Having recently had some nostalgia for film photography and more precisely a medium for black and white photography, I was searching the glorious web for the best way to live in the film and digital realm and found this article by Rich Seiling, a professional photographer and founder of West Coast Imaging, a fine art digital printing studio. He also served as assistant curator of The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, California. You can see his personal work on his website here.
With digital cameras, you can continue to capture your images in color, then convert them to B&W in Photoshop. If you already use a digital camera, this is a straightforward approach that requires no additional investment. You may also be able to take advantage of infrared capabilities of your camera for a different expressive approach. How well your digital camera file will print depends on the size file your camera produces, as well as how large you want to print the image.
Color Slide Film
Well exposed color slides can be scanned in color and converted to B&W with excellent results. The disadvantage in creating new photographs is that slide film has a limited latitude and a tendency to block up the shadows. When it works, it works great…but you are limited to capturing images in “chrome light” in most cases. You can use this to your advantage in low contrast situations that would go flat on B&W neg film – the inherent contrast of slide film helps expand the tonal range.
Color Negative Film
Color negative film can be scanned and converted to B&W. The biggest drawback is grain; Color negatives tend to have a strong grain pattern when scanned. Color negative film does have a wide latitude, but this is as much of a disadvantage as an advantage, as negatives often tend to be “flat” in contrast–and adding contrast enhances the grain pattern. In most cases you are better off shooting B&W neg film.
B&W Film for Color Processing
We have seen excellent results with B&W films made to be processed in standard C-41 chemistry like Kodak’s 400CN and Ilford’s XP-2 Super – often called chromogenic B&W films. They have much less grain than standard color negative films, and scan beautifully, producing wonderful tones. If you use this type of film, you need to use filters in the field, since it does not produce a “color” image that can be post processed into B&W in photoshop. Chromogenic B&W films do not offer the same level of control in processing as traditional B&W films.
B&W Negative Films
Traditional B&W films are an excellent choice for digital B&W printing. A good drum scanner can pull out detail that would be extremely difficult, or impossible, to achieve in the traditional darkroom, because it can scan the entire density range of a negative. Traditional zone system controls can still be used, and allow an immense control over exposure and development. With careful control, you can hold 13-15 stops of range on a single sheet of film. Medium and large format film provides resolution that is either unattainable or unaffordable to most photographers, at this time, from digital cameras. Good negatives tend to fall right into place, creating a beautiful print. For typical situations, you should still try to make a negative that would print well in the darkroom (laziness is never a virtue!). For extreme lighting circumstances, you can make a negative with densities optimized for drum scanning (instead of photo paper), and achieve some amazing effects.
B&W Slide Films
B&W slide films like Scala and the dr5-chrome process act more like color slide film than B&W negative films in that they have a limited latitude, and they need to be exposed very carefully. Because these are reversal processes, the shadow information is held in the areas of the film with the highest densities. The more dense an area, the less detail the scanner can see (compare this with B&W negative films where the shadows are held in the least dense areas and incredible detail can be captured). These films work best in the studio with careful lighting to match the exposure latitude. If you are sold on its unique look, that’s great, but this process offers little advantage – and many disadvantages – to the average photographer.