Leica, black & white, and digital prints

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There's an interesting discussion on black & white printing at photo.net:


Basically, there are those who think that black & white prints from consumer digital printers are good enough for exhibitions and personal viewing.

My questions: Are there any Leica users out there who scan their B&W negs and print them digitally? Or, is the classic chemical-based printing still preferred? Would having a Leica, shooting B&W, then printing them digitally be a sin?

-- Ron Gregorio (gregorio@ksc.th.com), December 13, 2000


I perused the thread you mention, and I suspect that either some very exciting digital stuff is available, or people who've bought computers, software, scanners, and printers are trying to convince themselves they've made a good investiment. I think they may be close to telling the truth, biased though they may be. My lab turns out some excellent stuff via computers and ink-jet printers, but I've not seen much consumer-level gear in use. However, we've a local photog who does a lot of business shooting kiddie portraits and selling 8x10 color prints on the spot. He's using a Nikon camera and maybe Apple desktop PC gear and a good-quality printer. The prints look fine to me. In about 10 minutes he can correct the major defects in the shot, with momma's advice, and have the print in the client's hand. I'd love to have a go at the digital thing, but I've 35 years worth of traditional gear and no funds to put into computers and all the other hardware. If I were 10 years younger, I'd give it a go, though.

-- Keith Nichols (knichols@iopener.net), December 13, 2000.

I've shot with Leicas since the late 70's and have a lot of coventional silver gelatin prints and of course B&W negs. I've only had a computer for a liitle less than a year. I guess that supports my belief that I'm a deliberate primitive. My first attempts at flatbed scans of my prints have been disappointing but I admit my inexperience deters my getting better results. I think the photo world is in a transition now and digital outputting to digital is just around the corner as much because conventional materials are only going to be around as long as there is a market for them. If I was just starting out right now I wouldn't invest too much in old tech even though some relatively great bargains can be had as folks make the move to digital darkrooms. For as long as I can get Tri-X I'll keep my wet darkroom. There is a gallery called "Eyestorm" that handles the work of William Klein and others and they have been experimenting with inkjet prints on archival paper stocks to alay any concerns about permanance. Also I've read that the NY Times and other holders of great photo archives are disposing of the silver gelatin prints and moving to digital archives. Museums are marketing those prints as limited edition artifacts. I think that dichotomy will define the future of B&W photography.

-- Michael Johnson (mdjohnsonphoto@hotmail.com), December 13, 2000.

Michael, flatbed scanning of prints isn't a particularly effective way to see digital's possibilities. You really need to scan negatives and learn enough about Photoshop to do what you would do in a wet darkroom. I've found it takes a lot more time to learn than I planned.

Also, archival properties of digital inks and papers are well- documented by Henry Wilhelm. I'm not sure why "Eyestorm" feels a need to do this, Wilhelm has very scientific testing of archival properties. The website is http://wilhelm-research.com/.

For black and white printing, a black and white ink set should be used. Most of the posters in that thread seem to be using the color ink set for their black and white prints, which will give suboptimal results. Third parties make what are called "quadtone" ink sets, which include black and three shades of grey (for four color printers.) The results of printing with these ink sets, from a properly scanned negative, printed on high quality paper, is nothing short of amazing and has good archival properties (better than Cibachrome, for instance, if not yet up to silver.) I know one photographer selling his digital prints to collectors, from 120 negatives, for $700 each.

And finally...Dan Burkholder scans his negatives, does all of his adjustment in PS, outputs a negative to large film, and does platinum printing. (This is my understanding of the process without having read his whole book.) I recently saw Burkholder's prints, which a) no-one would ever know were digitally processed, and b) are as beautiful as any other platinum prints.

I think the hybrid solution (image to film, scan and print digitally) will become standard for quality imaging. It's mostly the cost of film scanners that is keeping it from happening faster.

-- Jeff Spirer (jeff@spirer.com), December 13, 2000.

I sold my chemical darkroom gear due to time and space constraints (no permanent space), but shortly afterwards bought a scanner (Minolta dual scan - low end 2400dpi 10bit) and an epson 870 (best consumer color printer - cyan ink fading issues). I shoot mainly with an M2 with 50/2 summicron, Canon EF 85 and 28/1.8's In the chemical darkroom I did some stuff with my Rolleiflex T and a homemade Tachihara copy. I don't like grain much, and scanning doen't change this. I mainly printed at 5x7 or 8x10, so I only got an A4 printer.

Pros: Darkroom

-that incredible tonality of a great print on fibrebased paper. The Epson gives images are good, but I love a 5x7 FB enlargement off a 6x6 neg shot on Agfapan 25 with tripod. Creamy tonality.

-Permanence is relitively easily obtained. The Orange shift of the Epson dyes is unpredicable.

-you only need to spot what is visble on the print. With digital, you see every speck of dust enlarged on screen, and it takes time to spot it all, some of which would not actually be visble on smaller enlargments. What is the worst dust magnet device ever...Computor!!

-A certain serenity of the process.

-Fast easy proofing. Scanning a whole roll takes me 2 hours.

-used darkroom gear is cheap and obsolescene free. You need a pretty powerful computor and lots of RAM.

Digital -You can work usfully with any period of time. If you have five minutes you can use it. Darkroom work requires blocks of several hours to be productive. I find I do a lot more photography now. Way more.

- Control!!!! The other big plus. A master printer with lots of time can acheive the same results, but with photoshop you can do wonderful things. Negitives I could hardly enlarge become usable by scanning twice(or more) and selectively merging them to bring out all the info. Although the printers tonality doesn't match convention prints, the added control photoshop gives can more than negate the advantage on many photos. -Color is definately easier than conventional. But still hard to do well. But I don't like it. Too many variables.

-Steep learning curve.

-Cool uses. Greeting cards in real photography quality.

For me the overall price per print is about the same, and the overall time required per print is about the same

My summary is that digital with conventional cameras is currently competitive for a computor literate person with limited time especially blocks of time). If you have the time and a permanent darkroom, keep at it, as the potential results are still better. When digital slr bodies with full frame 6+ megapixel sensors 2x price of a prosumer film SLR, for me it will be a no brainer. The advantage will be in the absence of dust spotting. By then printer ink technology will have closed the tonality gap.

Here is a wedding I shot of friends on T400CN with EF 28-80/2.8-4. http://members.aon.at/wrathall. Frame 19 is a collage of 4 frames, one interpolated up.

The advantage of the Summicron, that look is still the same after being scanned. I have some shots of another friend wedding shot available light (no much) with the M2, which are all soft due slow shutter speeds, but still look lovely.

-- Mark Wrathall (Wrathall@aon.at), December 13, 2000.

Jeff, Being able to mimic the traditional silver gelatin media's permanance or look isn't necessarily the point. I don't want to get off into an aesthetics discussion but, Atget stuck with glass plates well after films were available and not because he didn't take the time to learn about newer technologies but by choice or because of economics. The resulting images are unique, beautiful and viable in spite of being anachronistic. The silver gelatin negative to silver gelatin print image has a certain integrity because of it's inherent peculiarities or even it's relative limitations.

-- Michael Johnson (mdjohnsonphoto@hotmail.com), December 13, 2000.

Michael, it was you who brought up the archival issue, not me. I just gave a reference so people could find it without waiting for some gallery's tests. The work's been done.

-- Jeff Spirer (jeff@spirer.com), December 13, 2000.

I do not have a darkroom at all. I load my Tri-X into reels for processing in a changing bag. I then scan all my negs and print using an inkjet. The whole time I am doing this my two year old is playing at my feet, asking questions and I can stop anytime to help. The darkroom requires set up and take down time and you cannot be interrupted as frequently as two year olds would like. I think that the look of a excellent fibre print is amazing. I do not know it that can be matched with a computer but I do not mind sacrificing a little quality and being with my family.


-- John Collier (jbcollier@home.com), December 14, 2000.

This is an area of considerable interest to me. In the photo department at my school, I know several people who seem to truly think that inkjet output is now about as good as chemical prints. Having seen the actual prints they have produced, though, I'm inclined to say that I can see a difference (although it's certainly possible that those results are not representative of what is truly achievable--I don't know enough about the process yet).

The one digital output technology that really *does* knock my socks of is Giclee--I can easily see that process becoming the standard way to distribute fine art prints in the future. My aunt, who paints watercolors, had some copy work done by a guy who took large format transparencies of her work, scanned them, and then output via Giclee onto large sheets of fiber paper. The results are awe-inspiring, and I can imagine the process producing beautiful Ansel Adams-like photographic prints!

As someone with a penchant for taking pictures under difficult lighting conditions, though, I would probably say the most attractive thing about the digital darkroom is not the output technology, but rather the input technology. Good film scanners (like the Nikon LS-2000) have an ability to read detail into shadows that no photographic paper can ematch, and that means an end to one of my biggest frustrations in chemical darkroom work!!

-- Buzz Andersen (landerse@du.edu), December 14, 2000.

I'm surprised to see a lot of replies from those using the digital printing methods already. I didn't mean to start a digital vs. darkroom debate, but all opinions are valuable to me. I know that a lot of Leica users still prefer the chemical based method. I'm one of those who prefer digital printing, basically because I don't want to handle the chemicals anymore and I don't have enough space in my apartment. Also, there aren't a lot of processing supplies available here where I'm at. I asked because it seems that Leica, black & white film, and darkroom printing go together--sort of like the Three Musketeers. Then comes Dartagnan--in this case, digital printing. There also seems to be a belief/myth that buying a Leica, shooting B&W, and not doing the printing yourself (traditional I suppose) kind of defeats the purpose of using a Leica in the first place.

One of the reasons I recently got a Leica is to shoot mostly B&W, have the film processed and scanned professionally to be printed by myself via Photoshop & Epson, which I haven't done yet. Of course I could do this as well with any other camera, but that's an entirely different thread. I thought that by printing digitally, I would be compromising quality as opposed to darkroom printing. But, with improvements in digital scanning and printing technology that I have just become aware of, it seems that the difference between both methods wouldn't really be noticable to my standards. However, time and cost (of paper and ink) is another matter that I have to resolve by myself.

To me, one good thing that comes out of this is that at least today we have a choice of either going digital or traditional darkroom work.

-- Ron Gregorio (gregorio@ksc.th.com), December 14, 2000.

I have printed traditionally for 20 years, and digitally for the past 2 and have found that they both have there place. I don't see all the point in all the debate as to which is better. Case in point. 15 years ago it was thought that by 2000 video would have killed motion picture film. Yet when you go to a feature lenght movie, what are you watching? Good ole film. Even if there are a lot of digital special effects, its final output is film. It just looks different. It's the same thing with still photography. I feel I can generate an inkjet print that will easily satisfy my customers who in the past would have needed an good RC print. But an exhibition fibre-base print is another matter all together. It is both a matter of 'look', but as well the fact that most gallery buyers do not like to hear 'inkjet'. When paying $500.00 and up for an 'artpiece', they expect the handbuilt qualities of a handmade print.

-- Bob Todrick (bobtodrick@yahoo.com), December 14, 2000.

Todd: I agree that computers and chemicals are both viable for still photographers, but the reason film is still used in movie theaters is probably that no good way to project a video has been deveoped. The process of making and distributing movies on tapes or discs, or by internet, should be vastly faster and cheaper than making and shipping tons of prints. So far, however, I believe film projection is still superior to video projection.

-- Keith Nichols (knichols@iopener.net), December 15, 2000.

Also I've read that the NY Times and other holders of great photo archives are disposing of the silver gelatin prints and moving to digital archives.

Could be true but certainly isn't a good idea in my experience. History tells us that advances in this fast moving field don't include backward compatibility. We could well end up with the sum total of human knowledge not available. I have been through these discussions many times.


-- Art (Art Karr90975@aol.com), December 15, 2000.

Would having a Leica, shooting B&W, then printing them digitally be a sin?

--Only not printing would be a sin! I've been strungling as a sinner for far too long - new home, no wet darkroom, baby girl, no big blocks of time for fixer sniffing. I absolutely need to go digital - But OH THE MONEY!!

Let's say you hand process your negs and go digital from there:

1) Get yourself a screaming computer with tons of RAM (I've read that photoshop demands 4x the size of the image file for the appropriate amount of RAM - 50mgs (4000x4000 scan) = 200 RAM)! = Money.

2) Film Scanner - shooting fast film (TRI-X, Tmax 3200), I've been warned against scanners with less resolution then 4000. I'm told I'll have problems reproducing the grain. This isn't a problem if you are starting from day one and creating a personal "digital" style, but if you have a style you want to maintain then you need the accuracy. And if size matters, you need the higher resolution. = 'Mo Money.

3) Storage - haven't done any research here yet, but I beleive you can burn CDs at a resonable budget for both hardware and media. = Some Money.

4) Output - I am going to test drive an Epson 1200 and 3000 with Quadtone inks as a dedcated b&w printer, and an Epson 2000P as an all around option. = Money? Under a grand in this digital world is gettin' off cheap.

$5000 minimum as I see it. Maybe I'll have a few bucks left over for thumbtacks!

Please, any cost saving suggestions or corrections to my digital darkroom would be greatly appreciated.

It sucks to dream of Bessa M's and Konica glass while clutching an M4P

-- Warren Spicer (wspicer@metronews.com), December 30, 2000.

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