be the only best way to get the best quality B&W images in digital while others claim it is too specialized and suffers in flexibility. With a film camera you can shoot either color or B&W, your choice, but with a dedicated, optimized B&W digital camera you would only have one choice. There are a few really good B&W digital workflow books out there today that help get us closer.

BTW I like your picture of the chair. And it shows that you don't have to scan your B&W work; you can just take a picture of it hanging on the wall and it's beautiful. Which is a pet peeve of mine - some photographers seem dogmatic about framing and showing their work. Being creative people I think photographers should be more creative with presentation of their work. One thing I do is mount B&W prints of food on small black cutting boards for hanging in our kitchen. It's not museum quality, but it sure is fun.

That is one of the major reasons why I am still a proud film/analog photographer - my love of black and white photography.

To me, B&W photography is being loaded with B&W film, a collection of B&W color filters in hand to place on the front of the lens, and going out shooting. Not capturing an image in color, and then converting it to B&W in post.

But, then I see the consistently beautiful and wonderful B&W work of Dave Beckerman -


shot with a Canon 40D, or his Rebel converted to shoot infrared only... the stunningly beautiful, deep, rich blacks, and soft tones throughout the rest of the grey scale spectrum, and I am ready to toss the F4 and run out and 'go digital'!

"...In colors, even, if one insists on that."

That sentence killed me, Mike. One of those which make this site a landmark.


Could you please share your printer and inks and desaturation process with me (or the group)? As someone who just got a digital camera I don't even have a printer yet (or even Photoshop) so I'm in the market.



Gee Mike, you about had me convinced to get the K20D but now this. I guess I'm never going to make up my mind about a DSLR.


Interesting piece Mike. Not to focus in on a side subject, but have you considered scanning your large B&W prints in separate overlapping files, then using a stitching program to merge them? My daughter brought home several beautiful watercolors that were far larger than my scanner bed; I scanned each painting into three or four separate files, with generous amounts of overlap. Then I used the photomerge function in Photoshop Elements 6 to merge them, and came out with some very nice digital files of her paintings.

Having suggested that, I should also admit that I'm a complete amateur, and I don't have an artist's eye, so my standards may be quite a bit lower than yours. But it's probably worth a try.

I also had only three paintings to scan, so the workload wasn't very burdensiome. I'm guessing that you have several decades' worth of large prints that would represent many hours of scanning.

what are you using for printing?

Go here for more on digital B&W with the Kodak 760m camera.


Shame really.


Regarding print size, when I was in art school, studying photography, I tried to advocate my theory that "personal" work should be printed small, because small prints invite (nay, INSIST that) the viewer approach the print. It creates a "proximal intimacy" (which is what I would have said to one of my instructors).

In RealSpeak that means that getting close to the print creates a sense of intimacy with the print, and since personal work is all about intimacy, I thought that furthered the purpose and impact of the work.

Everybody thought I was nuts, so I ended up making big prints. :-/

Just a question: Are you doing the B&W conversion in the D700 or is that being done by Photoshop?

Several of us out here in LA LA land are looking forward to your review of the D700.


Mustek A3 Scanner 11.7" X 17" 1200 PRO

Not the best scanner out there, but it does a decent job, and 11 x 17 for $200 (Ebay) is a good deal.


My dedicated B&W camera is an old (by digital standards) Oly E-300. Nothing I have had since gives me the grain like Tri-X in a way that I have loved since the late 60's. But then I don't have a D-700. I wish.

Most of today's prosumer and above digital SLRs are quite good at providing files that convert beautifully to black and white. My Canon MkII, and particularly the 5D are all excellent in this regard. I happen to remember Sean Reid was very impressed with the 5D's capability for "drawing" black and white files. Even the lowly 20D was excellent...in fact, I think you received a 13X19" print to this effect in the mail today.

Sorry, no more technical excuses for keeping the B&W work a secret. Your DSLR will do just as good a job as the scanner you couldn't use, and is undeterred by source image size. The dynamic range of any recent DSLR exceeds that of a print and the linear nature of the response curve is good for retaining the original tonal characteristics.

I reproduced a family heirloom , a contact print from a 9x17" banquet camera, using a couple of stitched together shots with a 5D, Tamron 90/2.8 macro and tripod on Aunt Annie's kitchen table with daylight from the window.

Tonal distribution, contrast, etc. are very much like the original. Blown highlights and lost shadows are in the original. The original photographer used contrast to give it real 'pop' and a sense of great detail and sharpness. I did clean up tears, scratches, spots, etc.

Look at the image to the left of it to see full pixel detail. The camera/lens have fully resolved all the detail available in the print.

With a slightly more sophisticated set-up, you should be able to render your old prints nicely for the web. Whether you choose to do so is another matter, but I don't think the technical excuse is still valid.


You don't need to fit your big prints on a scanner. Just photograph them with a digital SLR. Shoot RAW, so you can adjust the photo's white balance correctly (if the image was toned you'll want to keep it as color so the toning shows).


Without the coloured gels in the Bayer sensor, native ISO would be around 400-640 - or did I miss something in Kodak's class for beginners?

Also, then I dont feel like I was cheating by seeing the colour print and thinking "oh, that was rubbish, I wonder if I artify-fartify it into B&W would people be impressed?". Oh yes they are - they forget that bad composition is still bad composition, but think "he/she must be so talented to see in B&W". The only way you see in B&W is if you have TriX (of HP5 etc) loaded in your camera and have no other choice but to LEARN what you are doing.


That's great to hear. I've always agreed with your prior views on DSLR BW tonality.

Incidentally, it seems DXOmark claims the D90 has even greater dynamic range than the D700, so I wonder if that camera is also an option (cheaper too). DPReview came to a different conclusion, giving D90 the edge in JPEG but noting that the D700 pulled in an amazing 5 additional stops in RAW over its JPEG output.

How are you doing the B&W conversion?

"Are you using color capture and converting to B&W in Adobe Camera Raw?"

I'm shooting in RAW, converting in ACR, then converting to B&W in Photoshop using ConvertToBW Pro by The Imaging Factory, which is now out of business.

Mike J.

"Still using the B9180? If so what paper are you using?"

Yes; Hahnemuhle Photo Rag.

Mike J.

Mike, do you have a personal preference for how to convert digital files to black and white? Do you simply "convert to grey scale", or do you fiddle with the colour channels?

HI Mike, say what you will, but the Leica M8 & 35 Summicron ASPH combination has been doing me proud since it came out.

Nice to know,

What is it about the D700 that you think makes it so? Care to share what basic conversion method you use?



Mike, I'm sure people have indeed been sending you bad B&W digital prints telling you how wonderful they are. That's par for the course and one often sees on the various photo forums posts with digital-looking B&W JPGs that the posters assures the reader are "just like Tri-X" — it's always Tri-X.

But it's not just the D700, there's also software that now makes it quite easy to achieve very good B&W — or, do I dare to say ir? — a "Tri-X" look. Silver Efex is a plugin for either Photoshop or Aperture, which does the best B&W conversions, allows selective burning and dodging and has presets for a variety films, including, of course, Tri-X, that are an excellent starting point on getting the look that you might want for any particular print, including a simulation of grain. Have a look at the following thread that shows some examples:


I've been using Silever Efex together with Aperture2 because I've found that the latter has the best highlight recovery from RAW files.


That does it. I'm going to have to try that D700. I'm like you, Mike: analog almost to an obsession. I was raised on film. And when I say film, I mean black & white. I have almost got my budget wrapped around the new Epson 2880 inkjet for exceptional reproduction of scans from my old black and white negs. Now, the D700 comes along taunting me to break out my old Nikon glass. Finally, you taunt me with the black-and-white work of said camera. The new D3X is not for me. I don't need that many pixels and it costs much to much. The D700 is the available light/high ISO king of my dreams.

Thank you Mike and thank you Nikon.

I agree that tone range has improved and helped B&W, so skip the request for a B&W sensor please.
When I am shooting B&W, I prefer using a color file to start, because I can apply a combination of B&W filtration in Photoshop that I wouldn't want have to apply to the lens directly when taking the shot. For portraits in the landscape, I may process with a green filter for plants, orange for sky, and yellow or neutral for skin. I can't do that combo while using glass filters on the lens.
Mike, in chemistry times it was tough to print color and easier to do B&W. With digital, initially color was much easier than B&W. B&W was impossible. Finally digital printing of B&W has improved with gray inks. It was printer improvement that was more important than a B&W only sensor would have been, don't you think?
Finally, regarding your scanner size issue, why not do a scan of the top and bottom of your 11x14 and join them in Photoshop to make a whole? You could do it automatically using panorama joining software.

Yeah but until they stick it in a camera the size of an FE2, I'm not interested.


I really hope you're wrong about this.

As I stare at the pile of film cameras and darkroom gear I have acquired over the last couple of years because I just wasn't satisfied with digital B&W, my D700 is smirking at me from where it sits on the table as if to say "go on, try me."

i agree, what lies within the d700 raw files is stunning though i must admit the d700 is far stronger in the shadows than the highlights(unlike the fuji s5). i usually aim for the highlights in high-contrast situations or underexpose the pictures a little bit. try it out, you'll be satisfied (i hope).

I am really looking forward to more digitally b/w work printed and exposed, it's high time to break the b/w film stronghold.

only problem with the d700/d3 is the iso-performance, it's just too good for creating grain hence my delta 3200 is still used regulary if i want some pleasing grain(6x6 though).

Using Active D-light and NEF lets you shot for black and white and not need to reduce exposure in most cases. I use ARC or Lightroom for conversions, using the HSL/Greyscale sliders in both.

I agree with you that the majority, although by no means all, of B&W images presented on the web have problems with inadequate tonal graduation in highlights and/or shadows. Placement of midtones is also commonly off.

On the other hand, I've played with many of them only to find that quite often the problem isn't lack of tonal information, but mis-distribution of it. Convert to 16 bit, stretch, squish, push and pull, and quite wonderful things often happen.

I'm not suggesting that it wouldn't be a good thing to have good quality in camera B&W capability and/or simple post capture conversion with excellent tonal rendition. I am suggesting that the problem is more with what's done with the data the sensor system captures than with its inherent dynamic limitations.

Since you refer to the Zone System, it seems appropriate to recall the considerable time and effort required to calibrate films, developers, papers and the development processes for both that is required by the zone system. In the specific cases of Ansel Adams and other developer/practitioners of that system, a great deal of darkroom time was also spent on custom tuning printing individual negatives.

Given that background, it seems to me that the effort required for development of generalized post capture procedures for individual cameras and subject properties is relatively small. Isn't development of saved RAW conversion parameters and/or Macro/Action(s) that adjust tonal distributions to compensate for failings in the digital capture mechanism pretty exactly analogous to the Zone System process?

Likewise, custom processing of the individual images in an image editor using dodging, burning, masks and other tools seems to me closely analogous to darkroom adjustments common to B&W wet printing (although with greater capabilities).

I had many years ago the luck to view at some leisure two large, original prints of Adam's "Moonlight, Hernandez, NM". One was a straight print and the other much like the commonly seen, highly adjusted ones. Although the plain one had the advantage of his finest exposure, development, etc., it was flat and rather uninvolving for me. The drama that has made this image so enduringly popular all happened in "post".

I do very little B&W, so I borrowed a friend's web image as illustration. All I had to work with was a small JPEG. Given the increased tonal detail in the highlights, imagine what could be done starting with the RAW file.

Although they may seem magnified in B&W, the same issues affect color. Again, highlight and shadow detail (see esp. middle left edge) are often hidden, rather than lacking.


My experience is that if you want to make copies of more than about 20 prints , you should consider using a DSLR on a copy stand. I did about 7000 of them and I was able to copy them as fast as my helper could hand them to me, about 8 or 10 per minute. Using a flatbed scanner was excruciatingly slow and I gave up after about 20 pictures. To tell the truth in my project capturing the images was the easiest part, although I got so much better after the first 2000 that I'm thinking of doing them over.
If you go the copy stand route my three bits of advice are:
Black Plexiglas background, either daylight balanced light or better yet studio strobes and softboxes, and stick the camera lens through a hole in a piece of black cardboard at least twice as big an the print you are copying.

I looked at replacing the RGB sensor in the Kodak 14n with a monochrome chip--the manufacturer makes both devices on the same substrate. Mechanically and electrically straightforward, really. Unpleasant firmware issues, though: Kodak isn't about to give me their source code so I can strip out all the color compensation stuff.

I have been able to get acceptable (to me, anyway) black and white out of my D80 just using iPhoto. My eye is not so finely tuned yet...

Mike, while it is cumbersome and time consuming, one can scan the chunks of a photo which will not entirely fit on the scanner bed for a single pass, and then stitch the pieces together with PS into a single file.

"So forthwith the perfervid peroration"

Do you know you're the only online writer who regularly has me reaching for the dictionary?
(Read: hit the keyboard shortcut for the online dictionary. But still.)

Cool about the D700's dynamic range. I hope it spreads to smaller cameras.
Red has some amazing claims in this area for their newest sensors.

When I was in photo club decades ago, it was fashionable amongst the more arty members to make a smallish print on a large paper, letting the white paper do the framing. A judge of one contest complained, saying it was waste of paper. So in protest, I made one which was about two by three inches, on a 12x16 paper.

I also made a thin black line, and made the surrounding paper light grey, which is hard to do in the darkroom. The idiot of judge who saw that claimed that the paper was not properly white! :-)

It worked well though, since the picture worked with the frame, the model seemed oppressed by the big grey expanse.
This is the one (without the frame):

"'So forthwith the perfervid peroration' Do you know you're the only online writer who regularly has me reaching for the dictionary?"

...And as I wrote that, I thought, "only in a blog could you write that way..." [g]

Mike J.

A B&W only sensor might well be too limiting for most, but in say a Leica M it could be a way to leap ahead of the competition for just that specialist use.

I would love to have a small rangefinder shooting just B&W, taking all my M lenses, but shooting at 12800 ISO or higher. I tried this in the M8, but noise/grain effect was just too awful at 2500 ISO, even when converted.

I still shoot a mix of 35mm B&W and digital. In the darkroom I don't like pushing 35mm past 6x9. I know some folks say they can print big with small format but to my eyes things go down hill over 8x10. A horizontal 6x9 be it digital or silver looks great on 8x10 papaer and an 8x10 mat.

Very interesting read! I must say much of the technical terms have passed me by. But since I do have a D700, I will take your words that it shoots reasonably OK in B&W. I wonder if your testing is done using the "factory provide" picture control called Monochrome?

Well, there goes my last bit of resistance against plunking down a little under $3K for this camera and some complementary kit. Thanks a lot! I really should stop reading these blogs and invest my money somewhere safe like leverage securities ... oh wait.

Just ran into this article.
D700, eh?
Anyway, I just print on 8.5x11. Usually not larger than 7.5x10. Love 6x9ish.

Printed an 8x10 last night. B&W portrait. Cropped it to a true 8x10 so they could easily frame it.
Looked kinda, ah, big.......

D700, good B&W. Darn.

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