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A commentary on digital versus traditional methods in black and white and color photography.

Over the past few years there has been much discussion regarding comparisons of digital processes to traditional photographic techniques. I have read material promoting the benefits of digital manipulations and the resulting digital prints. These articles sometimes conclude that digital output (such as inkjet or photographic digital printers) is equal to or superior to the traditional silver gelatin photographic print.

For me, the black and white digital print lacks certain qualities that the traditional print possesses - an eloquence of tonal value, a certain "smoothness" in the rendition of details, and a richness to the deep values in general. I have seen innumerable digital prints, yet none have come close to the carefully printed traditional image. I think the main issue here is output. There are a number of methods for producing a good black and white print digitally. The print can be made on a high quality inkjet printer (such as the excellent Epson Stylus Photo printers), or can be output on a photographic digital printer (such as the "Lightjet"). Unfortunately, black and white inkjet prints are still in the infancy stage, and disturbing "color crossovers" are very apparent in the end product, unless special black and white inks are used. Digital photographic prints can be output at photographic labs, but they are normally printed on color RC-based photographic paper, and the outcome cannot compare to an original traditional print upon fairly close inspection. The only alternative that I can see here is using fiber base black & white paper in the digital printer, then developing the paper in traditional chemistry and toning to insure archival permanence and strengthening of values. The main drawback to this method is cost - it is most likely very difficult to find a lab that will output a digital file to fiber base black & white paper (let alone process it in the proper chemistry), and the cost of owning one's own digital photographic printer is extremely prohibitive.

Then there is the matter of fine control over local and overall contrast. While digital controls can approach (on the computer monitor at least) much of the contrast control that can be obtained with some masks, there are certain physical reasons why the degree of some masking effects cannot be matched by digital means. This is particularly true with the SCIM (Shadow Contrast Increase Mask) for reasons that would be difficult to explain in a commentary of this length.

It should be said, of course, that each medium or process has it's own unique set of characteristics and may indeed be particularly suited to certain types of images over others. However, the ease with which we can produce a digital image in some way "invalidates" a good part of the overall photographic experience, and can often show through in the end product. Ansel Adams eloquently stated: "I have often thought that if photography were difficult in the true sense of the term - meaning that the creation of a simple photograph would entail as much time and effort as the production of a good watercolor or etching - there would be a vast improvement in total output. The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster. We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it, and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium.”

As for color prints, as I've mentioned above, some of the newer inkjet printers are capable of amazing results, both in terms of color reproduction and archival qualities (although the question of archival permanence is still somewhat debated in some photographic circles). Photographer Christopher Burkett makes stunning images on traditional materials utilizing traditional film and an array of masking procedures to arrive at extraordinary prints that are as good as it gets in color. Aside from Burkett's traditional work, as of this writing (2005), the finest contemporary color work I've seen recently is a result of a combination of traditional and digital procedures. The extraordinary color prints of David Pettit, Bill LaBrie and others are made from original, traditional film transparencies. In Pettit and LaBrie's work, the transparency is scanned with a high-resolution drum scanner. The resulting digital files are optimized in Photoshop and printed digitally on type C color paper (usually Fuji's Crystal Archive paper). The results, if done properly, are astonishing. Using this process, traditional procedures are used in the photography phase and the output material. Digital procedures are used in the intermediate phases of scanning and file optimization. The only drawback I can find using this procedure is that once the file has been optimized (preferably by the photographer himself, or by the direct supervision of the photographer) the resulting prints from the digital printer (such as a Lightjet printer) will be virtually identical to one another, with no "artistic" variance from print to print.

At this current technology stage, I believe the strongest use for digital procedures in black and white photography is in scanning and outputting digital duplicate negatives (which also archives the image for longevity). Using this plan of action, the photographer can obtain a "fine-tuned" duplicate of his/her original negative, completely spotted and even burned and dodged appropriately. From this digital duplicate negative, the photographer can then use traditional printing methods (including masking for enhancement) when making the fine print. Photographers Dan Burkholder and Huntington Witherill are notable practitioners of making contact prints on traditional media from enlarged digital negatives.

Photographer Bruce Barnbaum eloquently sums up his view on traditional vs. digital black and white photography: "It’s wise to fully assess the benefits and liabilities of each approach before plunging into either one. But I must add one final thought in support of traditional methods: nothing has the radiance of a finely crafted silver print. Nothing."

Lynn Radeka - 2005

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