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Modern Black and White Photography
© 2006-2014 KenRockwell.com

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INTRODUCTION

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Digital changed everything for color photography. Digital cameras are great for color. I've printed all my color, from film and digital cameras, digitally for years.

For B/W, there's nothing like a fiber-based print, printed optically from a large-format negative. This is because few electronic printers have enough resolution to reproduce the super-fine detail that gives large-format B/W prints from 4x5" and larger negatives their 3-D detail and texture. Color prints don't need this - color prints are all about color. B/W is all about tone and texture.

 

Today's Issues

Digital is great for B/W if you don't demand three-dimensional sharpness in your prints. If you do, you want big film. Digital cameras are great for color, since detail is only secondary in importance to the colors and tones. Half of B/W is about the texture, while very little of good color images are.

Digital cameras use colored filter dots placed over the sensors to simulate color response, They then use Bayer interpolation to patch together a color image from the output of what really is a B/W sensor! Sadly for B/W shooters, this more than halves the resolution when you put it back into B/W. Hacking off the RGB filter will only make things worse, because the Bayer interpolation happens in firmware. Kodak made a rare dedicated B/W version of one of the DCS SLRs: it had no RGB filter and gave incredible resolution and sensitivity from the lack of RGB filters over the CCD.

Serious B/W still demands large format cameras, unless you want grain or less than three-dimensional sharpness in your prints from 35mm film or conventional digital capture.

Most people, including myself, no longer want to breathe and touch poisonous chemicals all night in a dark room. What shall we do?

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

 

Shooting

Shoot 4x5" or bigger negatives if you want the 3-D detail you see in Ansel Adams work.

Color digital cameras have no grain, but unlike color won't have the super-fine detail you'd like for B/W. It will look swell, just like 35mm B/W film, but once you see what 4x5" film looks like in B/W, you'll never want to go back.

If your work is more about shapes, tones and soft edges then go ahead and shoot digital. Shoot in color and convert later to B/W instead of shooting B/W in-camera. See How to Make Great B/W for how to convert from color, with examples, and you'll see why.

 

Film and Developing

 

Polaroid

Don't want a darkroom and don't want to go to a lab? Want to shoot the exact same film Ansel Adams used for some of his work?

Use Polaroid Type 55 Positive/Negative film! Pull it out of the holder, let it develop in its own juices for 60 seconds, peel it apart, and you have both a 4x5" negative and a proof print! You will have to clear and dry the negatives so it's best to take them home where you can do it cleanly after you've peeled them apart. See Ansel Adams book "Polaroid Photography" for the details on how he did it.

Do this and you get what Ansel thought was a superb negative. Good enough for Ansel, good enough for me!

 

Film

In the old days we shot traditional silver B/W film. If all you ever intend to do is B/W and you're good at using the red/yellow/green filters over your taking lens, stick with it. Traditional silver B/W film will never fade and always be able to be printed traditionally in an enlarger if you dare, and of course can be scanned for digital printing.

Personally I don't do much B/W, so if I do, I convert from a scan of my Velvia 4x5 transparency. You can use all sorts of tricks when making B/W in Photoshop to apply the effects of different colored taking filters and potentially get better results than if you locked yourself into one interpretation on B/W film. When I shoot on B/W film I often "filter bracket:" I make several shots with different colored filters.

I would pass on the easy-to-develop-at-Wal-Mart C-41 B/W films like Ilford XP2, because they will fade, since their images are made of color film dyes, not silver. The upside is that they are easy to scan, because ICE automatic dust removal works, while it doesn't with real silver negatives. If you're shooting to print electronically, I'd suggest color C-41 negative film over B/W C-41 negative film. The C-41 B/W films were a gimmick back when people wanted B/W images developed and printed at the local camera or discount store. Color negatives let you take advantage of color information when Converting to B/W in Photoshop.

Today if you're going to scan and print electronically only you may want to consider color film. The disadvantages are that it fades and can't be printed on traditional B/W paper if you did want to use a darkroom. The benefits are the ability to use ICE to remove dirt in scanning and having color information to give you more information with which to create better B/W images when converting in Photoshop.

 

Regular Silver B/W Film Developing

B/W developing requires a different developing time for every film type. It was never standardized as color was!

Almost every lab, especially those charging pro prices, throws all the B/W in the same bowl for the same time, and makes excuses if your results are bad.

This one-size-fits-all developing is why many people mistakenly thought some films had more contrast than others. It was that some films required more or less developing time, and when thrown in the same vat, had more or less contrast because they were over- or under-developed.

I don't develop my own B/W film. If you find a real lab that knows how to develop properly you're all set. So long as the developing is done correctly you're fine. The art is in the shooting and printing. You can have a lab develop your film.

I've used Photo Impact in Hollywood, CA. They do a great job and charge $3.00 a 4x5 sheet. When I ran (secret) step wedge tests and checked them in a densitometer, they were dead-smack on. If you're a geek, they'll read your tests on their densitometer for you. They've spent the time calibrating their systems and run each film type as it should be. Being in the dead center of Hollywood they do important work for important people, and if you're there picking up your work in person it was always great to see models looking at contact sheets of themselves nude (on the contact sheets, that is). They printed pretty well, too.

If you want to use the zone system for developing (not really needed today with variable contrast paper or scanning) then you can run your tests, and tell them to push or pull as you like. Of course you can't say N- or N+, because that depends on your own personal testing. See Ansel Adams book "The Negative" if you want to go this far.

 

Color Film

I only print digitally, so today I convert from color if I want B/W. I don't do much B/W; it's not my style.

Shooting color film lets me use layers and channels in Photoshop to select different channel mixer effects in different parts of the image. This lets me get the equivalent of having shot different parts of the image through different color contrast filters, a trick even Ansel never got to do!

 

Scanning

Negatives are easy to scan for B/W. You don't need a fancy scanner, since ICE doesn't work with real B/W film and color balance is irrelevant.

I'd use an Epson 4990, which is more than enough. B/W is much easier to scan than color. If you lose highlights or shadows, scan in the transparency mode and invert it in Photoshop. Transparency mode sees a much broader density range (about D= 3.00) than the negative mode (about D = 1.80).

 

Printing

 

The art of B/W is in the printing. No one but you (or your personal assistant) can see the print the way you see it in your mind's eye. Unlike a slide or a JPG, there's no way to show someone else what you want until the print is done.

Use a lab for developing, but you have to make your own prints.

It may be possible to find a really good printer who can get you the look you want, but you'll probably never get the results you want if you drop negatives off at a lab without sitting down personally with the guy who will be making the print.

It's OK to do your own Photoshop work and send it out so long as your results match your screen.

 

Optical Printing

Nothing looks like a fiber base projection (enlarger or contact) print. When I see a real optical print it reminds me of how far digital has not come for black and white.

If you print optically you'll have results almost everyone else has gotten too lazy to do. Your skin may also fall off from the chemicals.

If you want to use Photoshop for printing optically with an enlarger, this is rather abstract, but see if you can follow me.

You can make a transparent sheet of plastic with dark and light sections to use as a printing mask. Make one mask, sandwich it with your negative, and each print will then have the exact dodge and burns. This lets you produce many optical prints with the exact same look.

Get craftier, and use yellow and magenta colors on this mask to change local contrast with variable contrast papers!

Make one mask the way you want it and you can produce large editions excellently.

Make a basic scan of your negative and use it as a tracing mask in Photoshop. Your output will have none of the image on it; the mask is for your reference while painting on it. Paint on your blank photoshop canvas with grays and yellows and magentas.

Print this out on an inkjet printer on transparency film and use that as your mask! Start with a gray and you can paint with white and black to burn and dodge. Of course you can't see the effects until you print on sloppy wet paper, but that's the whole point.

You still print in the darkroom from your negatives with poisonous chemicals, and get more control with the mask you made in Photoshop. The only thing digital, or for which Photoshop is used, is to make the mask which you sandwich with the negative.

 

Digital Printing

Print traditionally if you want that look. Everything else that tries to copy optical prints falls flat on its face. It's like plastic wood: it doesn't fool anyone and looks much worse than letting plastic be plastic.

If you're going to print digitally, don't try to copy the look of a fiber base print. Do something else, like a piezographic quadtone.

Color inkjet printers have problems with keeping the color and registration in line. Except for some with gray inks intended for this, the loudest way to scream SLOPPY! is to make B/W prints on an ordinary color printer. The grays are never gray: they change color slightly with gray level, and look awful.

The lightjet and Fuji printers I use to print on real photo paper are great for color at 300 DPI. Sadly 300DPI isn't enough to get the 3-D sharpness we expect from contact and large-format prints. They also can't keep neutral grays from black to white, which also screams MISTAKE!

An artform unto itself is to take a color inkjet printer and change its coloered inks to a set of several levels of gray. Prints made this way have a look all their own, and it's fantastic if you've ever seen one. They have unlimited resolution, last forever since the pigments are often carbon, and the tonality is exquisite! See Cone Editions and Piezography who make these conversions.

You need to get them to send you a sample print and you'll be hooked. It may be better to send your work off to be printed, since my pals who have done these themselves had constant problems with the carbon pigments clogging.

 

If I shot B/W I would have one of these custom B/W printers in an instant.

 

PLUG

If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me write more.

Thanks for reading!

Ken

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