A digital B&W epiphany

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With the previous article on HDR, the zone system and dynamic range as background, I can now explain exactly what my B&W discovery was: it’s mostly to do with the highlights, but only in certain areas. And to make things more confusing, creating a natural-looking – perhaps even filmic image – required me to take processing steps that were both highly counterintuitive, but also go against everything else I’ve done and used successfully in the past. Read on if you dare; I can’t promise enlightenment, but I can certainly try for insight.

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The story begins once again by understanding the way our eyes work: a scene is seldom so bright that we don’t see any detail – i.e. luminance variation, but we’re used to portions of our view being almost completely black and devoid of detail. This is a fairly nonlinear recording medium. B&W film is much the same: because of the nature of the emulsion chemistry and grain structure, it’s very difficult for a negative to go completely black – i.e. be overexposed with irrecoverably blown highlights. It requires a lot of light to completely turn all of the silver halide crystals black. In real terms, this means that most of the extremely large latitude of film resides in the highlight region; I find that in practice, changes in exposure make more difference to the shadows – zones IV and below – than to the highlights. You can see this behaviour quite clearly when you push a film with low reciprocity error like Fuji Acros – the shadows become more dense and block up a little, but the highlights remain much the same. A one-stop push results in losing a stop of dynamic range (i.e. tonal differentiation) in the shadows. This matches the luminance map our eyes see quite well, and thus appears ‘natural’.

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On top of that, production of the final positive image – be it digital or optical wet printing – inadvertently introduces further nonlinearity: when you scan/ copy with a DSLR, the film is transmissive: light has to shine through it to reach the final positive medium. Since the film is never fully transparent and never fully opaque, it has the effect of appearing to never clip – especially with digital copies. In fact, you always have to move the lower range of the curve or levels slider after inversion to set your black point to be truly black. Practically, this means you have a lot of headroom in the highlights; because the chemical reaction is analog, there are nearly infinite shades of light grey that can be reproduced in the highlight zones. Overexposure or very bright areas therefore have gradual transitions, which contribute to the overall impression of there being detail/ dynamic range/ tonal discrimination (pick one, they’re all related) in the highest zones. The film effectively acts as a neat downsampling mechanism for luminance information.

explaining DR and HDR-hybrid
Here’s what happens in the hybrid film/digital process: the top wedge represents the dynamic range of the scene; film is a bit less, and compresses the top and bottom ends in a neat manner. However, when the film is transmissively illuminated/ scanned, then it appears to be the third wedge; i.e. within the dynamic range of the digital capture device, which is the final wedge. We don’t have clipping even though the original scene exceeded the dynamic range of direct digital capture because the film has done the condensing of upper/ lower luminance ranges for us.

On the other hand, a direct digital capture of the scene is constrained by sensor physics: if there isn’t enough light to trigger a signal voltage, then it’s recorded as black. If there’s too much, then you have overexposure and pure white. That clipping point on either end is very abrupt and discrete because digital is binary: there’s either luminance information, or there isn’t. It’s this abrupt clipping that makes digital images – especially B&W – look, well, digital.* You can of course avoid this by carefully ensuring that the input scene has less dynamic range than the capture latitude of your sensor; however, this isn’t always possible, and even if the majority of the scene lies within the tonal range of the sensor, you will almost always have single specular highlight points that fall outside of it.

*It isn’t so much of an issue with colour, because all three channels have to saturate before you go to pure white. If only one channel saturates, there are still the other two remaining to provide colour information and tonal discrimination.

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Raw digital files are very linear – especially from CMOS cameras – which means that you have to increase the contrast in post processing to make the scene appear natural and to preserve relative differences in luminance between adjacent areas in the final image. It is possible to do this locally – that’s what dodging and burning accomplishes – but if you push it too far, you land up with areas in the image that look unnatural because their relative contrast is too high or too low compared with the remainder of the frame.

It seems obvious that to avoid this, we could just pull the top and bottom ends of the curve so they don’t clip fully to black or white; however, this results in very flat, unsatisfying looking images that somehow lack punch, and worse still, look odd because our eyes need an anchor in zones 0 and X so we can calibrate the relative luminance of the overall scene. And you of course still want to preserve the gradual transition to over/underexposure, whilst maintaining tonal separation in those zones…not so easy, is it?

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I’ve always said that one should never burn highlights or dodge shadows: this is because it can very quickly result in overlapping tones, i.e. where areas that are zone X in reality become the same luminance as zones IX or VII; our brains are very quick to recognise this and interpret it as looking unnatural or odd. However, through forensic examination of both film and ‘scanned’ negatives, I think I’ve found a solution: one that does in fact require burning highlights and dodging shadows, albeit very lightly. However, to avoid tonal overlaps, you only do it when there are two or more zones of difference between the specular highlight and the adjacent areas (or the same for shadows).

Effectively, what this does is lower the contrast in that area of that image only, so it doesn’t appear too ‘sharp’ or ‘aggressive’, whilst still preserving the perceived contrast and tonal separation within that localised area. There are no more hard and fast rules than that; to decide where to apply it and exactly how strongly requires experience and practice. However: do not do this for colour images, it still results in unnatural-looking highlights and washed out shadows. This technique is especially effective when you have areas with high frequency and high contrast detail – e.g. blades of grass in direct sun – because it preserves the luminance detail in those areas, but avoids them feeling harsh and halftoned or binary black/white. Note that it’s also very important to take care when sharpening, too: sharpening increases contrast at edges; if you increase it too much, especially with high frequency detail, it can cause the impression of clipping when you have abrupt transitions between high and low exposure zones in a physically small space.

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Perhaps the best tests of effectiveness are first blind discrimination, then print: the images in this article are a mix of scanned film, which still looks distinctively ‘smooth’ despite passing through the usual digital workflow, and direct digital captures. I have done a number of test prints, and there’s a definite difference visible: direct digital capture images prepared by this workflow are much smoother and more natural looking, and not easy to distinguish from scanned film. What’s more interesting is that the film images in this article were shot under what I think of as moderately contrasty conditions for the tropics – late evening and partially cloudy – the digital images were shot at high noon with a clear sky, and extremely high contrast. Let me finish with one clarification, though: the aim here is not to make images that could pass as film captures: it’s to take one specifically desired property of film capture – i.e. smoothness of tonal transitions at the extreme shadow/highlight zones – and try to achieve the same result with a direct digital capture, in order to get a better, richer final image that blends the advantages of film (tonality) and digital (workflow speed, resolution, shooting envelope/ high ISO performance etc.). MT

There will be updated Photoshop Workflow videos available in the near future, including one specifically covering black and white conversions and preparation for print in much more detail with examples – I have made a lot of improvements and refinements to the process in the two years since the first video…


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  1. You might want to look into RPP: http://www.raw-photo-processor.com/RPP/Overview.html

    It features automatic compressed compensation: “Compressed compensation allows to preserve highlights in more film-like style instead of clipping used in traditional linear exposure compensation.”

    It also has an Adams Zone system feature.

    Would be interested to hear your thoughts about it…

    • I tried it some time back; the workflow is very, very slow and clunky compared to PS. I just don’t have the time to spend on a single file, so whatever I do from a post processing standpoint has to be fast, or it isn’t practical.

  2. Great article! More to learn – thanks. I tend to go for a more “matte” appearance to my own pictures, which in my eye is also interpretable as “filmic”, but I also like straight B&W conversions and this burn/dodge method looks interesting.

    Another point that comes to mind is that camera manufacturers have been focused for so long on “features” whereas there is still a lot can be done with core components like the sensor and the processing that goes along with them. I don’t understand why the selection of B&W sensors is still so limited. With today’s technology it would seem to me that even if the market for B&W only cameras is small a few cameras could be made available that are B&W only, where such tonal work could be built in to the technology and software. I would buy a B&W GR in a heartbeat, or any other camera for that matter, and I don’t think I’m the only one (I am not interested in $7,000 BW cameras and my eyes are no longer good enough for rangefinders anyway).

    It’s not as if B&W film was an afterthought to color film… just the opposite.

    • Actually, B&W sensors should be easier to build – just take out the damn Bayer filter, and remove the interpolation routine. A B&W GR would be a pretty impressive bit of kit…and small/ cheap enough that I’d carry a color one and a mono one. That said, the current color one does a pretty good job, so perhaps it isn’t even necessary…Leica just charge more because they can and people will still buy it.

  3. Beautiful images. I am looking forward to the new B/W workflow and print video.

  4. Interesting article. In the past year I printed almost all my photos, just for the pleasure but also to train my eye and compare with b&w prints that I love (for example the Salgado books).

    I found that when you have burned highlights, you can save a bit by adding grain in those parts of the photo, this has the advantage that you don’t get “blanc” unprinted paper there. It also help to perceive the print looking more “complete”.

    I really wish we could have an afordable and practically usable way to make analogue photos from digital, this would be highly apreciated.

  5. Thanks Ming, interesting as always. I’m wondering if processing in LIGHTZONE might apply to some of the monochrome issues you brought up here. For black and white images I find LIGHTZONE’s adjustments by zone easier to visualize than trying to adjust with curves or manual methods.

  6. Christian says:

    I am most likely in a different league, but I find that I can get pretty close in Lightroom. Rescuing hi lights, whites and lifting shadows and blacks combined with what might seem counterproductive by adding contrast and an S-curve and maybe a tiny, tiny bit of clarity.

    • You can get similar global results, but if you’ve got tricky situations where you only want to affect local areas…you need the dodging and burning power of PS.

      • Ming, you’ve said this a few times, but have you tried any of the recent versions of Lr? You can (for some time now) use the brush tool to locally affect highlights and shadows too. The only thing missing, I think, is a brush specifically covering midtones.

        • Yes, but the way it works doesn’t seem to be the same as in PS. I’m not sure why. And you can’t really do sequential adjustments and multiple curves, which still makes PS necessary for my workflow.

  7. I will explore this options in photoshop, thanks for the advice

  8. Brett Patching says:

    Thanks for this really interesting pair of articles Ming! I look forward to the updated Photoshop Workflow videos.

  9. John bresnen says:

    Enjoy your mail and pictures. I’m new to taking pictures manually..any helpful books you would recommend?
    I’m thinking of getting a Olympus stylus 1 or Olympus xz2..any thoughts…want to get started right…thanks so much

  10. Hi Ming
    Interesting article will certainly have a go at this next time I’m in B&W mode. Was wondering which if any of your Photoshop Workflow videos deals with resizing and sharpening in depth. Resizing to me seems totally down to the discretion of Photoshop and what it decides to keep and what gets deleted (I down size a lot for test prints and fine prints as bi – smooth) this on the whole produces good results but I must admit I’m a little in the dark on this. Same with sharpening which strikes me as something that could make or break the final image.

    • I don’t cover resizing for output because what’s optimum changes quite a lot depending on a) up or downsampling; b) how exactly you intend to use the output. It’s possible to get results that are more faithful but less punchy, or vice versa. Sharpening, however, is covered in some detail. 🙂

  11. Tom Liles says:

    Fascinating. I’m fresh from scanning a roll of Acros today, and can’t help feeling that part of the magic in monochrome film may be also be related to the gamut of the captured spectra. I’m too lazy to check, but I think monochrome films capture past reds and into the infrared spectrum, ever so slightly (and even without a red filter over the lens, of course)… because of the way skin seems to slightly glow in certain situations (yet clear skies are rarely darkened). The effect goes so well with the smooth highlight clipping. Could be v.mild IR capture under certain conditions? Definitely gives the exposures… yep, I’m going to say it: a certain je ne sais quoi. Give me a minute to cringe. Brrr. OK. That, or that my lenses have a very pleasant coma effect when paired with the F2 🙂
    Same lenses and scene — even the same exposure settings — on a D3, and I don’t get the same effect. Obviously. Digital cameras are not film emulsion in a film camera. Not to mention, digital sensors have all that gumpf over the sensor, or in the downstream processing, or both… the effect gets lost in the mix? Except for owners of the Leica M8, or like me the Epson R-D1s (though that’s UV, no? Hmm)… Or the admirable citizens of Foveon-land (still the digital champ for mono to me). OK, an honorable mention for GR owners too [just on that: I have the CoolpixA and honestly I think it’s not too bad for b&w; but I’m not really a b&w guy so my bar is perhaps a few leagues lower than people who have a clue]. At any rate, yes there are digital cameras that do mono well; but I still think your hybrid workflow — using film as a DR filter, in effect, to capture the actual scene, before digitizing the negative [not the actual scene] will take some beating. I know I’m not saying anything: you’ve just told us as much yourself up above!

    I am going to say something now:

    Film is not analog, Ming, it’s digital.
    And digital is digital; but initially true* analog (at the sensor).
    [I think perhaps in the article you were simplifying to avoid long asides as I’m about to do—rip a ragged yawn and fall asleep with some classic TL hot air!]

    It’s been a good while since I did any chemistry in anger — I’m nominally a Chemical Engineer — but the silver halide process we are taking about in regards film emulsions is not an equilibrium reaction (a reversible reaction wouldn’t work very well for the intended purpose!). Further, this irreversible reaction either happens (photon provides enough activation energy) or it doesn’t. We can’t have half a turned silver halide molecule; or any fraction between 0 and 1. The molecules react, or they don’t. That’s binary. Film is truly digital. Though the mind bending number of molecules (clumps of molecules really) in a single 36x24mm frame of film emulsion makes the aggregate as good as continuous, i.e., analog.

    What is really like a popular conception of analog are the currents (and the accompanying potential differences) from the electrons liberated by the photoelectric effect in the electron wells of the sensor. The gamut of possible current signals is to all intents and purposes continuous until the signal hits the A/D converter (for anyone unfamiliar: guess what “A” and “D” stand for) which makes the numbers manageable for processing (by allocating signal into bins, i.e., digitizing or granulating it). So digital is digital (congratulations to the naming dept.!), but initially analog.
    (see also “*” note below)

    I would imagine with much more sophisticated digital output mediums, “filmic” with a digital sensor should be eminently possible. There will be 1024 discrete tone values in the top stop of a sensor with 12-stops of dynamic range. 1024 in the top stop alone! That’s a lot. If there were an output medium that could discriminate and show us all of these, well, the allure of film may disappear for some overnight.
    (Assuming our eyes could even parse so many variations in the brightest region.)

    I’ve always liked both film and digital and think your hybrid flow is awesome, Ming. It’s like total photography: incorporating exposure and development know-how at one end, to Ps’ing and fine prints at the other (did you ever try an Ultraprint from a D800E scanned neg, just to see what would happen?). But it’s nice to know with a little elbow grease and a savvy eye, elegant results with nowt but a digital camera and a copy of something Adobe is there for us.

    * “truly analog”
    We shan’t get into QM again (as I’ll lose); but you know I consider Zeno’s paradox solved and that there is a “grain” to the universe (to space-time) which we’ve modeled as the Planck limits (length; time)… below which no metrics work anymore and nothing makes much sense (or is worth even attempting to make sense of, i.e., it’s an a-priori conceptual and modeling impossibility). So, and maybe this is just the Spirit of the age speaking through me, we live in a digital universe, literally; and “continuous” in any rigorous mathematical sense has no place in our objective reality (and I’d dispute its mathematical validity too, to be honest). Anyway—what all this means is: nothing is analog, can be analog, in my opinion, since the concept rests on a falsity. Film, digital, the snazzy Seiko clock face dials on the top plate of my R-D1s: all digital. Everything is.

    • Carlos El Sabio says:

      Tom, I always look forward to your responses. I am almost always, perhaps always, in agreement with you – insofar as I can understand what you are saying. And I am always fascinated with your contributions to the blog. You cause me to muse over things. I like that; my wife thinks I am crazy. But let’s consider. Continuous does seem to exist in reality – I would think. One quick and easy example is a circle. A real one. A continuous curve. Not a mathematically defined one where we have to use PI, which is rather inexact. Our mathematics is the tool by which we define our world, our laws of physics, but our mathematics is imperfect. Or have I totally missed the point? Thanks for your carefully thought out comments.

      Ming, this may not be a particularly unpopular article, just one that makes people think (a good thing), and one that leaves them not knowing for sure how to react or respond. Using volume of response would not necessarily be a good measure of interest or the number of people reading the essay. Great article. Thanks, as always, for what you do. A wonderful blog to encounter art, science and philosophy in one place.

      • Carlos, the traffic stats do not lie 🙂

        • Carlos El Sabio says:

          That might imply that you have posted an essay for the few that are truly interested in the subject, and not that the content is unpopular. Only popular for a smaller, more targeted audience. I suppose it may depend on how you define ‘popular’. Please don’t let the traffic stats have too much influence. This is good stuff… Can’t find it anywhere else that I know of.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Carlito! I missed this and should thank you profusely first before getting into what I think about the concepts of infinity, perfection and analog/digital, continuous/quantized…

        Which I can’t do this time as I have to get the kids in the bath now—and then onto preparations for a big house move in May!

        In lieu of me, I’d recommend looking into Platonism and responses to it; that brings up most the topics you’re interested in—of particular note, does “a circle” (similar to a Platonic “form”) even exist? Quick Tom answer: in the physical universe, since we’ve found that space is not continuous, then “no.” But a perfect circle can exist in mathematics… We’ve delineated a boundary just now between the real (universe, baths for the kids, etc) and the, well, I’m not sure what the contrasting word should be, is a perfect mathematical circle real, or not? It’s probably more than just imaginary—but even imaginary things have a kind of ontological content, enough that labeling them “unreal” doesn’t feel right. But still, the perfect circle has no possible existence in the real. This all suggests that we’ve a problem with science (quantized space) or a problem with maths (perfect circles that are an object of thought only)…
        There isn’t a problem with science, per say, it’s obviously working pretty well for us! But its inductive method is always penultimate at best; the deductive method of maths is much more final and precise (but still starts from axioms!). There is a hint here in these two modes of knowing; and the fact that science needs maths to speak (equations, etc) but maths doesn’t need science whatsoever (it just needs a mind).
        So my take is that the problem rests with science, not in quantizing space, etc., but on a much more fundamental level: science’s insistence on a Cartesian (French mathematician, DesCartes) separation of mind and matter, i.e., science (the scientific method) thinks it only needs treat the matter and objective phenomena. Not minds (and when I use the word “minds,” I’m not anthropocentric; my belief is much more zany than that). Not subjective experience and not irreproducible phenomena—both very obviously part of real life and the real World… So science has a problem.

        Anyway: must run. But thanks again, Carlos! I’m touched.

        Now you go think about the possibility that the series of counting numbers could just reach and end and adding one to that turns the counter back to “0.” 🙂

        I believe it’s possible (and philosophically, I like cyclic better than linear). And it’s certainly no less barmy than “infinity,” which seems just as far-fetched, if not more.

        • Carlos El Sabio says:

          Well, Tom, now I have to think. Hope I can get the motor started. We have wandered into very interesting space – perhaps Ming’s fault. I’ll leave you for now with this thought. I came to this conclusion many years ago. I believe we agree. There are no straight lines, just curved lines of which the apparently straight line is a special case. Now to ponder your comments. More later.

    • I told you that Acros was good stuff. I haven’t seen the coma effect you mention which would suggest spectral sensitivity outside the visible; as far as I know, Acros is panchromatic but not sensitive into UV and IR.

      I agree that film is analog – but the clump size of the grain structure is so small we don’t see this; in the same way that halftone printing creates intermediate shades without reducing ink flow. Except here the dots are much, much smaller. Personally, I think that digital sensor evolution lies in a) those infinitely small pixels binned/ convoluted to bigger ones – binning doesn’t matter if you’ve got 100 million of them; b) irregular pixels to better match an irregular world; c) multiple layers of color photosites. We’re still some way off yet.

      • It looks like Acros’s sensitivity drops off well before the IR region (700 nm) in this Fuji film guide: http://www.fujifilmusa.com/shared/bin/ProfessionalFilmDataGuide.pdf (PDF viewer page 40, printed film page 50). Either that or the light they were exposing it to had no IR content.

        • There you go. It agrees with my experience of Acros and known lenses.

          • Tom Liles says:

            I have a roll of Ilford SFX — which I haven’t used yet — a b&w film which does go down into the near infrareds (peak IR response at 720nm, sensitive to 740; SFX is really panchromatic monochrome with an extended red response, I think; it’s certainly not bona-fide IR stuff like AGFA etc used to make that would require special development… SFX can be developed just like any C41 mono). Anyway, I mention it since I haven’t seen the real deal, firsthand, yet so it could be that… I went back to look at the frames where I felt like Acros (and others e.g., 400TX, Ilford Delta) were giving me a teensy weensy IR effect — the ever so slightly glowing skin — and found that many of the frames were shot indoors under tungsten temp. lights: it might be a factor. The photos were in a shop, with a large glass front, my background, so natural high-key light pouring in through there and giving a nice ethereal effect… Plus open apertures… Plus the different highlight roll-off (compared to silicon)… And this all perhaps contributes to what I saw. What I think I saw. I feel. God. I’m wavering…

            Tell you what I’ll try and recreate one in the near future, and I’ll link to it when it comes.

            I bet it turns out to be coma! 🙂

            But the thrust of the point stands: whatever it is, it doesn’t happen on digital.
            /shock and awe

            P/S on the infrared topic… You’ll all laugh at me, but I only came across the existence of that IR Slide Film the great yellow mother made back in the day, a couple weeks back. And, wait, what? IR SLIDE FILM! = WOW!!
            If only they’d make that again; I would pay 4,000yen a roll, no questions. None at all—gimme gimme gimme.

  12. Son of Sharecroppers says:

    I am confused. You write: “I’ve always said that one should never burn highlights or dodge shadows.” I think of burning as increasing exposure during printing and of dodging as decreasing exposure. Burning highlights and dodging shadows would increase contrast and overemphasize tonal differences–not result in overlapping tones. Or do I have this backwards?

    • Tom Liles says:

      Howdy SoSC! Apologies for jumping in here, but that take on dodge/burn sounds like it’d make sense re: prints if we were doing an optical print—the paper is exposed by way of a negative, not a positive. So everything is back to front. I’m working backwards from all I know which are the dodge/burn tools in Ps and Lr, where we’re working on a (digital) positive: the burn tool darkens; the dodge tool lightens.
      So unsympathetic burning of highlights, done by pre-blog.mingthein.com individuals, darkens the tones nearest white (255), usually resulting in a yucky grey (loss of contrast/flat out graying if they were 255’ed, clipped, tones); dodging shadows makes chalky darks (loss of contrast/noise/graying)—yucky gray again. Do both and a big loss of contrast overall, with plenty of opportunity for bizarro tonal overlaps.

      Anyway, sorry to interupt—it’ll be interesting to hear the answer from them that’s in the know!

      • I think you’ve exactly got it, Tom. Photo paper turns dark when exposed to light. Projecting a negative onto it reverses the negative image: the light goes through the light parts of the negative making those parts of the paper dark, and the dark parts of the negative blocks the enlarger’s light, leaving those parts of the paper white.

        Dodging is when you place something on or near the paper’s surface to block the light, thereby leaving that part of the paper whiter. Often darkroom printers would cut out pieces of cardboard, or have some cardboard on a stick (hence the lollipop symbol in Photoshop) to dodge specific areas. The dodging is controlled by the amount of time the cardboard thingy (or your hands or any other opaque object one might use) is in front of the paper.

        Low amounts of dodging means the dodging apparatus blocks the light only for a short time — total exposure time for paper is on the order of less than 10 seconds, so we’re talking single-digit seconds here. The distance the lollipop is from the paper surface also controls its softness (in Photoshop terms). Further away, the shadow it casts on the paper is softer with a larger penumbra.

        It’s called dodging because you are avoiding (dodging) the enlarger’s light.

        Burning is similar but with a large opaque mask with holes cut out of it to expose those parts of the paper you want to burn in and make darker. That mask could be your hands, BTW, making funny shadow shapes on the paper. 🙂

        Anyway, as you can see, the art of the printer back in the darkroom days was a real art, and no two prints would be exactly alike! Ansel Adams famously called prints the performance, with the negative being the score. He also changed his printing of Moonrise over the years as he got to terms with it — it was a notoriously difficult negative to print — so if you bought two decades apart, they would be markedly different.

        It’s very different now with digital processes being so replicable — I get worried now when I close down Photoshop without saving my layers!

        • Actually, I think I take an Ansel-ish approach to PS: I never save layers, except if there’s heavy retouching for a commercial shot. Once it’s baked, it’s baked. If I want to change it, I have to start again. And no, they never quite land up the same, but it’s impossible to say if one is better or worse than the other. That said, I won’t reprocess an old file because there’s no point – the raw material has to match your vision for the end product, and if your vision and PP change, then you’ve almost certainly got the wrong raw material.

          • Episode 5 kind of disabused me of that worry, so I don’t do it either. It still feels like jumping off a cliff though. I find myself sometimes reprocessing a picture after a day, because I might have overdone something, and it’s always interesting to revisit old pictures with newfound skills, or when I want to print them.

            BTW, were the pictures from episode 5 posted on Flickr the actual pictures you were processing during the video? Or did you go back later and do the processing without the cameras watching?

      • You’re right on.

    • You’ve got it backwards. Burning is darkening, dodging is lightening.

  13. Kristian Wannebo says:

    I finally got around to studying your photos – with your text in mind.
    Although Flickr Original size helps only a little,
    it was delightful!

  14. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Thanks for this illuminating (no pun intended) analysis of film, sensor and post behaviour!

    It explains also why I found overexposure of film easier to handle in the darkroom than underexposure.

    “… burning highlights and dodging shadows, albeit very lightly. However, to avoid tonal overlaps, you only do it when there are two or more zones of difference between the specular highlight and the adjacent areas (or the same for shadows).”
    I recognize this from my darkroom days.
    ( With too “dynamic” negatives, when you could dodge/burn according to this rule, you got a wider choice of paper gradation to achieve midtone contrast.)

    “However: do not do this for colour images, it still results in unnatural-looking …”
    Is this because the three colour channels are differently close to being full/empty?
    Or does our perception of colour change, when you change the luminance in very light or dark areas?

    “… because our eyes need an anchor in zones 0 and X …”
    Never thought of that, and it explains a lot!

    • Our perception of color changes in light and dark areas. You also need to adjust the saturation to compensate – mostly increase in darker areas,d decrease in lighter ones, though there are exceptions depending on the material of the object in the shot…

  15. This process result seems a little odd to me. Lookin like a “Nuit américaine” to my eyes and brain. Don’t you think you land with too much compressed midtones?

  16. Thank you, Ming, for this very interesting and eye opening article. I now understand what you mean by nonlinearity of film vs. linearity of CMOS sensors regarding tonal response and what strategy you follow in your digital B&W conversion workflow to achieve a more filmic look.

    So I guess that for example, as opposed to Nikon with their Coolpix A, Ricoh manages (probably intentionally) to achieve an effective, more nonlinear tonal response with their GR that more closely matches the tonal response of film and thus to produce a more filmic output by default, even though they use a CMOS sensor that has a more linear tonal response by nature?

    I’m really looking forward to your monochrome masterclass video!

    • I’m not sure it’s that, because you can still land up with very ‘digital’ looking files; I think perhaps there’s a slightly different ADC readout method used, or something else going on we don’t know about.

  17. I’ve never found that light areas against a darker background are a problem. It’s dark areas against a lighter background that are problematic.

  18. Stunning images and a wonderful explanation. I am adding this as a variation of Ep5.

    • Thanks. There will be a monochrome masterclass video later this year…

      • Really looking forward to the Monochrome Master class video. I am going to re-watch EP4 and EP5 again soon. Already have watched them twice. I will be shooting more at noon on the chance of catching something like this.

    • What Eric said! Wouldn’t normally bother to comment unless I had something to contribute, but taking the time to put together an article like this and sharing it for free deserves a thank you I reckon. Thanks!

      • You’re welcome. Oddly though this doesn’t seem to be a very popular article…I suppose people like HDR and super contrast better.

        • Meh, gear reviews seem to be the most popular – enough said!

          • Sad, but true. None of it will make your images better – but perhaps I’m missing the point; there’s nothing wrong with collecting cameras so long as you know you’re in it just to collect cameras…

            • Oh, I don’t miss that, it’s just different because I’m not as interested in gear. It’s neat and I like hearing about the latest and greatest, but I’m not at a point where my current gear has any holes that I feel I need to fill. As a result, I read your gear reviews as a diversion from an otherwise busy day. Your pieces about technique are more consuming because they have immediate applicability to me and take more thought about how to integrate them with my workflow.

              • We’ve reached the point where there really aren’t any gear holes to fill – hence the importance of the small differences. I guess those little ergonomic things can make or break the difference, but only because everything is pretty much at a high level already.

                Technique is objective, but how one applies it is very subjective – and requires a little more thinking…

        • Perhaps, but I personally tend to delay reading your technique-related articles because they take more time and energy to process. Gear reveiews are easier to read and I don’t care about absorbing nuance nearly as much.

          • And that’s what you’re missing – I have just as much nuance in the gear reviews, perhaps more – because small things make a difference. Maybe I should just shoot brick walls and cats through horrible filters and say everything is awesome.

            • nehemiah says:

              Ming, you really need to hype each new camera, sensationalize any likes or dislikes, and blasts a firm technical foundation as geeky, nonfunctional and non real world. Make sure to bash traditional DSLR’s and “Canikon.” Oh yes, and you must compare wildly different exposures, post process settings and JPGS settings with various lenses and FOV and sensor sizes to reach conclusions.

              Please make sure you aren’t well published.

            • I completely agree about the importance of subtleties. Your gear reviews are the most pertinent and useful that I know of. You point to so many subtle yet significant details that don’t ever get mentioned by other reviewers simply because they either fall outside their rigid and formal review methodology or because they don’t think they might be relevant to the average reader. This is what makes your reviews (and your writings in general) invaluably useful.

              • I actually suspect it’s because of neither – good reviewers are not necessarily good photographers and vice versa. This results in things simply being overlooked, or not even considered because the person reviewing either can’t or didn’t use the camera in a way that a real photographer might, or because they might not have used enough other stuff to make a useful comparison.

                • What’s sure is that you’re an excellent and very experienced photographer and that this translates into photographer-centric reviews that are much more useful and trustworthy than many others out there. But reviews aside, what I value most about your site are the more technical articles like the last two as well as the more philosophical essays. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, it is much appreciated!

      • Ditto on the “thank you.”

  19. hmm, i think I get what you mean based on the HDR discussion – though the approach with burn highlights or dodge shadows is counter intuitive enough that it’s a bit harder to accept, even though it is essentially only to smooth the transition between zones. Again something to experiment! I’m assuming this is much more useful with highlights than shadows?


  1. […] malaysische Fotograf Ming Thein, die er auf seinem Blog in dem englischsprachigen Artikel „A digital B&W epiphany“ sehr aussagekräftig beschreibt. Nebenbei bemerkt verdanke ich es Ming, dass ich meine Negative […]

  2. […] on from the previous article on improving the digital B&W workflow process, it’s only fair that I show you some examples. I’ve chosen near-field landscapes […]

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