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Monday, 17 April 2017


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Master of dark toned prints.... and one needs to see the original prints... is Roy DeCarava. Just luscious.

[True; we'll get into that more in a future discussion of "tonal signatures." --Mike]

John Gossage's Berlin Wall work.
< https://odaaniepce.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/john-gossage-un-americano-en-berlin/ >

"Human skin on Zone VI" was only ever suitable for a minority of humanity.

Great subject matter! Looking forward to this.

Hi Mike
I am very happy to see this post and am looking forward to those to come on this subject. May I make a suggestion? Given the limitations of your blog software regarding image quality, why don't you post a link to location (Dropbox, or equivalent) where you can place copies of the photo file examples you are using for these posts processed in the way you really want them to look. Those of us who are very interested can then download the files and see what you intend us to see.
Thanks again

If the print looks the way you like, and you are not using lack of technique as an excuse for lack of a full flavored image - it is right.
Picker and the "full black to full white" is foolishness at best.

At last! Looking forward to the next instalment.

This looks interesting! I look forward to more.

Already helpful! I've been hoping for a series like this- thanks!

Usually, when I want to convert a Raw file into black and white, I open it in CS and apply Image -> Mode -> Grayscale. I've heard some criticism of this method, but it was taught to me by the owner of a graphic workshop - who went mental when I showed him a conversion made with DxO Optics Pro -, so there must be some truth to it. The fact is that it works for me. Most of the times I don't need to retouch the image any further.


Re your reference to John Gossage:

One of these?



Regards, René

I am not saying one photo is better than the other. However, Figure 1 (assuming that is a church) it could be easily interpreted as dark commentary on religion and small town life. The other photos would just be nice photos of a church. The thing about the Moriyama and the Brandt photos is they are trying to be more than just a photo of something. And if I was going to put one on the wall it would be Figure 1, but that's just my taste. It's why someone will like for example Eggleston and other people might prefer that guy who photoshops the pictures from India with the cliched colors. Eggleston and others are about something more than literally what is pictured. The India guy is just showing you what he thinks you should think India looks like. In an odd way, I think the Eggleston is truer to life than the India photos. It gets to the core of some reality. The same way Kubrick tells you something about who we are as a species while Spielberg creates a fantasy of who we wish we were.

I have to admit to being one of those people who has always been comfortable with digital black and white, or as you say maybe I just didn't see what I was looking at.. Yes it's not like working with film (the various curves are obviously different) but I always seem to be able to get things that I don't mind looking at out of the machine.

To repeat your point: I think the rule in any semi-technical endeavor like photography is to understand the mechanisms by which you can get what you want and use them to get what you want. Too often we get caught up in recipes and rules which serve no real purpose. The point is to use the tool to get the picture you wanted. In this way explaining the mechanisms is important, but prescribing rules is not.

Nice. In many ways, same as it ever was.
Analog or digital, there has never been a shortage of 'looks' for B&W prints. Controlling processes so as to create the most effective look for the photograph and our chosen interpretation has always involved more work than most folks care to do. Especially because getting somewhat close is usually not that hard.
I always thought that a combination of looking at great work, and working to understand how available controls affect tonality through practice was the best way to dial it in.
Learning to see the end you want before worrying about the process actually helps you dial it in more quickly.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Waiting with bated breath for subsequent posts...and re-reading this one in the meantime. Hope to be able to apply to my digital b &w and FINALLY get something that pleases me 50% as much as even an average shot on 35 mm b & w.

P.s. You should resurrect the 'matcher.' I can't be the only one that would gladly purchase the data... Not sure how many of the paper and film combinations are still available, but for a rank, analog darkroom amateur like me, the data set would be invaluable

P.p.s. strongly considering 'Leica as teacher' exercise...only struggle is fear of 'missing' pics of my small children during that year.

Where is that link to patreon again?

I hope when this discussion is completed there will be a single link to the entire presentation. I'm certain to want to refer to it often. Thanks for taking it on.

Monthly patreon pledge = complete. Thanks Mike!!

This is terrific Mike. Thanks!

I've been waiting for this series for years!

Mike, one can understand why Conan Doyle would want to publish his novels in a series of installments in magazines. He was a man of his times and knew no better. But why would you, a modern man in every respect, want to do this to your sympathetic readers? How many parts will this series contain and when all be revealed? Because the number of people who don't understand how to get the desired tonality in the B&W conversions in my household is only exceeded by the number of people who do not even know how to know which tonality to desire. Urgent help is needed rather than a patient guidance you seem to be offering.

On the behalf of the unwashed masses, waiting for long and detailed articles.

This is my favorite kind of article- thank you!

I use my laser printer to test high key ideas, much like viewing photos upside down to check composition, if it looks interesting on a laser, it's worth digging into. And I'm trying not to cross posts with the previous ones, but working in cool and warm tones into this is fun, too...

The only thing I really miss about silver printing is taking a Portriga Rapid print outdoors on a clear afternoon and seeing a whole other photograph in the shadows.

One of the things that I haven't figured out in digital is how to let the sky or anything else blow out to pure white without looking just awful. I can do it ok in my rephotographs of B&W negatives* and prints. I can sort of get it right in rephotographs of color that originates in color negatives, and sometimes even Kodachromes. High key Ektachromes are a lost cause, and high key color digital is a mess, especially the couple of years where I was trying to "expose to the right" .

*I converted a cheap Omega condenser enlarger into a point source enlarger and attached a olympus 80mm 1:1 macro lens and a camera to the lensboard. I must say that it is really sad that the LED light source era and the darkroom era didn't overlap because I am digging stuff out of my negatives that I never could get with my old Durst. The only problem is that if B&W printing is an exercise in throwing away information, now I have way more imformation to throw away that used to just get lost in the natural workflow, and images that used to "print themselves" because the materials and equipment really eliminated the other possibilities now present me with hundreds of choices that I didn't have before, particularly with tone mapping tools like Adobe's clarity and haze tools and the shadow and highlight tools in addition to making the overall curve concave, convex, or S shaped.

The church examples make the point nicely -- very different appearances from simple changes that retain the full range.

Since I take all artistic "rules" as suggestions and advice, I don't have any trouble with "B&W pictures should have a full tonal range". My experience is that most pictures work best using the full range, and that a huge number of bad images are improved by fixing the black point. But I absolutely agree that this is a "rule of thumb" or "observed commonality", NOT NOT NOT NOT any sort of actual rule. Even very high-key and low-key works very often get out to the extremes -- just on far less area (fewer pixels) than more normal photos -- but not all of them do. Sometimes a work is best without the full range (or "good enough" without the full range).

This is meat and potatoes for me, Mike.

I subscribe to several online “photo fora”, but I post my own pictures (a mix of colour and monochrome—all digital these days) mostly to GetDPI. I routinely see other posters’ pictures with harsh burned-out highlights and dense, blocked shadows, but usually with some mid-tones—so the high-contrast defence is not available! I see very little that’s attractive in these pictures, as the harshness usually distracts from any beauty in the picture. I’m talking landscapes, not gritty reportage!

My background includes working as a commercial photographer for thirty years, and teaching photography and multimedia at a tertiary level. I have also conducted Zone System workshops, but not for quite a few years. I found that most people have no experience in seeing full-range monochrome photographs, particularly not the wonderful textures and gradation expressible through control of the mid-range grey tones. I am very much a Fred Picker fan! [story idea, Mike!]

There was a software application some time back that sought to combine the Zone System with digital photography, but a quick search found nothing relevant. Will look again.

As a sometime Zone System practitioner, I did a number of calibration runs and produced some excellent prints, but I sold my last enlarger more than ten years ago.

So perhaps it’s time to calibrate my Sony a7, Olympus E-M5, and the (backup) Lumix G3, to produce a longer, better monochrome tonal range, and with different lenses—the colour work can look after itself! The Olympus E-M5 in particular can produce very flat highlights, with the other two generally somewhat crisper.

So off to the tripod, after reading some manuals (), to look at how exposure and highlight curve in-camera settings will influence tonal rendering. Much note taking will be required! I use Capture One software, which has many ways of manipulating black points and white points, and contrast in various parts of the image. So much more controllable than silver!

One plea—please calibrate your monitor, dear reader!

IanG (South Australia)

This is the post I've been waiting on, and you're the one to do it.
Thank you.

What a fascinating post.... that's why I love TOP, and subscribe a (very) small amount monthly, and if every reader did, it might help to keep these really interesting posts coming..... just sayin' Bruce in Australia


Thank you for the post and the trouble you took to write it. I really like the paragraph 'Johnston's first rule' as it allows me to follow my choices without worrying to much about everyone else's taste.


The consistent master of low key images is Roy DeCarava who I believe remains terribly underrated. He was on a mission with those darker tones. Mission accomplished.

As a "general rule", I'm going to disagree with you about the pure black and pure while goal posts. B&W pictures are, by their very nature, abstracts. As such, you need to provide anchor points for the eye to determine how to interpret the scene. The exception to this would be with a fully framed and matted presentation where the frame, matte or border establishes the outer tonal markers.

As to curve adjustments, I converted to split-tone printing in the darkroom as it allows me to easily adjust the "gamma" without resorting to development and dodge/burn heroics.

"...Unfortunately, the way human beings see matches the way film sees..."

I view that as a good thing. What's unfortunate to me is that more people aren't using film. :-)

How's your film shooting coming along, Mike? Are you sending it to Duggal or did you take one of the other lab suggestions?

Very interesting and clear, thanks. Regarding digital vs. film and how highlights and shadows are represented, that's also interesting. Lately I've been experimenting with RNI film presets (both a camera profile and presets for Lightroom). The camera profile makes the image darker and much less contrasty, with highlights pulled back. Then the preset adjusts the curve and colors to more or less mimic various films. Then of course I make my own adjustments... it's still digital, after all. But I think I like it.

I've always been cautious about "shooting to the right" with digital because highlights just seem to become too compressed and not nearly as recoverable as people seem to think. At the same time, I have no problem with letting them blow out in some shots, like that cool image by David Cope.

Glad to see you mention John Gossage, a favorite of mine in part because of the way he uses tone in his BW images. I'm lucky to own one of prints from his series The Romance Industry. There's some really beautiful things going on in the deeper tones of this print that pull me into the scene whenever I look closely at it.

I'd also like to put in a word for one of my favorite 'high key' photographers, Henry Wessel. Lovely work.

The bottom line for me has always been: "but how does it make me _feel_?" In that sense, I have never had much use for "systems." This also may explain why being self-taught can cause you to waste so many perfectly good photography supplies. . . ;)

I do draw a distinction between setting some guidelines for beginners (which can feel like making a "rule") and judging the art of those who have figured out how to make me feel something without respect to the tenets of a particular "system" (genius!).

Hi Mike, here is an elaboration on a previous comment. If computer screens are so bad at displaying what you want to show perhaps you or one of the helpful readers, could create some example prints of 8x10 or 5x4 or some other size you think appropriate to demonstrate what you are explaining and you could sell them as a teaching or example set of photos. That way they would show pretty close to what you were talking about and your readers could follow along. The photos would not have to be art pieces, just teaching examples. You could charge for the labor, materials, handling and shipping, etc. I would hope it would not be too expensive so that folks would not buy them and make the endeavor a losing proposition. You could even charge a little extra for you sage knowledge. It is quite common in colleges today to charge extra for teaching materials. It might make a good project for a intern or graduate student at a local or not so local college.

Hey Mike, hire a part-time assistant, which will free you up to write more content like this for the blog ;-)

Thank you! That one sentence on digital's inherent limitation pretty much sums up what I somehow long suspected! It also explains why I couldn't coax an ounce of gradation out of a properly exposed Raw file of a black hood in direct sunlight, whereas there would have been plenty of natural looking subtle gradation with film- guy looks like he has a Black Hole where his head should be.

Interesting article, Mike. I think about tonality all the time, knowing the qualities of my camera well, I have a pretty good idea of what I want to acheive as the output at the moment I take the photograph. Fortunately, Fuji X-cams produce lovely B&W images, so they are a big help towards me realizing the final image.

From Yosemite just this last March, X-T2

Cheers, Stephen

This is a topic of great interest to me. Looking forward to the next instalment. I'm particularly interested in what happens when you scan black and white film (or scan colour negative film and convert to black and white). In my non-scientific experience thus far, I seem to need to play with curves with some films, like Delta, to get what I want, while others, like Fuji Acros, seem to give me the look I want with many subjects right off the scanner.

When I moved to Rochester and was looking for work, I interviewed with a local custom lab and, of course brought a small portfolio of my prints. The prints were made on Zone VI Brilliant, developed in Weston's Amidol. All the prints showed full tonal range, with deep rich blacks (with detail) that are typical of that paper/developer combination.

I didn't get the job because the owner perceived my prints as "too dark". They weren't, of course - they were appropriate for the subject matter and intent. What he really meant was that they were too dark for the purpose of his business, which, if I recall, was prints suitable for reproduction in books and other "hard copy" publications. This was before the "real" Internet.

I was disappointed, because I was flexible and could have printed differently. But I was recently told (17 years later!) that I didn't miss much; the owner was a bit of a jerk (hence I won't name him, even though he is deceased) and my career path probably would not have been nearly as satisfying.

Mr. Santamaura beat me to my comment. Why can't the digital camera designers address this issue? Do they not understand the question, or have they decided that there's no profit in answering it? (Of course, the film designers spent the better part of 100 years on the problem, but still...)

At least 6 years ago, I abandoned the idea of trying to reproduce silver based photography through digital means. You can get close but not quite. Electronic sensors behave different than film, but the big difference is in printing. Chemical based printing is so diffrente than digital printing from the result point of view, that the intent to mimic it, is just futile. I consider the whole digital technology involved in getting the final print a totally different medium from the result perspective. In fact, when I see digital prints trying to emulate silver prints using glossy or luster paper, I find them digitalish, or chip or even kind of vulgar. I think printing pigment inks are made for rag matte papers, not for luster or glossy papers, they just don't look good to me, very far from an f surface silver print. A well made matte digital print can be very beutiful although very different of a silver print, but as happened to me, giving up to the traditional silver print look is quite hard. Today my printers run only matte black, never more photo black.

Mike returns to his home ground and shows us why he is an authority.

More on B&W digital—its limitations and possibilities, please, Mike. There's far too little that has been written on the subject.


Good post, Mike. And the illustrations are exactly that.

Great article, but re: "P.S. It's going to be unavoidable that the illustrations don't look quite right." why not link to the originals so they can be seen outside the blog restrictions?

Aesthetic considerations aside, I'd prefer to have a film/developer combo that gives as linear representation as possible (1 stop of exp = 30cc of density) over as much of the tonal curve as possible. Altered development and exposure to accommodate more or less DR is fine -- as long as the resulting tone curve predictably matches the metered values and the photographers aesthetic choices. I've been digitizing C-41 negs using a camera and I've yet to find one that exceeded the DR of the sensor. Moreover, the controls available in RAW allow extraordinary control over shadow and highlight density and gamma -- far more than available in any other photographic medium with the exception of the contrast masking and color enhancing found in the enormously demanding (and no longer available) dye transfer method. As for the 'anchoring' of pure white and pure black, I don't know of any medium which doesn't have an establishable Dmin/Dmax.

Like many photographers my age (60+) I spent a lot of my youth trying to print like Ansel Adams. I failed but did gain a real preference for cold to neutral toned prints with all the zones represented and with as much shadow detail as possible. No "charcoal and chalk" for me and anything without a solid black and specular highlight somewhere smacked of creeping pictorialism.
I held on to this prejudice until a few years ago when my son came home and did some platinum prints in my darkroom. He took a negative I knew had merit but had stubbornly failed to give up a good silver gel and made it sing.
It was a liberating moment for me to learn that you can play a nice solo without using every key on the piano.

For close to ten years I have processed digital raw photos into black and white images nearly every day. That is only a slight exaggeration if an exaggeration at all.

I started out following whatever advice I could find and emulating the work of others. That didn’t last long. It is necessary for me to produce unique personal work. That is the first rule of black and white photography as far as I'm concerned.

Unfortunately if you want to find a general audience for your photography then you must publish color images. Eighty percent of work published on my blog is color for that reason. However ninety five percent of my personal work which is submitted to forums such as DPReview is black and white.

One other consideration is that digital photography can never be what used to be called straight photography. That is a primary reason why I no longer limit my interpretation of digital images to only mimicking historical analog photography. It is not analog photography. We will all profit from understanding that digital images are manipulated right from capture to conform to the look of historical materials and processes. That is an unfortunate limitation.

a bad print of a good image is still a good image while a good print of a bad image is still a bad image

Ahhhh, talking photography with "outtakes and alternates!" (Like a good remix LP!) So lovely, such a refreshing break from (pardon me) the ceaseless parade of stale megapixels from Megatron.

But what I really appreciate are your choices. The aesthetic curation plus peregrinating prose is why TOP is, well, TOPs. Plus, all the great commments (and more pix!).

ThankYouThankYouThankYou!!! At last, a reference to Bill Brandt! I urge people to seek out his images. If you can afford it, even buy a secondhand copy of Shadow of Light (the first edition contains his experiments with colour film, because he considered the colours to be so unnatural; these photos were removed in the second edition).

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