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Monday, 09 December 2019

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A week ago I might have agreed with you, but not today. The reason is that I got the new version of Capture One a few days ago. (I only work in black-and-white.)

Capture One 20 has got four sliders for adjusting the High Dynamic Range; the older version had two, one for highlights and one for shadows. One of the new sliders affect only whites and the other new slider affects only blacks.

The old sliders affected some of the midtowns too while the effect of the new sliders are more limited in scope but not in efficiency where you want it.

I have stopped stopped trying to optimise my equipment. I now concentrate on software. I upgraded to a new perpetual licence for "Capture One for Sony Only" and paid less than a hundred dollars. Excellent value for money.

I will now rework many of my old images, not that previous C1 were bad . .

I sharpen less as I get older and more experienced. With my Fuji I prefer it quite a bit less than the Adobe default, with added masking. I also usually apply a variant of the "Mike Johnston Midtone Curve" you showed us in a post on the same topic a while back. I definitely don't know what I'm doing, but I'm going to keep up the black and white because it's fun. Every once in a while I get a shot where I think, ooh, nice midtones, more luck than skill, but I'm getting better at recognizing when I stumble upon them. Also, I say it again, my Epson P800 feels like cheating. My prints have never been so easy and nice.

This post reminds of the saying, “I feel like fighting – you pick the topic.” ;)

The photography I do for myself is almost exclusively black and white, and (with some detours) it’s all been digital for the last five years. Not surprisingly, I have lots of thoughts about what you wrote. Rather than get into specifics, I want to share a “meta” concern about your post.

I expect different things from different media. I don’t find it useful to reject a new one because it’s not the old one. In that respect, using the aesthetic of analogue black and white to judge digital black and white seems a bit fogyish to me. Digital black and white should be allowed to have its own aesthetic.

That’s not to say that you’re wrong about the aesthetic choices many people working in digital black and white are making. Bad is bad, regardless of the medium. For instance, over-sharpening is just bad whether it’s black and white or colour. But it doesn’t make any sense to me to say that digital black and white is “too sharp” because film-based black and white tended to less sharp due to the medium.

Bottom-line: It’s perfectly fine to say “I have a preference for the look of traditional analogue black and white that respects mid-tones”. But that’s a long way from “In general digital black and white is terrible”. I prefer the look of an Eliot Porter colour print to the modern digital colour aesthetic (but I can live with the fact that Eliot Porter’s tastes and the medium he used are not a universal baseline).

So happy to read this. My favourite black and white photographer is James Ravilious who often took pictures of English farm life through a yellow filter, giving a marvelous silvery effect in the mid tones. His work is very restful and calming.

The over sharpening of photos today may be traceable to the use of cellphones for social media. Most phone cameras apply an excruciating level of sharpening and people have become used to a form of magic realism. Normally sharpened photos look blurry in comparison.

I mostly agree with your comments and have developed a solution that generally works very well for me.

Which is to turn digital B&W photos into color photos by applying a very teeny, tiny bit of toning during post-processing.

The amount of toning I apply is quite small and it seems that only experienced film photographers ever notice it, yet it makes all the difference, IMO.

You can make real black and white silver gelatin prints from digital files at digitalsilverimaging.com

I agree with your assessment Mike. When I was teaching photography and darkroom techniques I was known for telling students that pure black and pure white were like salt & pepper and the essence of the image was in the greys. Not only that but in some images, there shouldn't necessarily be pure black or pure white. Image #40 in this gallery <https://jimbullard.zenfolio.com/p554543599> is an example. Any deep black would destroy the feeling of being in a snowstorm.

Agreed with all three criticisms, but not with your conclusion. I do only digital these days, and only B&W. Excessive contrast, over-sharpening, depressed mid-tones: I certainly agree on the first two and probably on the third one too. I commit these crimes on a daily basis and try to reshape myself into someone at least does not commit them by default.

Over-sharpening is the worst offender. Somehow we seem to be able to detect this immediately in other peoples photographs, but not in our own work. The problem is I think less in the actual nature of the digital image but in the psychology of the digital editing process. Over-sharpening is the weakness inherently associated with digital B&W picture making --- the answer is not to give up on B&W, it is to develop the perceptive maturity that allows us to see in our own work what our untrained eye can only see in the work of others. Digital is still fairly recent, it may take us a few decades to become naturals in the new visual world. Let's start now.

I'm an old dawg hobbyist that occasionally shot with B&W film back in the 70's (i.e. a really long time ago) but also had no clue what I was doing. But I enjoyed the look because as a child all our photo albums were B&W. That said, I mostly shot and still shoot color. However, I am in agreement with what you write here, that heavy contrast B&W photos are a popular look, and they feel too "extreme" to me for the most part. My daughter (i.e. younger than me, lol) might feel different, and even the iPhone camera has a B&W "Noir" setting that produces this kind of effect.

On another note, I use DxO Photolab, which has a preset for B&W photos, and other than changing the RAW file to B&W it adds 50% contrast and also 25% mid-tones. I can turn the mid-tones off and on, and almost without exception the image looks better with those mid-tones boosted. DxO it would seem is on your same wavelength with the mid-tones.

What do you think of the claims that the Fuji X-trans sensor is conducive to better b&w conversions than traditional bayer sensors?

(Assuming that one knows what one is doing - which does not describe me very well.)

[I agree with it. The best camera I've had for digital B&W is the X-T1. --Mike]

Yes, yes and yes! Digital is a superb Color medium, that said, hats off to those very few who can, in fact, emulate the B&W film look (ask me to name one off the top of my head- and I can't). Perhaps, digital requires it's own B&W interpretation- I think Matt Black's digital B&W soars, but I can also see how many would just as soon dismiss it as yet more "soot and chalk."

I think a lot of B&W digital would vastly improve if people simply invested the time necessary to develop a coherent process and style, instead of just assigning their images to their instant B&W "preset" to oblivion.

"The mid-tone depression"

As a fan of Peter Turnley's wonderful 'Parisians' (I even have an original print from the volume) I always wondered why I just did not get on with his additional digital output in 'French Kiss'. I've looked and looked at those prints in the later collection, and few of them come up to the best of the original output. I think this mid-tone depression is a partial answer to why.

Thank you for articulating in a popular online photo blog some of my observations and complaints voiced in various forums. Especially the "soot and whitewash" (my terminology) comment.

I've noticed how certain photographer's styles become popular and copied to the extent that it's hard to look at the original works. Daido Moriyama was the example of the overly contrasty images I've also used. I love his work but today the style has become tedious. It makes me want to softly say, "I know Daido Moriyama, his work is a favorite of mine. You're no Daido Moriyama." Alex Webb is another, although his medium is color. Extreme black shadows with high contrast subjects in shafts of bright, blinding light. I also like Webb's work but, again, the style is now so prevalent I avoid viewing images like this.

With my own photography I have to fight against oversharpening. I've started to back off a bit and even to add noise reduction to images when there is no noise. And, yes, I frequently have to reprint pictures because of depressed mid-tones that look fine on screen but muddy and flat on paper--especially since I print on matte surface papers. But this happens to me more often with color photos. I don't print that much color and I forget how the image has to look on screen to look the way I want it on matte paper.

Back in the days of Tri-X and HP5 I used Rodinal quite a bit. I used Bill Pierce's trick of high dilutions in a sodium sulfite solution and printing the thin, flat negative on a higher contrast paper. It worked extremely well for me at the time when Kodabromide and Brovira papers could add sparkle and punch. But I eventually decided I didn't want to spend up to 15 minutes in the developer so I went with D76 1:1 most of the time.

When I printed in the darkroom, an important goal was "good midtone separation." That seems to be harder to do in the digital realm. I do a lot of digital black and white as do many of my friends. Many of us use QTR, the Quadtone RIP printer driver by Roy Harrington. It allows subtle toning of the black and white scale. Also, many black and white digital printers use Nik, now DXO, Silvereffex Pro 2 software. Like any software, it can be used well or badly. Mae West said, "too much of a good thing is never enough," but that's not true with photographic editing. Some people seem to forget that just because one CAN do something, doesn't mean they should. For example, the use of the "structure" slider in Silver Effex can result in horribly crunchy images. FWIW, I NEVER use it. Lovely black and white digital images can certainly be made, it does require a different "touch" than color.

On tonal range and mid tones missing or flat. Monitor or print?
As for excess sharpening - am used to doing 8x10 contact prints and usually work for as sharp as possible where I want it. Compared to too many enlarged prints they can appear "overly sharp" to some - as straight silver gelatin contact prints.
Digital offers more control in many ways. Just as with the darkroom, master printers may grow on trees - but without time to ripen they will never mature to that level.

Way too many I know do not go to gallery shows. Do not view original prints from The Masters. This hurts them. Decades ago I got a few prints to use as a quality guide in my darkroom. Prints from Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Morley Baer and Josef Sudek. Three known for sharp, full range images and one whose interpretation was quite different. Took some time to get into the Sudek image and past "group f/64" mentality - for everything. Once past it I was much more open to interpretation of individual images. As Adams said, the negative is the score, the print is the performance.

Years of effort and a big trash can helped a lot along the way. Maybe digital delete is not used as much as really needed?

There are vicious cycles at work. Aspiring photographers see legendary BW work, but as compressed jpegs on web pages, viewed on uncalibrated laptop screens, and use that as their model.

There's also the tendency of our short-attention-span habits to favor graphical impact over nuances requiring sustained attention. Which also suits the compromised gamuts of uncalibrated consumer tools.

And I suspect, too, that while many of our sRGB and A RGB tools can be calibrated for terrific color or for great BW, it's not possible for these systems to cater to both simultaneously.

So, yeah, I agree, "digital is a color medium, unless" etc.

With all due respect, Mike...I know what I'm doing.

And, FWIW, four out of four of my submissions to the last two years' Black & White Spider Awards won awards.

So, I'll stick to working in digital B & W, thank you very much! ;-)

First, the editor has outsone himself with this line:
"Don't know why, but all the mid-tones are depressed, which gives me a feeling like the flu, or the fog of despond."
An amusing line for sure, but beautifully accurate in describing the impact.

I found myself nodding while reading the entire piece.

Only later did it occur to me that there is an equivalent piece to be written about colour (or even color). I come across photographs that have some intriguing story and/or composition, but the sharpness and clarity are extreme and the colours are a curiosity rather than driving or supporting the idea.

Anyway, nice piece Mike.

I see quite a few international print exhibitions every year. I see some excellent black and white, equal to any silver gelatin work. I also see terrible ones, but that was just as true in the darkroom days. Now as then there are people who have honed their craft and know what thry are doing and those that don't. As for over sharpening, the worst examples seem to be the colour wildlife prints. Sharpened to within an inch of their lives, every feather screaming for attention. As you say, you couldn't oversharpen a darkroom print from a negative. Then there are the awful super saturated colour landscapes. I don't think that digital is just a colour medium There is always good and bad practise.

Could you point to the rare example of a digital b/w print that you think is done well?
Thanks

I've been printing in a basic home darkroom for the last year. I found it interesting where you say a lot of digital photographers "don't have a solid grasp of tonal range, and simply don't know how or why to get detail in the darkest and lightest tones or where to draw the line," because those are precisely some of the things I also struggle with as a self-taught analogue printer. I've read some books on the topic which helped, but what I really miss is someone I could show my prints to and get useful feedback (without paying through my nose, I'm a grad student!) In the heydays of film, I imagine such expertise was more widespread, and I would probably know someone who knows someone...

Another point - you are judging digital black and white by images on the web. Those will vary tremendously according to the device you are using. We rejected Samsung phones because they were so over-saturated and didn't match our prints. We offer small samples of our prints to clients so they can actually see what the final print will look like. Maybe it is your monitor or phone that is a part of the problem.

I do agree about the quality of processing in digital work in general. However, it bothers me to read a blanket rejection from an authority.

Sharon

Sharon

Very nice piece, thank you Mike ! I went digital when I learned that ‘from now on it is possible to print B&W digitally just as nicely as in the darkroom’ (with the Epson R2400). And indeed that proved to be true from my very first digital B&W print onwards - only that first print took me nine months and lots of paper and ink. I am doing better now. With every single picture, like with the first, I just keep working more or less by feel (or sight) till I have what I want. A few things come to mind nevertheless: 1. Used wisely, film-emulations like the ones offered by Nik Silver Efex, or the ones of DxO itself, are a very good starting point also because of their specific colour-sensitization (which subtly differs for each film that is emulated, just as it did in the real films) - in digital, it is often almost flat. 2. Set the brightness of your monitor or screen darker (easily by 10-20%). This will help a lot in getting the mid-tones right. 3. Never sharpen more than ‘standard’. 4. And if you sharpen more, take Mike’s advice and only do it locally, never apply it to the image as a whole. Good luck !

Posted by: Hans Muus |

For colour photography, I use digital exclusively. Colour films don't last.

For B&W, digital gives convenience but the real play - souping and darkroom printing - comes through films. There is nothing like seeing the image appearing in the developer and the smell of the fixer. And B&W films I shot way back in 1969 - the year they put man on the moon - are still as good today.

I like to get the composition right first and the tones comes second.

As for Rodinal, they are making a come-back formula but it's different from the old times stuff. This new guy just does not keep well and can suddenly fail, with a depressing feeling when films turn out under developed.

What I have never understood is if people who have these complaints about digital B&W think it's an inherent system issue, or more of an issue with the popular ways to crate digital B&W in post processing.

My bias is, of course, to think that this is mostly the latter since I've done my share of decent darkroom prints and have no complaints about the B&W results that I am able to obtain in my own shooting.

OTOH I will admit to not being all that tuned in to the finer points of interpreting tone curves from real pictures as opposed to test targets.

I make B&W inkjet prints from pure carbon pigment ink I mix myself (based on Paul Roark's formulations), printed with the help of QTR ICC profiles.

The result is a somewhat warm toned print on matte paper, so no possibility of soot & chalk. I wonder what the brown equivalent of soot is?

I'm about to start dabbling with the addition of minute amounts of cyan/blue ink in the yellow position (which is 2% watery grey in this setup) to cool the print towards a neutral tone. I may have a restored ability to go for soot in due course!

I noted from your criticism of the average B&W digital print, the excessive and unsubtle use of editing sliders. I'm currently practising Bruce Percy's approach to editing which is to eschew the global sliders and instead do local tonal adjustments only using curves with masks. I am also in the process of transitioning to darktable as my primary raw convertor/editor. darktable (it is spelt with a small 'd') has complex masking capabilities built into every module so it ends up being a hybrid of raw convertor and Photoshop, in a sense. Complicated to learn but I believe it has strong potential to recreate more of the darkroom printing experience compared to the more usual one click plugin type approach or the crudeness of doing everything with global edits.

I meant to write "create digital B&W" in my previous comment

I don't agree or disagree, but just point out that digital has given rise to waves of photos overdone when new digital software techniques become available. We've been through cycles of over-saturation, over-sharpening, extreme HDR, etc. when users get access to or discover what new software feature is available to them.

All this discussion reminds me of several favorite sayings, including "Too much is never enough," and "All generalizations, with the possible exception of this one, are false."

Mike, you are right about the gritty over-sharpened b&w conversions. I think one crucial problem is the practitioners of digital never used real black and white film in a camera and never printed optically. They just do not know what to look for. Really, using film is not rocket science....

I very much prefer the inkjet prints I make now to the fibre based selenium toned glossy darkroom prints I used to make. For me personally, good digital BW beats even 5” x 4” film work.

I think the problem is that people think printing BW digitally should be easy. It’s no easier than it was in the darkroom. Taken me about 15 years of using large format Epson printers to get there.

I do urge people to push the sliders until they've clearly gone too far -- but my intention is for them to see that and then pull them back. Maybe I need to be more explicit about that in future.

(I do think seeing what is obviously too much of an effect will help sensitize you to smaller excesses, as it were; that you will learn quicker to understand whatever that slider is doing if you study early how it fails in the extremes.)

I've noticed evaluative metering seems to depress the mid-tones in its constant quest to find a balance of highlights and shadows in the frame. I'm guessing many try to compensate for this by adjusting the levels and inadvertently push images into the soot-and-chalk realm.

Just my 2¢.

I don't think this is a digital vs film issue, just a massive expansion of digital vs film B&W from users that can promote their work vs a much more selective past.

The best B&W show I have ever seen was in Hot Springs, AK with a Ansel Adams show in a time frame order. It clearly showed how he went from flat, boring prints to hyper dramatic prints over a year or two.

If you search for the best B&W digital work today, I think you will find it very good.

Excessive noise reduction and trying to replicate the worst silver papers of the 20th century are my two gripes.

Is digital a colour medium? I suspect that you're being intentionally provocative. Here are a few observations on why I don't think it's that simple.

1. The relativities have changed. In the film era, I found good B&W easier than good colour. YMMV, but this is my experience. I could develop and print my own B&W. Doing the same for colour was not an option, and having someone else do it for me was either too expensive or resulted in poor quality. In the digital age I find that this has reversed. I can do good colour very easily myself, but good B&W is more challenging. For the vast majority of us without a monochrome sensor, we shoot in colour and convert to B&W. There are just too many options. We have way more control and we need to learn how to master it. So it's true that I see more good colour than good B&W in the digital era, but I don't think it's the fault of digital per se. You have to master the medium.

2. Digital has changed printing tastes. There was a recent discussion on the Luminous Landscape forum about making digital prints look like film prints. This comment by master printer John Dean was a real eye-opener to me, and struck a nerve. He says

"Now there is a metallic quality down in the darkest values of silver prints that can be distinctive. This is one of the reasons why those of us working in the 70s-90s generally printed darker. ... almost everything I saw was printed MUCH, darker that I would even think about today. I thought of those prints as normal in the late 70s. ... But today we have much better light and mid tone value dimensionality as well as great dmax, and also usually print larger, giving us many more options, not to mention really cool textures and surfaces to explore. So I wouldn’t want to go back, and have no desire to imitate essentially a 19th century medium when we have so many other great possibilities today."

Digital is a different medium. In my view we have way more control. We have to learn how to use that control. This will lead to a wider variety of styles, some of which you may like and some not. People printed film on silver gelatin paper in a way that played to its strengths. People print digital files on inkjet paper in ways that play to its strengths.

I much prefer the digital prints that I'm making now over my film prints.

tl;dr: Digital is different. Expect a different look. Expect a wider range of styles. Learn how to control it to produce the look you want. I agree entirely with Rob de Loe's comment

What you write here hits a sore spot with me, Mike. I've got a photo that I believe is the best single shot I've ever taken. Digitally. Works by far best as B&W. But every time I look at the A3 sized print it seems too sharp. Too too sharp. I never sharpen anything, and didn't sharpen this. But it is clearly a digital B&W. Argh. I don't think going at it with Gaussian blur is going to do anything for it. Nope.

I cheat. I use the Acros film simulation mode in my Fujifilm camera. Then little to no post-processing.

Acros looks wonderful to me. It is helped by X-Trans sensors giving up some chrominance data in favor of more luminance data.

Yes, I feel guilty about cheating. But I'm very happy with the results.

Here are some of my B&W work. I would love to know how to make them look better. Have never really been satisfied with how they look. https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/49162037252/in/dateposted-public/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/48751799738/in/dateposted-public/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/48927431637/in/dateposted-public/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/49179809076/in/dateposted-public/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/26355855825/in/dateposted-public/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/21937256531/in/dateposted-public/

"My advice: digital is a color medium****, so stick to color. Unless you know what you're doing."

An absurd notion to be sure but one that will get the partisans grumbling.

As a non-professional I prefer to do the work to the best of my ability and see what happens. Feel free to judge to your hearts content.

https://www.dpreview.com/galleries/5315854781

My Instagram feed would drive you nuts :)

And while I’m out of this phase, I’m guilty of sliding the structure a bit (maybe more than most prefer but even I have limits), and the dark skies. And I make no apologies. To each their own.

I shoot BW film and color subjects with digital. But I scan the BW film into the digital world and tune the images there. I mainly shoot film because I enjoy using film cameras and developing film but have no interest in setting up a full wet darkroom to do prints. I think the way I'm trying to deal with what you have mentioned is by trying to produce full tone negatives by overexposing and "under" developing somewhat and then scanning "flat" so the tones are all captured digitally. Then I use digital tools to judiciously adjust the tones, sharpness, etc in post. However, I wonder if this hybrid approach nullifies what you consider to be the advantages of BW film.

I often wonder what would have happened had photography always been in color, right from the start. How long would it have taken for someone to think of going through the process to make black-and-white photos? And would that have been seen as some kind of post-processing affectation and "not really photography"?

"digital images I see on the Web"

I wonder how the same pictures look well-printed? (Mis-appropriating you-know-who's quotation, the megapixels comprise the score, the print is the performance).

To use as reference prints, I bought a copy of DD-B's Lincoln Memorial photo from one TOP print sale, and your own print of a family member at one of the Lakes. I believe Ctein printed both. I wanted some sort of external standard re how B&W printing is done by someone who is good at it.

At some point in the hopefully near future, I hope to sell off enough "treasures" on eBay to be able to begin printing with a strictly monochrome carbon ink set (piezography). My urge in this direction was triggered by a print I saw at a Trenton, NJ art show, where the tonality I think equaled what AA was able to do in his darkroom.

No offense, but I find this critique of b&w photography incomprehensible, surreal.

Except for the unfortunate few who suffer from achromatopsia, the rest of us can only see in color. For us, a b&w photograph is by definition an artifice. After all, there is no such thing as a natural or objectively more correct tonality in b&w. This is why photographers do take, and have taken, far greater license in b&w than anyone would dare to when working in color. There is no natural - therefore, also no unnatural - skin tone in b&w, nor a more or less natural tonal profile for the street or for landscape.

Is that not what attracts us to b&w in the first place? You know, the ability to escape from the straitjacket of 'natural' color and give free rein to poetic expressions, even exaggerations?

Mike,
The over sharpened halos can appear in color too.

I feel color in the chemical darkroom was very difficult and now easy to print digitally.
B&W was easier to print in the chemical darkroom but more challenging printing digitally.
In recent years, my sales have moved to B&W thanks to color being so easy and ubiquitous that B&W has more perceived value. But you better have a great printer.
I do, and it’s Joe Donovan..


Jack

Please show examples of "good" and "bad" digital b&w work, and point out the problems.

I always like to read your articles about B&W since they both show your deep knowledge of the medium and the great passion you have with it.

Funny how this post more or less coincided with my first serious attempt on b&w conversions on my personal photography (I’m naturally a color photographer).

I was aware of the various traps you mentioned, not sure I managed to avoid them all but had a lot of fun doing this and will sure do more in the future. It was also interesting to discover images on my archives that were bland on color but worked well on b&w, as was find myself thinking and pre-visualizing b&w images.

Please feel free to check my results if you’re interested:
https://www.silvacordeiro.com/bwfineart

Mike I have asked here for recommendations of the best tools to do B/W from colour. Maybe today we will get some.

Black and white is the true image, colour is often a prop for poor photography. Just sayin.

If you're looking exclusively online at stuff, there's a lot of not-so-good. I guess I don't think it will ever be possible for the transmitted to equal the reflected.

I agree with many of the other respondents. A very enjoyable read.

I find it interesting though, that some of what's written is placed in the past tense. I still shoot film. And if I'm going to shoot film, it's going to be Black and White. Maybe you could write another thought provoking piece on the hybrid workflow.

And I agree; digital is for color.

Mike:

I see no reason for apology whatsoever.

When I first read the posting I found it thoughtful and anticipated a volley of interesting comments: I haven't been disappointed. Particularly cogent was John Camp's observation on the B+W photograph of a red apple on green grass.

Among the many roles you fill so ablely are as challenger of bien-pensant thinking and as photography provocateur.

Keep up the good work.

Thanks for this post. I have found black-and-white conversion a struggle with digital files with most software. Photo Ninja is the exception. Whatever it is he does for RAW conversion (which is already excellent for color) renders files very well in monochrome.

I can't definitively say that it was shot digitally, I don't even have the book (as of yet), and despite those glaringly obvious drawbacks, I would still heartily recommend Americans Parade by George Georgiou (based on the strength and history of his overall artistic and technical excellence) for anyone interested in what excellent B&W can look like these days...

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/19/magazine/parades-across-america-george-georgiou.html

When you write an article like this you're supposed to finish it off with an offer for a set of secret Lightroom presets that will magically transform the lamest snapshot into a black and white masterpiece for three easy payments of $29.95.

Just stumbled across this Adobe guide to making stunning black and white photos in Lightroom. It nicely illustrates why so many photos look the way they do today...

https://helpx.adobe.com/lightroom-classic/how-to/convert-photo-black-white.html

"Mike replies: I agree with what you say except the part about seeing "legendary B&W work." I suspect most just see lots of random B&W work on their computers. Some good, most not. They mimic what they see as a whole, because they assume what they are seeing constitutes a standard for acceptable work."

...and then others mimic these. That is really more like what I had in mind. Thanks, Mike.

"I cheat. I use the Acros film simulation mode in my Fujifilm camera. Then little to no post-processing. Acros looks wonderful to me."

Good cheat, Scott! Acros was my last favorite film. I doubt many could pull off a better digital simulation than the company that makes both film and sensor.

Thanks a lot for the help with my photo. Your version looks a LOT better. I am going back over my B&W and noticing how dark most are. Going to play with that tone curve a lot more now. I really appreciate the feedback.

The Holy Grail of black and white photography is to this day a perennial quest for me.
I purchased 7 years ago a Leica Monochrom, thinking it would end my desire to get the tones I love without having to go printing in a darkroom. To no avail. I sold that camera last summer.
The b&w prints that I prefer these days are coming from hybrid technique. Shooting 400 iso film, scanning with my old Nikon LS 8000, and printing on my Epson 3800 printer provides me with the tones, the softness, a « roundness » of fine details that make it for me.
As a bonus, I use again an analog Leica m; so perennial.

Well, I find colour in film easier and monochrome way easier in digital.... are you looking at prints or online jpgs?

Digital and film photography are clearly two different mediums and should be considered as such not just in technique but also aesthetics.

There is a plethora of rubbish around in everything. It takes a keen eye to seperate the brilliant in all the mediums of photography...

And don't slather on faux grain, just to make people think you shot it on film.

Hi Mike,

There's an enormous amount to respond to here, and I don't think I could do it justice, especially since this is important to me.

Briefly:
- I'm suspicious of what my software does to my photos, so I turn off everything but the most minimal print sharpening, and I avoid noise reduction. I rely on a raised midtone S-curve* that pulls down the highlights just a little off white, and watching what the light is doing when I'm taking the picture.

- I was looking at some early photography at MOMA (5th floor) and was struck by the thought that film photography usually had only one or two "right answers" for tonality given the film and paper of the time. Digital doesn't seem to want to be anything in particular, so people aren't going to converge on some kind of mutually intelligible answer.

Maybe digital wants to look like late 80's advertising & publication medium format reversal film? Lots of resolution, acutance, little to no grain, lots of global contrast, and saturated colors.

I don't think that's a good starting point for nice tones in B&W.

- I believe I might experiment with curves and wide radius sharpening, like the exercises from David Vestal's Craft of Photography. Lots of prints, hung next to each other, changing one variable at a time, one stop at a time.

*thanks to you and Ctein

I'd like this article to 'pop up' every time I download images from my camera to my computer. Hey, reminders are good.

I basically have used just one digital camera in the last 10 years. The Leica M9. The B&W conversion is gorgeous, IMHO. I love the images from the M Monochrom (any) too.

What a great post. To your main point re the tones, I wonder if it makes much difference whether the photo is a digital capture or was shot on film then scanned.

As a tangent, I'm always mystified by people who have super senses in their fields ... chefs who can taste someone else's dish and list off every ingredient, musicians who have perfect or really good relative pitch, sommeliers who can nail a growing region in a blind taste, photographers whose sense of tones can induce flu-like symptoms, etc. And I wonder if these people get into their fields because they have extra senses that are helpful in their work or whether they develop the senses after prolonged work (cart, horse).

In my opinion most color photography I see is not to my taste either (to put it mildly...) Digital just makes it too easy to overdo things and the human tendency is always to overdo.

Regarding black and white...I don't think lenses have been mentioned a lot yet... but the earlier B&W photographers were very particular about their lenses, often rejecting the newer, contrastier, multi-coated lenses. The older I get, the less enthusiastic I am with lenses made after the 70s - for both color and monochrome. There's exceptions of course, but a big part of that very contrasty look that squashes midtones has to do with the lenses that just have to have "bold" colors and lots of saturation. When you convert the images to black and white it's almost too late...

Mike - are you sure about your take on Ansel's "soot and chalk" comment? You indicate it is pushing the lighter mids to white and darker mids to black. I've always thought it was the opposite, having all muddy grays and no pure black and white that provides something against which you can appreciate the subtle total gradation of the grays. To me soot is not pure black and chalk is not pure white. Ansel usually tried to include both. Maybe I always misunderstood his meaning.

[Yes, I'm afraid so. --Mike]

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