The Classic B&W Film Look – Shot with a Sigma DP2x
If I’ve made one concession to the digital age, it’s that it’s sent me on a quest to duplicate, via digital capture, the classic B&W film look. By ‘film look’ I mean the ’50s era Tri-X aesthetic. I’m not interested in grainless, subtle tonalities coupled with optical perfection. Leave that to digital B&W, almost all of which, to my eye, just doesn’t look very interesting. It looks thin and plastic, like it has no depth. I could be imagining things, but I don’t think so. The differences are real, and, at least to me, they matter. B&W photography, if it’s worthy of the name, should have a certain look. Think Robert Frank’s Americans, or Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies, or Trent Parkes’ Minutes to Midnight.
Above is a photo I took recently with a Sigma DP2x, post-processed in Silver Efex. To me, it’s a film image – the contrast, the grain, the tonality of Tri-X developed in Rodinal – about as close as I’m going to get without actually running a roll of Tri-X through my camera. So, it can be done. For comparison, I’ve posted a film snap below that exhibits the characteristics I’m looking to duplicate digitally. To my eye, these two photos could have come from the same roll.
Valentina and Donna, San Francisco, 2016 – HP5 at 800 ISO.
Tobacco Fields, Eastern North Carolina – Film or Digital? Hard to Tell (It’s a DP2x Silver Efex Conversion)
What I’ve learned [so far] can be distilled into a few simple observations: First, you’ve got to shoot RAW and run your files through film emulation software. No B&W jpegs using various in-camera film simulations. Pushing digital ISO and relying on digital noise isn’t going to get it either. I find Silver Efex to be excellent, especially using the Tri-X, HP5, Neopan 1600 and TMax 3200 presets as starting points.
Second, relatively low-resolution sensors give better film simulations; grain structure seems more accurate, tonalities more amenable to Tri-X contrast. 5-12 mpix seems to be the sweet spot. Something about higher resolution sensors – 24 mpix and above – translates into unnatural looking grain structure when post-processed, a look of having been added-on as opposed to being an organic characteristic of the output. It makes sense – 35mm Tri-x and HP5 aren’t about resolution so much as a particular grain patina. High-resolution output can’t be disguised with a simple grain overlay. The original Sigma Dp series – the 5 mpix Foveon – gives remarkably film-like grain output and tonality, printable up to 11×14 (which, ironically, is about the same limit of enlargement allowed by a 35mm negative, supporting the argument for the approximate equivalency of the Dp resolution to that of 35mm film), when run through Silver Efex by a discerning eye. It’s 35mm Tri-X developed in Rodinal in a digital box. Other sensors that seem to effectively simulate film output are the 10 mpix CCD sensor of the Nikon d200 and, my favorite, the 12 mpix Ricoh GXR M-mount. The beauty of this is you don’t need to spend $4000 on a Monochrom; you can pick up a d200 or d80 for next to nothing, and pre-digital Nikon primes are cheap as dirt.
One’s Film (HP5 2 800 ISO). One’s Digital (Ricoh GXR M-Mount).
Which leads me to my third generalization: film era optics produce better digital files for film emulation. Highly corrected modern digital optics are simply too sharp if you’re looking to replicate film. Film didn’t look that way, a function of less tack-sharp optics. Older lenses were designed using manual computation, are inclined to flare a bit and are often softer at the edges or have some vignetting, things you don’t see in modern, highly corrected optics. These optical characteristics are also a part of what we think of as the ‘film look.’
I’ve recently bought the camera a CCD Monchrom. Leica marketed it as an evolution of B&W film photography in the digital age. They bundled a copy of Silver Efex with it, just in case. I’ve not had it long enough to make any valid comparisons, but first impressions are excellent. At the very least, it does capture B&W in a way unlike traditional digital B&W output. Below are two Monochrom snapshots run through the same emulation as the DP2x shots, followed by two similar DP2x shots.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s amateur photographic work. For me, his childhood output constitutes one of the highlights of early 20th-century photography. Born in Courbevoie, near Paris in France in 1894, Lartigue took his first photographs at age 8. For him, photography was a revelation that would inspire him throughout his life: “It was a superhuman invention. I got it all! Colors! The sounds!”
Lartigue’s early vision – private memory as photographic subject – constitutes an authentic autobiographical diary of his family life in pre-WW1 France. His images are of an affectionate and happy family environment: parents, brother Zissou, grandfather Alfred (who was one of the inventors of the monorail system and also a playwright), uncles, aunts, cousins all handsome and well dressed. From the images we know that the Lartigues were well off socially – we are shown nannies, chauffeurs, loved pets.
As he became more familiar with his camera, Lartigue’s subjects and frames changed to reflect the moment: his subjects became car races in Auvergne, the bathers in Deauville and Biarritz, airplanes in Issy-les-Moulineaux and Buc, winter pastimes in Switzerland.
Grand Prix de l’ACF, Delage automobile, Dieppe Circuit 26 June 1912
In 1915 Lartique attended the Académie Jullian to study painting, which would become his lifelong profession. Photography, however, remained his great love. The expressive knowledge he learned via painting – but also his use of the various cameras over the years, in particular their technical limits – were the means he used to create his unique photographic style. Lartigue’s vision is of the Belle Époque, the bliss of happiness of French life before the First World War, an era also characterized by the Impressionists who painted in parallel with the innovation of the photographic medium. It was an aesthetic that gave a privileged view of bourgeois life in France in the early 1900s.
Véra et Arlette, Cannes, May 1927
It was only in the 1960s, when he was almost 70, that his larger photographic archive became known to the general public via an exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1963 entitled “The Photographs of Jacque Henri Lartigue” curated by John Szarkowski, director of the Museum’s Department of Photography. Lartigue was “discovered” as if he were a child who had miraculously captured a passing world while documenting the beginnings of the new. It wasn’t a large show, 45 early photographs from the very beginning of Lartigue’s career, now iconic. Szarkowski described Lartigue’s photography as “the precursor of every interesting and lively creation made during the twentieth century”. Richard Avedon, after viewing Lartigue’s work at the MoMA in 1963 wrote to him that “It was one of the most moving and powerful experiences of my life. They are photographs that echo. I will never forget them. Seeing them was for me like reading Proust for the first time ”.
Lartigue remained no mere naive kid with a camera. If the 1963 MoMA photos are beautiful evocations of a lost world, the photographs that Lartigue took in the six decades of his working life constitute his enduring legacy. Kevin Moore’s monograph, Jacques Henri Lartigue: The Invention of an Artist (2004), argues for the sophistication and enduring quality of Lartigue’s mature work. According to Moore, Lartigue, with his ability to freeze the enduring moment in time, made the snapshot a work of art. That he did is a measure of his enduring worth as a photographer.
In 1974, French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing commissioned Lartigue to produce his official portrait. In 1975 the Muséè des arts Décoratifs in Paris presented a large review of his photography, ‘Lartigue 8 x 80’, and in 1980 the Grand Palais in Paris exhibited a retrospective entitled ‘Bonjour Monsieur Lartigue‘ .
In 1979 Lartigue donated his entire work – negatives, original albums, diaries, cameras – to the French government which established the Association des Amis de Jacques Henri Lartigue, today called Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue, with the supervision of the Ministry of Culture. The function of the Donation is to promote Lartigue’s work.
Jacques-Henri Lartigue continued to photograph, paint and write until his death in September 1986, at the age of 92. He left over 100,000 photographs, 7,000 diary pages and 1,500 paintings.
Leica M240, 7Artisans 50mm f/1.1
I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for Nik’s Silver Efex software. While Nik is long gone, having apparently been bought out by Google, their Silver Efex software lives on. It’s my go-to choice for converting digital DNG files to B&W ‘film’ capture; in addition to adding characteristic grain of a specific B&W emulsion, it overlays the film’s exposure curve to re-create the tonalities of the film capture. Is it perfect? No. As I’ve attempted to explain elsewhere, the fact that you’re starting with the linear exposure curve of a DNG file as opposed to a native film file with the exposure curve ‘baked in’ makes perfect emulation impossible. But it’s close, and most folks are easily fooled.
Below are the various emulations of the digital file above. There’s been no tweaking the files at all except to load them into Silver Efex and choose the film emulation. You can click on them and open them in a new window for larger jpegs. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see the various looks of the different Kodak film stocks, which I think Nik did a great job of simulating. My preferences: Plus-X for a clean tonality, TMAX 3200 for a grittier look. As for Tri-X, I never much liked it, preferring instead the better tonality and decreased contrast of Ilford HP5. Of course, Silver Efex gives you the option of tweaking grain and tonality after you’ve loaded the film emulation preset, but then you’re not emulating a given film but modifying it as you might do with various developing choices, and that’s a rabbit hole I’m incapable of going down.
Panatomic – X, ISO 32
TMAX 100, ISO 100
Plus-X, ISO 125
TMAX 400, ISO 400
Tri-X, ISO 400
TMAX 3200, ISO 3200
“When it comes to organizing the world into a picture, the photographer has little to go on…[his] only constraining form is his frame. Inside those four edges there are no structural traditions, only space.” — Ben Lifson
Robert Capa famously said that if your pictures weren’t good enough you weren’t close enough. I always thought that was wrong. Sometimes you can miss a picture by being too close.
Aesthetics is a question of where you place the frame. As psychologist Rudolf Arheim notes, the visual world surrounds us as an unbroken space, subdivided conceptually but without limits. Photography is the practice of isolating a portion of that whole, always with the understanding that the world continues beyond the frame’s borders. Part of what gives a photo meaning is the larger context within which it resides; sometimes that context is implied, sometimes it’s expressly pictured. Sometimes the subject is found within the frame while its context lies out of frame. Other times the photo is the dynamic of context and form within the frame; for this you need distance. Robert Capa would be an example of the former; Henri Cartier-Bresson would be an example of the latter. There’s room for both in photo aesthetics.
I say all of this because I’ve been admiring the photography of Erik van Straten, a Dutch amateur photographer [‘amateur’ in the sense that he doesn’t photograph for profit] whose work you’ll find in various corners of the net. If anything, his photography is a rejoinder to the cliche of getting close. His work possesses a dynamic power precisely because he’s chosen to stand back when necessary. For van Straten, the key is not getting near, or sufficiently far, but “being the right distance.”
Erik van Straten was born in 1954 in Leiden, the Netherlands, and grew up in Amsterdam. In 1971 he was admitted to the photography department of the applied arts school in Amsterdam. While there he realized that professional photography didn’t interest him. Photographically, he went his own way while nurturing his own style.
He remains a dedicated film shooter and darkroom printer. He has never ‘transitioned’ to digital photography because a well-made gelatin silver print is simply more beautiful than any photo on a screen or from a digital printer. A traditionalist, he uses various film Leicas or a Nikon S2 with standard focal lengths of 50mm and 35mm. His preferred film is Tmax400, developed in Perceptol. He makes his prints with a Leitz Focomat IIc. The photos reproduced herein are scans of gelatin-silver prints he’s created in his darkroom. You can still see in them the beautiful gray tonalities and granular textures of the gelatin-silver process even when they’ve necessarily been scanned to be presented here.
Refreshing in this age of disembodied digital processes, van Straten’s photographs remain material documents in addition to being visual observations. They possess the tactile elements of paper and emulsion. They are physical things one centers in frames and hangs on walls. A traditionalist, van Straten considers this materiality a necessary feature of a photograph.
I find van Straten’s photos to be beautiful in a literal sense, and that isn’t a criticism but a compliment. There’s a fullness about them, an intuitive sense of space that creates a coherent whole. They’re mannered without devolving into mannerism; they are representational and yet self-referential, realistic while being stylistic. His photos are simultaneously portraits of the individual and the archetype, a blend of the specific and the universal. If they are stamped with van Straten’s psychological imprint, they also have a universal aspect, a mythic quality – what Arther Lubow calls a “trinocular vision,” a confluence of personal, objective, and mythic. They are allegories playing out in the moment, liminal zones in which the everyday touches something eternal.
What else, I should like to know, have art and artists ever done except to perceive the individual thing, isolate the object out of the welter of phenomena, elevate it, intensify it, inspire it and give it meaning?” —Thomas Mann
“Perfect camera tech creates the illusion of unmediated vision. That amazing picture that looks like it’s real? That’s a deception. This – sort of what it looked like, something like what I saw, something like what I felt – is the truth” — Jeff Sharlet, This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers
Buddy, Donna and Abby, Carolina Beach, Summer 2020
Stuck as I am at home, a function of Covid and Chemo, I’ve been reading a mind-numbing amount of internet arguments re: film vs. digital. Everyone has an opinion. I certainly do; much of this blog for the last 7 years has been dedicated to flogging that opinion at every available opportunity. My take: yes, there’s a ‘film look’ that differs from digital, and it’s ‘better.’ Film has an unmistakable heft to it, a solidity, that digital capture is incapable of reproducing however much you run the file through whatever emulation software you prefer. It has to do with 1) the non-linear vs. linear capture of film v. digital; 2) the organic grain structure of film and its function in capturing the image v. ‘grain’ superficially overlaid after the capture; and 3), to a lesser extent, the more “classic” rendition of film era optics v. the clinical perfection of highly corrected digital era optics. Or so we say.
FILM :Me, Jorge and Florence, Van Gogh House, Auvers sur Oise, 2014 Contax G2, HP5, D76
DIGITAL: Me in My Paris Flat, 2003, Nikon D2
So, I was thinking of all these issues as I printed the photo of my wife and the mutts above. Take my word for it – it’s a technically stunning print, wet or digital, a perfect B&W print…or at least I think so. (You can right-click on any of the three images here and ask that it be viewed in a new window..and it will bring up a higher resolution image that you can pixel-peep). Hopefully, the scan of it above gives ‘some’ sense of it as a print. Of course, given we are, by definition, debating this via a digital medium makes the whole issue suspect to begin with. But, as you know, half the fun is in debating these insoluble issues and holding firm opinions on them. So, putting that aside for a moment, and given that almost all photography is viewed digitally these days…can you tell whether this is film or digital capture? And if not, what are we arguing about anymore?
You have two options:
- It’s taken with a Leica M5, 25mm f4 Voigtlander, yellow filter, (expired) Ilford Pan-F rated at 50 ISO and developed in D76, scanned with a Plustek 7400, marginal contrast post-processing in Lightroom, output sharpening (low); or
- It’s taken with a Sigma sd Quattro, Sigma DC 17-50 2.8 EX HSM, effective focal length 25mm, ISO 125 DNG file pre-sharpened in Nik Sharpener, processed in Silver Efex Pro as a Pan-F emulation.
Can you tell the difference? Can you articulate why? What, if anything, gives it away? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Paolo Pellegrin’s Refugees from the village of Bajurbuk, near Bashiqa. Told by ISIS that they were to be moved to Mosul the following day, the village residents fled their homes in the middle of the night and took refuge behind Peshmerga lines. Iraq, 2016, © Paolo Pellegrin
I ran across this stunning photo in The Guardian the other day. It’s by Paolo Pellegrin, a member of the Magnum Photos agency and winner of ten World Press Photo awards. There’s something timeless about the photo, harkening back to the best photojournalism of the Leica era. What interests me is his choice of B&W, which is a conscious nod to the traditional mid-century photo journalist aesthetic even though he’s fully digital – he shoots with a Canon 5d with a limited selection of lenses. Unlike most zoom-happy digiphiles, Pellegrin restricts his use to 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm primes, which itself betrays his film era roots. He retains some misgivings about digital: “In general, I embrace digital photography as an evolution of the medium, but I dislike the ease with which it can be manipulated. When you deal with charged issues, like people in war, you need to be able to trust the photographer.”
Unfortunately, IMO, he hasn’t reached far back enough for the traditionalist nod. The photo, which I grabbed from his website and thus presumably is printed to his specifications, suffers from that ‘thin’ ‘brittle’ look of much of digital B&W ( Heidegger calls animal consciousness “world-poor” in contrast to human consciousness [he’s wrong]; I think of digital capture as “reality-poor” in contrast to film capture [I’m right]). It would be much better as a ‘film’ image I think, so I’ve taken the liberty of reconfiguring it to how I see it. You may or may not agree.
What’s instructive is how easy it is to convert an obvious digitally captured image to one that looks indistinguishable from something shot with an M4 and some Plus-X. That being the case, do we really need those old film cameras or is that just one more affectation the passage of time is proving wrong? More interestingly, is the “film” look itself now an anachronism, a ‘manipulation’ that Pellegrin thinks we shouldn’t trust? If so, are we now then, by default, stuck with world-poor digital rendering?
That’s Better (Apologies to Paolo Pellegrin)
“I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” Garry Winogrand
One of the things I appreciate about photography is that it gives you permission to look. Most of the time I don’t. I’m usually operating on auto-pilot, oblivious to anything around me except something that’s outside normal expectations. I suspect we all live this way, conserving our limited attention for when evolution had bred in us a need – fight/flight, sex, food. What about our aesthetic sense – which evolution has clearly prioritized as a basic human need? How might we indulge a sense of beauty? Does being a photographer assist in some way? I think it does.
Garry Winogrand was onto something when he decided to photograph things to see what they looked like when photographed. He was one of the first photographers to recognize the camera’s potential to make us see things. It both gives us permission to look and creates new visual realities, showing us things we otherwise wouldn’t see. The nice thing about the digital age is I now always carry a camera with me, which allows me to always be looking at things in terms of what they might look like photographed. Back in the film era, that really wasn’t possible, unless you were a lunatic like Winogrand who left behind 6500 unprocessed rolls of film at his death. Today, all you need is your iPhone and some attention. Winogrand would have gone nuts with an iphone.
Think of photography as a means to discover things, a way of saying “Look at what I saw!’ Often times (not always) it’s not so much a way of documenting what is but rather discovering new ways things might look if you leave yourself open to it. And because it’s about leaving yourself open to seeing how things might look, everything is opened up to you as a subject. An afternoon walk with the dogs and an iPhone can become an exercise in seeing things. This is a profound gift digital photography gives us. It turns a routine walk into an aesthetic experience…if we let it. That’s pretty cool.
All photos taken with an iPhone 8 and processed in camera with Snapseed