Category Archives: Silver efex

Grain as a Digital Artifact

Film photographers never much cared about bokeh. The first time I think I even heard the word was when we were well into the digital era, probably on some internet forum,  where the hive mind argue vehemently, and endlessly, about some non-sensical brain-splitting, optical hair-splitting issue, the functional analogue of mediaeval theological debates about just how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. When it comes to bokeh, what everyone agrees is this: whatever lens you buy, it’s got to have beautiful bokeh. Not angry bokeh, or harsh bokeh, or clinical bokeh. Beautiful bokeh.

Bokeh is a digital phenomenon, a photographic meme that’s taken wing with the digital herd’s overriding obsession with optics. Or maybe, upon reflection, it isn’t so silly, but rather points up what I see as an inherent flaw in the nature of digital capture – the sort of transparent, ultra-lucidity of digital files, their noiseless purity that just looks….false. I can best describe it as a certain lack of presence, a sterility in continuous digital tones, obvious in how digital capture renders clear blue skies, skies that film renders, even when blank, with a certain heft and fullness. Digital renders skies thin and transparent, lifeless in their plastic perfection.

And I think this might be why we are now obsessed with bokeh: it’s this sterility in the very nature of digital capture that has brought to the fore our obsession with ways of masking it.

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The Woman I Love on our Wedding Day. Nice Bokeh? I’m not sure exactly what ‘nice’ bokeh looks like.

Narrow depth of field and subsequent emphasis on bokeh is a function of photography as a process.  It’s not an organic offshoot of the human experience of seeing, but rather a photographic artifact, a result of the process of capture itself. It’s certainly not replicating a natural way of seeing. It’s what philosophers refer to as a “construct,” produced by the characteristics of photographic optics.

But so is grain. We don’t see grain. Grain is a traditional artifact of the film process. Grain gives that patina of distance, the step back from the real that helps us see the obvious – photographs aren’t transparent windows onto what is “out there”, they’re opaque at best, more a mirror turned back on the photographer than the view out if a window looking out.

I’m not advocating  the position that an emphasis on bokeh (or grain) is somehow a violation of photography as a transcription of really. The underlying premise of that claim would be that there is one true way to recreate something photographically that corresponds to what is actually there, and the photographic effect we call bokeh is a perversion of that transcription. Of course, that notion is nonsense, based on the premise that photographs do, or even can, accurately transcribe reality.

The idea that photos accurately transcribe reality is a “common sense” opinion the average person holds about the basic integrity of the photograph as a reflection of what is “out there.” But it’s wrong. Some cultural philistine once sought out Picasso while he was resident in Paris. The guy wanted to tell Picasso he wasn’t a good painter because his portraits didn’t “look like” the people he was painting. Picasso asked him what he meant by “what people look like,” to which the philistine pulled a small B&W photo of his wife from his pocket, to which Picasso replied “so, your wife is very small, completely flat, and has no color?”

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What Makes this Photo? Bokeh…or Grain? Or Both?

So, bokeh is an artifice, added by the process itself, not inherent in how a scene represents itself to human vision. But so is grain. Bokeh is a relatively new phenomenon, created by fast optics that easily express – some would say overemphasize – it. Grain is produced by the silver halide process itself. Different processes, different effects.

There was a time, in the pre-digital age, when photographers tried to minimize grain, seeing it as a flaw in the process, or, at least, accepted it as the cost of shooting ‘high speed’ films in available. light. If you look at Robert Frank’s American photos they’re grainy, not, I suspect, because he meant them to be that way but rather because it was a necessary effect of getting the shot at all. Of course, if you shot extremely slow films like Panatomic-X or Pan-F, you could largely avoid it up to a certain point, but the slow ISO of those films made the trade-off difficult. Hence, the ‘grain-less’ C41 films like Ilford’s XP2 Super. Ilford actually manufactured two “chromogenic” C-41 compatible black-and-white films, their own XP2 Super and Fuji’s Neopan 400CN.  Kodak produced a similar film, BW400CN. 

These films worked like color C-41 film; development caused dyes to form in the emulsion. Their structure, however, is different. Although they may have multiple layers, all are sensitive to all colors of light, and are designed to produce a black dye. The result is a black-and white image with no silver halide grain particles.

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Grain. It’s a necessary part of this image.

As a film photographer, I prefer some grain in my images. Certainly, now more so in the digital era when digital capture makes the ‘grainless’ look normal. I love the grainy look of Robert Frank in London/Wales, Valencia and The Americans. But I don’t think he was thinking of graininess when he photographed. He was just trying to get a workable negative. It’s ironic, then, that that heavy graininess has become so associated as an integral part of the work once digital capture came along. This emphasis on grain – which I’m prone to – is something I developed in the digital era. Grain gives me a way of giving a certain heft to the image; it’s why I typically shoot film above its box speed and develop in speed-enhancing developer like Diafine. I didn’t do that back in the day. I do it now because I think it’s what differentiates the film look from the digital look. It’s also why I run all my digital files through Silver Efex to, at a minimum, add grain structure to an otherwise ‘flat’ digital file. In this sense, grain has become as much a function of digital capture as has the emphasis on bokeh.

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Leica M9 Mono vs. Sigma sd Quattro B&W

I woke up this morning thinking I’d take my F5 and my monochrome and take some comparison photos to see what the difference was in the look of real film, in this instance Fomaplan B&W, and a camera that claims to be able to effectively simulate analog capture. I took my Sigma Foveon sd Quattro along too just for the hell of it.

As usual, things didn’t go as planned. When I got home and loaded my Mono photos in LR I found them all grossly overexposed, unusable. Inquiry into the matter determined I had set exposure compensation to +3 and not -0.3 as I had thought. All shots wasted. It didn’t go any better with the F5. Turns out my ‘new’ (as in bought used on Ebay) bulk roller has a light leak, and that leak ruined the roll of Fomapan I shot and has ruined the entire 100 ft of film I’ve already loaded into cartridges, (a second roll shot quick confirmed my findings). So I’ve tossed the loader and 15 rolls of defective film. On the bright side, the Sigma sd quattro shots came out great. So, in order not to completely have wasted my day, I went back and reshot with the Mono at -0.3 exposure comp and figured I’d compare the Mono shots to the sd Quattro shots.

I shot the 18mg Mono at 400 ISO with 35mm VC 2.5 with yellow filter attached. I shot the 19.6mg Sigma at 100 ISO with a 24mm (36mm crop equivalent) Sigma 1.8 EX DG and added a yellow filter in post. Post processing was the same for both cameras – DNGs marginally adjusted in LR and then further work in Silver Efex where the Tri-X emulation was applied to both sets of files and some more marginal tweaking applied.

A Film v Mono comparison is going to have to await my purchase of a new bulk loader.

The Mono photos are borderless. The Sigma sd Quattro photos all have the thin black border. You can click on them to enlarge.

Sigma sd Quattro
Leica M9 Monochrom
Sigma sd Quattro
,Leica Monochrom
Sigma sd Quattro
Leica M9 Monochrom
Sigma sd Quattro
Leica M9 Monochrom
Sigma sd Quattro
Leica M9 Monochrom
Sigma sd Quattro
Leica M9 Monochrom

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Note that I chose to use the Quattro as opposed to the SD15 for the comparison. The SD15, while only 5mgs, is a ‘real’ Foveon while the sd Quattro has a slightly different sensor architecture wherein there are more blue sensors than the Red and Green layers beneath it. The SD15 has 3 stacked Red Green and Blue sensors with equal pixel count. B&W Tri-x files from the SD15 are outstanding and actually look like Tri-X. In retrospect, I wish I had used the SD15 instead of the sd Quattro. My initial conclusion is 1) the Monochrom produces kick-ass B&W files…but not looking much like classic Tri-X even when the Tri-X emulation is applied and 2) the sd Quattro also produces its own nice look (not much like Tri-X either) but not quite as good as Mono (or the SD15 files) run through the Tri-X emulations. Between the Mono and the sd Quattro, I prefer the Mono files; they appear slightly sharper and have a crispness to them I don’t see in the Sigma photos. That doesnt mean they look more like film output. I’m not sure either do. That’s probably a comparison between the SD15 and the F5 with Fomapan…and a Nikon d200 thrown in for good measure.

And, of course, none of this accounts for different shutter speeds and f-stops used by the two cameras nor the different time of day the photos were taken – the Quattro photos at about 10:30 AM, the Mono photos about 3 hours later, which essentially makes any valid comparisons worthless. The lesson to be learned? Who knows.

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The Leica Monochrom Conundrum

In 2012, Leica introduced the M9 Monochrom, a dedicated monochrome (B&W) camera, the first digital black and white camera in 35mm format. According to Leica, the Monochrom “builds on the rich tradition of analog black and white photography and brings authentic monochrome photography into the digital era.” With a full native resolution of 18 megapixels, the Monochrom easily bested similar megapixel color sensors; unlike Bayer sensors, the Monchrom sensor records the true luminance value of each pixel, delivering a “true” black and white image straight from the sensor. In addition, users could apply characteristic analog toning effects like sepia, cold or selenium toning directly from the camera; just save the image as a JPEG and select the desired toning effect, “no need for post-processing.”

The Original Leica M9 Monochrom with CCD sensor

Of course, few Monochrom owners are going to shoot jpegs. Most are going to shoot RAW files and post-process, and to that end, Leica gave original owners a free copy of Silver Efex when they purchased the camera: ” Purchase includes a plug-in version of Nik Silver Efex Pro™ software, considered to be the most powerful tool for the creation of high-quality digital black and white images. For pictures that perfectly replicate the look of analog exposures, Siver Efex Pro™ offers selective control of tonal values and contrast and an extensive collection of profiles for the simulation of black and white film types, grain structures, and much more.”

Which leads me to note the contradiction. Invariably, Leica users champion the uncompromising standards of the optics, while often simultaneously dumbing down their files post-production to give the look of a vintage Summarit and Tri-X pushed to 1600 ISO. As noted above, Leica themselves seem to have fallen for the confusion as well. They’ve marketed the MM (Monochrom) as an unsurpassed tool to produce the subtle tonal gradations of the best B&W, but then bundle it with Silver Efex Pro software to encourage users to recreate the grainy, contrasty look of 35mm Tri-X. 

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A Place I’ve been to a Time or Two Lately. Taken with the M9M, Processed in Silver Efex

Clearly, Leica claimed and marketed the Monochrom, not merely as a black and white digital camera but as a digital camera that could accurately recreate the black and white film aesthetic. The distinction may be fine, but it’s a distinction just the same, and I think it gets to the heart of what I see as a misconception about the Monochrom’s actual output. Don’t get me wrong: the Monochrom delivers stunning black and white files, super clean past 800 ISO, beautifully subtle tones, file sharpness rivaling Bayer sensors with twice the resolution. It’s just that its files don’t look like film capture, and as I’ve noted in previous posts about my Digital Tri-X solution, it doesn’t particularly take to Silver Efex emulations, where a cheap D200 or a 4 mp Sigma SD15 Foveon best it for emulating the film look.

An M9M file minus the Silver Efex Film Emulation with some minor grain added. ISO 800.
Me. M9M, ISO 800 out of camera file, no emulation.

Here’s a Monochrom file processed in Lightroom without further film emulation:

Here’s the same file run thru the Silver Efex Tri-X emulation:

Here’s a Nikon D200 10 MP RAW file run through the Silver Efex Tri-X Emulation:

Finally, here’s a 14MP (actually 4.6mp when calculated in the Bayer manner) Sigma Foveon file from an SD15 run through the Silver Efex Tri-X emulation:

Now, acknowledging that aesthetic preferences are precisely that, preferences, my analysis is as follows: 1) The straight Monochrom file is nice for what it is – a digital B&W photo. It avoids that plastic look too often seen with digital B&W files and it has a nice graduated tonality. 2) The Tri-X Monochrom file is nice, but it doesn’t look like Tri-X. Too sharp, not enough grain structure evident. 3) The D200 and the Sigma Sd15 files are digital Tri-X, although the D200 benefits just a bit from less sharp optics; the Sigma file, even though <5mp, shows a sharpness and depth I doubt you’d get on a classic Tri-X shot with a 35mm Summicron. Sharper optics, sharp sensor.

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Leica Q2 Monochrom

So, the question becomes, is the Monochrom worth it i.e. do we need a dedicated digital B&W sensor if our goal is, as per Leica ad copy ” to have a tool that combines state-of-the-art […] digital technologies to deliver black-and-white images of incomparable quality”? It certainly doesn’t hurt, but probably not. Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of the Monchrom and its output can be stunning when done correctly. And it feels and performs like a Leica M, which is no mean feat. It’s definitely a fascinating camera and I applaud Leica for sticking their collective necks out and producing them.

But if you’re buying it to give you a leg up on recreating the B&W film look of your photographic youth, you may want to look at much more cost effective solutions I’ve noted elsewhere. It’s not something that you can’t also do with a regular Bayer sensored digital camera if you take your time. The key seems to be using a Bayer CCD sensor in the 10-12 MP range like that found in the Nikon D200 or the Fuji S3 Pro. Other alternatives are the DP1/2/3, SD14 or SD15 Foveons whose functional MP counts are somewhere around 10MP as well. It seems that 10MP is the sweet spot for both taking advantage of Silver Efexs’ simulated Tri-X grain structure and giving a resolution look similar to that you used to get with you M4, Summicron and Tri-X shot at box speed. A CCD sensor seems to help too.

You can put together a D200 with a AF 24mm Nikkor or older Nikkor Zoom of your choice for $200. An SD15 is going to run you $550 with a really fine Sigma optic like the 24mm EX DG. A twelve year old CCD Monchrom is going to run you $3500-$4000. Is it worth the price differential? That’s not a question to ask Leicaphiles, as, with Veblen Goods, you don’t buy on price but rather other intangibles. But, for all its cache, you don’t need a Monchrom if you aspire to, in Leica’s words, “to transform analog black and white into digital.” A ratty old D200 or Fuji S3 PRO will do just fine.

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Silver Efex Tri-X Emulations: Nikon D200, Sigma SD15, and M9 CCD Monochrom

Nikon D200
Sigma SD15
M9 Monochrom

Above are three digital files that have been run through the Tri-X emulation in Silver Efex. They are RAW files from 1) a 10 MP D200; 2) a 4/14 MP Sigma SD15 Foveon; and 3) an 18 MP M9 CCD Monochrom. (Click to enlarge.)

IMO, The D200 is the closest to a Tri-X film negative. ( Read more here).

The 4 MP Sigma SD15 renders the best to my eye and can pass for carefully developed Tri-X (pulled at 200 maybe) although it looks less like Tri-X than does the D200; compare it to the 10 MP D200 file and you can see the clear superiority of the 4 MP Foveon sensor in terms of tonality and sharpness. It’s a stunning B&W rendering from such a modest MP sensor. IMO, it’s also preferable to the Monochrom’s output.

The Monochrome is the least like film Tri-X; blown highlights that you’d never see on a Tri-X negative (even though the RAW file was shot at -.3 EV), tonality and an odd clarity more like Panatomic-X than Tri-X. The Monochrom just doesn’t work well with Silver Efex emulations..

Winner for “The Tri-X Look:” The Nikon D200. Winner for the best look: The Sigma SD15.

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