Digital Black and White Photography

Tom Davis
Tom's home page
Return to the main photography page

Last Modified: January 3, 2006.

One of the few areas where film technology is probably still significantly better than digital is in the area of black and white photography. There are a couple of reasons.

The first is that a digital camera does not have the same range available as black and white film. In other words, good black and white film can capture a larger range of shades than a digital camera.

Second, basically all digital cameras have a sensor that's built for collecting color information. This is a mixed blessing, since the color filters block some light, but if you've collected information about all three color channels, you can recombine them in an infinite number of ways to obtain an optimal (for your purposes) black and white rendering. You can even treat the color channels differently to obtain fake infra-red images.

Third, and perhaps most important, has to do with the prints you obtain. If you simply make a black and white image and print it on your inkjet printer, the brightest whites you can possibly obtain are the places on the paper where there is no ink. In other words, it will be as bright as the paper was.

But when you print black and white with chemicals in a traditional lab, the chemicals on the exposed parts of the paper are reduced to their metallic form, so you get silver metal (or if you're rich and use the processes, platinum or palladium metal). Obviously, metal reflects a heck of a lot more light than white paper, so the brightest parts of a "wet" print are much brighter than you'll ever be able to get on an inkjet or similar printer.

Obviously, if you're fanatically interested in these high quality black and white prints, you can take the digital image and make a standard film negative from it, and then take that negative to a standard lab, but that seems to me to be a lot more work than just getting the negative right out of the camera in the first place. On the other hand, a digital capture allows you to use Photoshop on your images before you print, so again, there are some digital advantages.

Want to send me mail? Click: (