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Tuesday, 09 December 2014


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I like them. (Gallery of B+W Xe-1 + 18-55mm Images) http://www.longwerks.com/belowthesurface/xqoaylpyifhc2zc7nfc2yka8jzg525

I think X-Trans images are better in general. My XE-1 gives me more, for lack of a better word, musical images than any other digital sensor I've used. Not just for B&W (though that does work very well), either. Color images are really nice too.

If you're paying attention, each image will dictate its own treatment. Sometimes it wants high contrast, sometimes not. I think your canine close-up looks great. The second picture looks okay but maybe a little too high-toned. Surfaces almost seem to be glowing from within, which is probably not what you had in mind.

I agree with you for some subjects, but definitely not all. Some require high contrast, and some work best with only a limited range of tonality. Your shades of gray approach can be taken too far. For example, I got a recent copy of B&W magazine, and there was hardly a real white in it. Most of the images came across as flat and dull. The risk of overdoing shades of gray (or underdoing?). As for your audio analogy, what about tonality and color-two terms very familiar to audiophiles. They are not restricted to frequency range, and are critical to most music (unless you are talking about acid or or punk or heavy metal rock, where only loud counts).

Freudian slip on the E-M1? :-)

I agree with you on this one. Liberating myself from the tyranny of "full range from black to white" was one of the defining moments in my darkroom printing learning. When you do it, you are free to print what works, not what it's supposed to work.

Now, to get to the fisticuffs, I don't think the tones work for me in your first shot but the second one has a fantastic quality to it. Specially the belly of your lovely subject.

Looking more closely, I can't help to think: is it because of the digital matting?

I think few things have had as big an impact on the look of my own photos as the photos I've seen by Henry Wessel taken in strong sunlight. The light is palpable in them. I can almost feel the sun when I look at them.

And I'm pretty much a color photographer.

I once read, and confirmed it myself that if you have a color digital image and want to see if it good or great qualities convert it to black and white. if it still looks good or great, then it probably is.

When I started photographing, I'd look at some contemporary photographers' black and white pictures and think: 'this is what I want to do.' Now I look at the same photographs and am ashamed I craved that style.
Indeed most of today's black and white photographers tend to favour brooding, inky blacks. They mean to express atmosphere, but they seem to fail to realize they're just being formulaic (which is a cardinal sin in phtotography).
Not that I stopped loving contrast: it's just that I began to appreciate what takes place between those coveted 0% and 100% of the Zone System. I do like contrast - I'm a fool for Ilford films, especially the almighty FP4 Plus -, but sometimes it can be just too much. Neither do I feel inclined to do the washed-out, contrastless pictures that were common in the early decades of the 20th century. I tend to appreciate the kind of texture and tonal differentiation that made Kodak's Tri-X the film of choice among the photographic community.
I can't say I've mastered the secrets of black and white film photography, but I made a gigantic leap when I was told to expose for the shadows. Gone were muddy midtones and uninformative shadows. In fact I'd counsel anyone who shoots black and white film to expose for the shadows - providing, of course, some care is taken with development in order to deal with the highlights.
Digital black and white is a different matter. One must forget the 'monochrome' setting of the camera's JPEG engine: it seldom gives good results and you'll get a file that can't be edited properly. The keen digital photographer who wants pristine black and white will shoot Raw, use Lightroom or CS and start the whole processing by converting the files to grayscale. (As far as I know, only the Adobe Photoshop programmes offer this option.) Then he (she) can take care of contrast to his liking - as long as he doesn't get it too heavy-handed. Of course he (or she) will have taken due care with exposure before processing, as the latter can make a mess of the pictures if exposure hasn't been thoroughly thought of before pressing the shutter button.
(I must also say that, despite all of the above, I'm a fan of 'chiaroscuri', as done by people like Bill Brandt or Ray K. Metzker. This, however, has nothing to do with the artificial atmospheres some photographers intend to create. It's an abstract graphic language that does away with midtones in order to emphasize forms, not a muddling of the midtones that results in heavy compositions.)

"(You've probably been a B&W printer if you looked at this and immediately thought, "except for the highlights in the eyes.")" Yep that is exactly what I thought.

It's odd that every time you write about this I think "wow this is really cool, I should try that!", extremes are so engrained into my fairly recent photographic education that whacking the contrast slider up is the automatic response when converting to black and white.

For some reason I can't make the idea stick though, is is just bombardment of high contrast black & white in mass media? I'm forever thankful for when you first introduced James Ravilious to us, but even with this shining example of how broad and beautiful grey can be I still just cannot get used to seeing in monochrome.

I need to shoot and process more film...

I like the infrared results I get with the X-Pro 1 (unconverted camera just using an IR filter over the lens). The monochrome conversions from raw via Nik Silver Efex Pro are better than I got from the Olympus OMD-EM5 with the same IR Filter which seemed to have very poor IR response in comparison. Wonder if the IR response has any other effect? big like the old Leica M8 with lots of IR which also did great monochrome. Some examples of the Fuji X-Pro 1 IR taken with the lowly 18mm XF lens at :
I doubt they are to your taste Mike, as in most cases I have deliberately boosted the contrast a lot, but perhaps a couple show the lovely grey tones possible.

For the second shot of Butters, I might try a different color filter to distinguish him from the carpet and background. Silver Efex is nice for proofing this.

And yes, Fuji X-trans files consistently convert absolutely beautifully to black and white. This is an attribute that "X-photographers" have noticed since the advent of the X-Pro1.

Below is an example; a very simple photograph of the bridges in Benicia, California.

I've been shooting with Fuji X cameras for several years now. Used to shoot fuji neopan 400 & 1600 with an M4 and M6. Went digital with a D700 and that was ok, but the first time I loaded an x-trans file and opened it in Silver Efex Pro2, my toes curled, I felt palpitations, and I played all night with every image I shot that day, even the brick walls and wire fences. The files sing Mozart arias!

Thanks Mike for this post. I have felt alone in wanting a delicious range of tones between the bright areas and the deep shadows of my images. Except for speculars, I want something in the highlights, and I love to see into shadows whenever possible.
My printing experience began in High School for the school newspaper, and soon after I was in the Army as a photo lab specialist, printing for aerial recon and publication.
Recon images require detail in the highlights and shadows, and publication mostly then was on newsprint. The halftone process adds a bunch of contrast itself, so I learned to print for content.
What would today be called flat, I suppose.
Your example images make me happy. Although black and white seems most appropriate for the topic, I feel the same way about color images.

I like the lower contrast I get by developing my films in the D-23 developer. The lower contrast also works well when scanning the negatives.

" It's well known that in deconstructing audiophile tastes in sound quality, some people prefer the middle tones and some people gravitate to the extremes." Seems like that afflicts record producers as well. (Quite) some time ago, I noticed that "Queen" albums were "hot" at the high end. I found them almost unlistenable.

This post, and especially the comments, pose(s?) a severe level of temptation for me, and I hope I can resist for a while longer. I'm speaking of the X-Trans Fuji cameras. Having recently decided that I am "all in" with M43, having my gear lust rekindled is bad news. Must ... resist ... temptation. Must ...

I've recently had the inclination to dig out some of my prints from when I had a darkroom. Compared to my current digital monochrome renderings, I'm finding a fairly consistent bias in my work towards the chiaroscuro. (There's one negative that appears almost clear, with just a couple blackish blotches.) Ctein's work on the Lincoln Memorial print has inspired me to reach back, and to see if I can do with digital tools what totally frustrated me in the darkroom.

You need to have someone write a bit about silverefx Pro.
It has opened my eyes to amazing things that can be done with clouds that before even a red filter didn't capture. It's a free trial and not as expensive as it used to be before Google bought it.

I seem relatively resistant to extremism. I always look at the edges of the histograms, and I usually do have a full range of tones in my photos -- but not religiously, sometimes it looks better if I don't, and that's what matters. On the other hand, very often when an image looks muddy and flat, the problem is a deficit at one extreme or the other (most often black in my experience).

And yeah, I'm a B&W printer by your test. Although the first image of Butters, despite probably having actual white in the highlights, and black in some of the shadows, does still look flat and lifeless to me. Weirdly spiky toward the dark end, and a very long almost-empty space at the bright end, but there are pixels at 0 and 255. (Firefox histogram viewer is my friend!)

I like the tones in the second Butters shot a lot better. It does manage to confuse that Firefox addon, but saving the file and using Irfan View shows me a much more reasonable histogram that makes fairly normal use of the extremes.

Love the second one.

Definitely agree with your points about the Fujis. Speaking of which, what were your thoughts on the X-T1?

Hmm. Boom and sizzle. That's probably why I've not gotten the most from my Motorhead CD collection. I think I'll push all the dials to the mid-tones and see what the grays sound like.

The thing about Ansel is not just that he used all the tones (at one time or another) but knew *when* to use them. A fascinating study could be done of all the hundreds (thousands?) of prints he made of Moonrise -- because they are very different across the full range of examples. One of the reasons I generally disagree with the idea of "vintage" prints, justified by the idea that they better show the photographer's original intent, is that the photographer's intent may very well change over the years, and the later "intents" may in some ways be better. That's certainly true of Moonrise, IMHO.

(And we all knows that "vintage" is just a marketing ploy anyway.)

Yes. Learning to separate those mid-tones in a nuanced way is something I'd desperately love to develop.

Pentti Sammallahti's pictures in Here, Far Away (thanks Mike) are just endless. I can look at them forever.

Eric Fredine's comment reminded me of something I read in On Landscape a while back. I forget who the writer was but he was talking about the challenge of making work that aims to leave an impression, rather than simply aiming to impress.

Butters is gorgeous!

(You've probably been a B&W printer if you looked at this and immediately thought, "except for the highlights in the eyes.")
Yep! I thought right on the money silk!
Actually as for the Fuji black and white sensor response stuff, it is exactly why I have been a confirmed Fuji shooter right from the S2 PRO's on.
(...my toes curled, I felt palpitations, and I played all night with every image I shot that day, even the brick walls and wire fences. The files sing Mozart arias!)
Says it all. ;-)

Tools like Nik have allowed people to create very dramatic photos, which is great, except when every single one is done the same way. It's just to monotonous (ha!). Some mid-tones would be nice now and then.

Yes, the X-Trans sensors do very well with monochrome (don't forget with the X-T1's EVF you can turn it to black and white - and square frame if you like). The Fuji in-camera black and white conversions are exceptionally good, too. I don't use them that often as I prefer to have the flexibility in post to selectively darken/lighten using Lightroom's great picker in the B/W panel. However, when I have used them I've always been satisfied.

Give in to the Jpeg.... The jpeg results direct from Fujis really are amazing. I've pretty much stopped shooting raw (which I was religious about with my Pentax SLR) as I can't get quite the same quality if I convert them myself.

In my experience, low-contrast monochrome requires high-contrast lenses which have their way with subtle gradations. To make things harder still, this is one of the few areas where B&W film has a clear advantage over digital, be it Fuji or not. I simply can't match what I get from, say, Ilford FP4 with digital.

Exactly what Eric Fredline said, is how I have often though about some of today's black and white photographs.

My ideal subject for conversion to B&W is an exotic car wrapped in matte foil (flat black), preferably shot under the sun using a circular polarizer to minimize unwanted reflections. Like this one.

A Ferrari F430 with a matte black foil. Photo credit: Foilacar.ae, Dubai. Used with permission.

Converted to B&W using the HSL/Color/B & W pane in Lr 4, the "Medium Contrast" curve tweaked slightly (to lower contrast and get rid of blown highlights), and the highlights saturation slider pushed to "5" in Split Toning. The only other thing I did was to straighten the white tube columns in the background using vertical transform in Lens Correction.

Here's the original JPG file in color.

I'm glad you wrote this article, as it's not a subject that's widely discussed. I live in southern Spain, and most of the year the light creates very high-contrast scenes that are quite challenging to shoot digitally. I just thought I'd add that aside from the aesthetic reasons for preferring a final image without extreme contrast, there's also the practical reason that it is much easier to add contrast after the fact than it is to remove it. I find myself having to do far more local and global contrast and exposure adjustments on the photos I shoot using my modern AF lenses than on the older lenses I kept from my film days, although the colour is usually better with the newer glass, so there's always a tradeoff. For black and white, though, nothing beats the old lenses.

Your second photograph is really beautiful.
Yes, I also speak in praise of low(er) contrast even though I am especially a color photographer. Contrast and saturation is greatly exaggerated nowadays in landscape, travel and street photography, creating a pop culture of instagram-like pictures. Above all, I really don't like the current fashion of high contrast underexposed street shots in daylight with totally black shadows.

I know that I periodically mention the great Bill Brandt when I post comments here, but he took contrast to another level (I read somewhere, many moons ago, that he printed on the near-mythical Agfa Brovira grade 6 paper, also that he switched to ultra-high contrast when the proofs of the 1st edn of Shadow of Light were over-inked and he liked the effect). And Ansel Adams had the highest regard for him, although stylistically they were very different (zone system be damned!). Look at:


(A damned sight cheaper than Cindy Sherman, and a damned sight better, in my opinion.)










One thing I have been realizing more and more now is how photographers are presented with 2 very different display media, the print and now the screen. 8-10 years ago large screens were not viable for most people---today they are. So there is real choice now how one can display a large image. For many today, the really big screen is far more economical. Scratch that---for everyone it is now more economical.

I'd say screens tend to favor "pop" as a value, for better or worse, and I think we can generally observe this in so many of the images we see today---let's face it--via the internet. I'm thinking printing favors subtlety, and also is a friend to B&W in a way screens are not.

There's a synergy going on with paper and B&W and certain , more subtle color prints that a screen cannot yet produce. It relates very well to other printmaking media. Likewise, there is an electric synergy between screen display and extremely punchy color images in favor today.

This has happened before---check your art history for remarkable palette changes between centuries and styles, or even locations (northern Renaissance vs. southern is a classic one, but there are others)---some of which has to do with technological changes (new pigments and or mediums for them)

I think this also accounts for the popularity certain washed out retro "styles" (hello, Instagram) and some hipster love going towards film and printing. I also think that so many people used to be disappointed with the results they got from color film (drugstore developed) that they now ten to ratchet things up to 11 (see "Spinal Tap") to compensate for all that disappointment and lack of control.

We print purists can be snobby about the fluorescent psychedelia of today's screen images, but really it's another display media that is so new it may not have found its best practitioners yet. I know I haven't explored it at all to date, my mind's eye still focused on "print".

Ever since starting your 1C/1L/1Y challenge (making the first print on Friday) I have increasingly thought about this issue. I use a preset that is Tri-X inspired, but it's super contrasty, so I usually turn down the contrast and bring back the blacks. Guess I need a better import preset. It will be interesting to see if my preferences change even more once I start printing.

Here's one of my basement door I kind of liked...

When I was in Austria my junior year of high school, one of our "field trips" was to Prague, where I bought (for some ridiculously low price thanks to having converted my dollars black-market) a box of 50 sheets of A2 sized black and white paper. After getting back to the darkroom in Austria, I discovered that some of the Czech words I hadn't been able to understand on the box meant "high contrast" or "lithographic." The only way to get a medium gray out of that paper was to make a halftone, which wasn't in my bag of tricks at that point.

One of the better things for my photographic eye was that I spent the next few months printing everything in extremely high contrast. Landscapes. Architecture. People. Still lifes. Sports. Everything I shot got printed in the most mono of monochromes.

It was good to get that out of my system.

Nice photos Mike and I like grey too. Way back in the '90s on my original B&W site I posted this about it http://www.northnet.org/jimbullard/grey.htm

Thanks for speaking out for low contrast! I didn't really appreciate this until I went out and took your advice to pick up a vintage collapsible Summicron 50 and shot with it for about 6 months (on a digital body). The lower contrast in all my photos as a starting point in post really shaped the end result. It's really opened my eye up on my tone mapping decisions in Lightroom now, and funnily enough, my recent photos are generally with less contrast.


Mike, Just how was Adams extreme to his contemporaries?
I don't recall having seen a Structure slider on my computer, so I'm not quite sure what you mean by that. And since he did not like overdone contrast, I guess it's not that his contrast was higher than normal. So what was it?

After I had worked as a monochrome darkroom printer for a year or so, I happened upon an Ansel Adams book. With my recently acquired knowledge of black and white printing, I was aghast at the degree of manipulation that I could now detect in the classic AA photos: whole mountainsides burned-in to black, etc.
Since Photoshop changed what was possible and therefore the popular taste, however, the manipulations of AA pale in comparison to modern "masters" such as Salgado. The extreme manipulability of the digital image has provided the ultimate pacifier for those with poor aesthetic sense and grotesquely bad taste....it's all around us now.

High contrast is hardly a new thing. Very early in my exploration of photography my film of choice was Kodak High Contrast Copy film usually overexposed a couple of stops, and when I could afford it, printed on Agfa Brovira number 6, otherwise #3 Luminos. Over the years when faced with a flat print I have often commented that 'It is called Black and White photography, not Grey photography.
Digital though has had the opposite effect on me to that reported by other commenters. I now often find myself pushing the contrast slider in Camera Raw to the left instead of the right to get more middle tones instead of less. In fact my digital, hi contrast results are seldom as good as the old film ones, but this is more than compensated by what I am getting, a range of tone that I never got with film and silver printing.

Trouble with the conversion to mono of an image from a Fui X-Trans sensor is that it is too good.

I shot a drama production earlier in the year on the XPro1 and spent weeks figuring out why the conversions didn't look the way i did black and white - they were far too clean at ISo1600. Had to re-think the conversion process to get the look I wanted.

Tex Andrews, I think you're on to something with the differences between screen and print and how these have affected black and white style. The default assumption for an image seen on screen is that you'll look at it for just a few seconds, therefore contrasty pop is more immediately engaging. For print the assumption is you'll be looking at it over a prolonged period of time, maybe years, so you want something more subtle that can reveal itself over time and not be a one-note wonder.

It reminds me of the Pepsi challenge, as told by Malcolm Gladwell. People preferred Pepsi's sweeter taste as they were only getting a small dose in the test, but which for many people gets tiring when consumed for an entire can (hence their preference for Coca-Cola under non-test circumstances).

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