Color & Light
Meeting Photo Challenges
Creative Image Processing
Nature & Outdoor
Creating Better Photographics
Night & Low Light Photography
Light & Exposure
Close-Up & Macro
Digital Black & White
Color & Design
Choosing & Using Lenses
Digital Photography Equipment
Black & White, Film & Digital; What’s Changed And What’s Remained
This issue is dedicated to digital techniques, but I feel it’s important to have a discussion on the differences and similarities between black and white film and digital photography. I do this for two reasons—the first is that I figure some of you may have made the transition from film to digital and have carried over some assumptions about how things work. The second is that even if you have never shot film you have probably been exposed to information passed on from film photographers about how things work. Either way, there are a number of matters at the heart of black and white photography that have changed, or at least should be looked at in a new light.
If we were to have a black and white negative of this shot (#1) we might expect it to look like this (#2). The density of the negative would be the opposite of the final positive, with more density in brighter areas and lighter in darker areas. In truth this is a digital file with the “negative” created using an Inverse command. Gross enlargement of a very small portion of the image (#3) reveals what’s really under the hood—millions of pixels all with distinct “addresses” that define the grayscale values.
Larger format film was attractive because it required less magnification to make large prints and, when used with contact printing techniques, yielded incredible detail and tone. Photographing through a large viewfinder or ground glass was a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the image in the field. The “large format” effect today is obtained through larger sensors with high resolution (megapixel count) and relatively larger pixel (photo sites) sizes.
There are, as of this writing four general classes of sensors in digital cameras, aside from the smallest found in camera phones and digicams. In overall area size order there’s the so called Four/Thirds, the APS-C (or DX) sensor, the FX (or roughly equivalent to 35mm frame size) sensor and the so-called “large format” sensor, roughly equivalent to a 6x4.5cm or 6x6cm film frame, often found as a back modified to fit onto a 4x5 or medium format camera. Depending on how large you plan to make prints and given all other things are equal (a very rare situation), all four types of sensors are capable of producing image quality equivalent to a well-exposed and processed 35mm black and white film; the FX sensor can yield results equivalent to medium format film; and the “large format” sensors yield results equivalent to large format film.
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