Black & White Processing

I've had more than a few email conversations regarding black and white conversions or processing. Ranging from "I hate VSCO" to "Lightroom and X-Trans" sucks. A few of those were a bit more along the lines of why I use Lightroom and VSCO pretty much all the time here but drop tidbits about the fact that I'll do something different for final treatment including using something completely different than Lightroom and VSCO for making prints etc.

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RAW Processors Etc.

Lightroom suffers a bit in the U/I department. Actually more than a little bit depending on your point of view. I probably know Lightroom about ten times better than most and not because of my shortcomings but because of it's basic design it's far slower to use and feels cumbersome. Personally my point of view is that many of it's basic design choices were cobbled together in a rush pulling junk laying around and smashing it together because Apple Aperture invented a whole new way of doing things around 2004-2005.

Today were still saddled with by and large that cobbled together Lightroom 1.0 and many of the things that suck about it happen to be the same things that sucked with it's first iteration. What most people like about Lightroom is the develop module which honestly is pretty much ACR and that's that. Oh the controls are stacked instead of tabbed.

The rest of it is just not great and very very much the same as Lightroom 1.0. Compared to Aperture even though updates and development ended on that years ago Lightroom feels like old software. It's still slower to use than Aperture is right now. So why use it? Truth be told it's probably not the best at anything but it is fairly stable, it supports new cameras and lenses more quickly than anything else out there and it's ubiquitous. It's the Windows of RAW processors in a way. It's good enough. It even has made a bit of progress on it's X-Trans demosaic over the last couple of iterations to the point that it's acceptable. You can check out my summarization on the state of affairs on what could be considered main-stream RAW processing/library tools from while back. Pretty much the same story right now, maybe worse as Capture One 9 still doesn't do XPro-2 lens corrections. That upgrade was a waste of money.

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I happen to have it installed on all my machines as well. Why? Well it's what I use when I do workshops, it's what I use when I am in the field away from home or office, it's there and has enough going for it that it's hard to make another different single tool choice at this time if you happen to shoot RAW. Sometimes I'll just use JPEGS and then I'll just use Photos on the Mac/iPad/iPhone but that's typically not for any final product.

In the above referenced post I'm pretty clear that I'm agnostic about software tools with pretty basic needs.

  • Reasonable basic black and white conversion that allows a bit of flexibility on messing with the color response. Not anything crazy just to get somewhere near black and white film color sensitivity with maybe sometimes a yellow or green filter but usually not.
  • A good curves adjustment tool.
  • Your garden variety overall exposure/density controls.
  • Big sloppy brushes and gradients for big sloppy dodge and burn.

That's pretty much it with one giant caveat. I don't care much about which RAW conversion is absolutely rendering the most detail or anything but I do care about grain simulation a lot. Now guess where Lightroom falls down in a big way. Yep, you got it it's fake grain sucks. It sucks compared to just about every other tool out there that claims to simulate black and white film grain or any grain for that matter. It just looks wrong, not only wrong but just plain old bad compared to real film grain. Especially in larger print sizes.

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There's a good chance if I didn't want grain (in fact in many cases and other work where I don't) I would just use Lightroom and be done with it. Maybe Capture One as long as I'm not using my XPro-2 with any glass that needs correction. For this particular project I do care a lot about how the grain looks. Not for proofing or publishing random frames on the web but for final selections and ultimately for print I'll end up using either Alien Skin Exposure or Google Nik for processing. Both of those have really great film grain simulators and with varying degrees of effort (not a ton) I can match up grain to indistinguishable from my real film results.

Why would I want to do that? Well, I have and probably will continue to shoot some film for this project and that will be in 35mm format. In fact this entire project is something that for me will have a very 35mm film format feel which is an aesthetic I happen to be drawn towards for a lot of subject matter.

35mm Film And Aesthetic Choices

Way, way back when all there was were film cameras and films you automatically made aesthetic choices that were fixed, written in stone the moment you decided on which camera you were going to use. In broad terms you had 35mm small cameras, medium format roll-film cameras, and large format sheet film cameras. I used all three but for personal work, casual work, you know the stuff I wanted to make just because, I overwhelmingly chose 35mm cameras. Other more serious work, as in work for pay. I chose either medium format or large format.

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You also had a fixed aesthetic to a lesser degree based on film choice, namely film speed based on your projected or actual shooting conditions. In black and white especially you had slow higher contrast lower latitude 25 to 100-ish stuff, faster lower contrast, maybe even pushable 400 speed stuff, then a few selections of crazy fast for the time sorta 1600-ish speed stuff. The vast majority of the time I choose 400 speed TRI-X. It worked, looked great, and was very very consistent and flexible. Even that choice fixed a few things but in reality depending on how you shot, processed and printed it could look a million different ways within the "higher speed" 35mm realm of looks.

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The way this panned out was my more casual 35mm work looked very different and reflected the gear and circumstances the pictures were made in directly and that was part of what I liked about it. I had no desire to somehow make small format cameras pretend to look like larger format cameras in more formal settings. Sure, there was a crowd out there that had that mission and I'm sure they're super pleased with today's digital ecosystem as it's made the end-all-be-all goal of every camera and every picture to some degree have large camera look, smooooooth, no grain, no flaws, no noise, no focus errors, no motion blur, everything just so no matter what the actual light, shooting conditions, circumstance or actual format of the camera used.

To bad that's not what I want all the time, I much rather an aesthetic that incorporates some of those limitations and flaws based on circumstance, conditions, and modus operandi to contribute to the feel of this project as well as many others I actually want to make.

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VSCO & Other Film Simulations.

With any sort of negative film color or black and white but especially black and white forget any sort of ultimate accuracy. There's no such thing. Why? Well because any sort of preset bakes in so, so, many variables in how film is shot, how it's developed, and how it's printed each with it's own infinite variations that nobody's real TRI-X looks exactly like anyone else's.

Why the VSCO hate? Well, some of that stems from the Ansel Adams mentality of each frame needs to be carefully considered, exposed, filtered, developed, and treated individually based on blah, blah, blah. Great, fine, whatever but again that's a large camera, large format, sheet film mentality and not the only valid mentality out there. There's only so much of that that can be done with 35mm roll film. Hooray digital has freed us from rolls and we get to treat all frames as if they are large format sheets. Then again we don't have to and many don't. I certainly don't on projects I want to have a 35mm more casual feel that reflects the actual conditions I made them.

The other reason I think there's a lot of VSCO hate is because of some of the what could be considered very amateur-ish flaws baked into a lot of their presets, not all of them but a lot. What do I mean?

Bad Blacks

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Yep, VSCO has a tendency to gravitate towards the bad blacks, lifted way above actual black. I think they call it "fade" or something which on black and white this really wasn't the result of prints "fading" which they don't. If you're prints have blacks that are that far above actual paper DMAX it's a good sign you have no idea what you're doing with a camera, film developing, and/or printing.

The only time you'd end up with anything near blacks so far away from actual black is with horribly underexposed film with no adjustments to developing (to attempt a push or increased mid/highlight contrast) and then proceeded to print so that highlights were somewhere near highlights on paper on the wrong contrast paper. So yeah, bad blacks are typically a no-go for anyone serious about black and white no matter if you're going for a 35mm look or a large format look. Hell, I'm not even into the bad blacks at all but that look tends to be VSCO's default.

In reality most people that have shot more than two rolls of any sort of negative film almost never exposed it at box speed but typically over exposed it unless you were planning on over developing/pushing it for contrast or just to be able to shoot it at all. So really bad blacks is something most photographers never saw with real film and generally are not desirable at all.

On the other hand there's no such animal as perfectly DMAX blacks in real black and white printing, and especially not 35mm printing. What do I mean? Without going into a lot of darkroom tech nobody will every use or give a shit about let's just say that B/W paper can get a tiny bit blacker and then even a tiny bit blacker again, and even a little tiny bit more black with prolonged exposure and idiotically long developing times. Here's the rub. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY including Ansel adams exposed their film, large, small, or otherwise so so so so so much over film base that the film base had zero effect on exposure. After that nobody developed out their paper so much in combination with all that exposure to reach as black as the paper could actually truly get. To do so also continues to darken everything. Even though paper development is more of a develop-out process there are reasonable limits to what that means as in NOT TWO HOURS.

Sure go ahead and use 0 as absolutely black with VSCO, that's fine. It's also fine to say ummm 12 is absolute black and lift it off zero a hair. A very subtle difference in look and nowhere near bad blacks.

VSCO Other wonky-ness

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They also seem to like bad whites and other such things. I think it's some sort of color print degradation they are trying to simulate more than any kind of inherent film look. Meh, to some degree it's fine in small doses but the extreme highlight "fade" looks are another thing that really are not that common shooting and printing real film. A good example of extreme WTF? Would be the preset I slapped on that post about frames I like but don't know why post. Honestly I could guess at how that could possibly happen but it would be hard to screw things up that bad with real Kodak BW400CN or any of it's Portra 400BW or TMaxCN variations. I mean you'd have to be on the surface of the sun to block up highlights that badly and then attempt to print them down a lot on lower contrast paper. I really don't get what they were simulating with that particular film and look.

Here's the thing; When I make my own presets I almost never make them in ways I didn't shoot and process my own black and white film. Typically they're representative of my average or even optimal results. In real life every once in a blue moon I would get what could be considered catastrophic failures. I would use a batch of mixed developer that's just pooped out from sitting around too long. Or there would be a few frames that were severely underexposed because a cloud went by for a few seconds I didn't notice or a million other things, even bad materials. Most of the time these were just trash. Every now and then a bunch of wrongs through serendipity added up to a giant "right" for a particular frame and even if that picture went nowhere it would be an idea that did go somewhere in terms of on-purpose treatments that if not identical would be inspired by failure.

VSCO happens to have some built in failures that just might inspire me on a frame or two here and there to do something that honestly wouldn't have crossed my mind. Not for everything, maybe just for one project or a sub-project or a one off. What's so bad about that? Does every frame on every device have to follow a pristine code of large format photography? Really? No matter what the context or feel. Photography is not just a technical endeavor only in the pursuit of eliminating all theoretical flaws. It's and art, a visual art, or at least it should be with a lot of room for interpretation that isn't only in a singular direction.

End Notes

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So, where to start, what to do, here's some general advice if you are not satisfied with your black and white treatments. Go grab Google Nik Silver EFEX Pro 2. I think it's free now. Take a look at some of their presets, definitely take a look at the little box of "film types" over on the left a ways down with no presets. Grab something you like at the moment and just reproduce the tone curves shown, the spectral sensitivity shown, and attempt some reasonable working attempt at simulation of the grain - or not using Lightroom or whatever you happen to use. It's easy and will make it far more convenient to at least proof your Black and White without round-tripping to external software constantly for every frame you want to see.

Then again also don't be afraid of the ones you don't like, the sometimes moronic attempt at reproducing some sort of really bad film mistake. Sometimes they can be just the right feel you may not even have thought of. Think of some of those useless presets or simulations as random mistakes that are impossible to make, or maybe even "fixed" in the digital world we live in. Don't spend shit-tons of time trying every treatment on ever picture. Waste of time but do some exploration every once in a while. Heck I even like some of this random hack-job of something I never do.