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What are the pros and cons of both platforms in context of black and white photography?

There are several rather subjective arguments out there (like "film has richer gray-tones") and they're welcome too if they're well-reasoned, but I'm mostly looking for "hard evidence".

Are we gaining or losing anything when we convert to RGBG and back? Filtering is easier in digital, sure, but is the outcome comparable?

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@jrista - I don't feel like it was correct to add the [subjective] tag here. –  Karel Aug 7 '10 at 19:18
    
I actually agree, and I've removed it. There were a lot of film vs. digital questions I was examining when I added it, and most of them seemed subjective. The topic of film vs. digital itself is fairly subjective. However, the answers given have been very good, and I think its a useful, helpful thread overall. –  jrista Aug 7 '10 at 20:05
    
It turned out a bit more subjective than my initial thought (I've been shooting digital through the color filters and trying to understand what are the effects of Bayer there lately), so I had very technical approach in mind. Well, I started too broad as usual, but at least I hope we have some important topics covered. –  Karel Aug 7 '10 at 20:21
    
In terms of answers so far, I think they have been pretty reasonable, and particularly practical. Answerers seem to have largely left any personal preference or religious dogma out of the arguments. Thats one of the things I like about this community, well rounded, level-headed, scientifically minded folks. :D –  jrista Aug 10 '10 at 23:53

7 Answers 7

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I think "film vs digital" is much too broad a basket here. Even limiting ourselves to 35mm equipment, there is an astonishing number of variables.

For instance: are we comparing prints1? Both digital and film admit a huge variety of printing techniques. Hybrid methods go in both directions, scanning negatives for digital printing is probably obvious, but perhaps less so is inkjet production of large-format negatives used in carbon or platinum-palladium printing. Even on the less-exotic side, traditional darkroom prints will vary with the developer and paper used, and there are a number of alternative inks that can be used for high-quality B&W inkjet prints instead of the manufacturer's standard ones (which have several varieties themselves).

Leaving aside those questions, the short answer is this: digital B&W can be perfectly comparable to traditional methods in terms of the results. Also, digital B&W has value in and of itself, not just in reference to traditional methods (and vice-versa, obviously).

Personally, in terms of results, I don't find what hard evidence there is to be very compelling, as even objective differences are subject to individual taste. Differences in process are more obvious, but even more subject to personal preference.

And even those preferences might change depending on the context. Digital is indisputably more immediate than film, but if you're buying a photo rather than taking a photo, does that matter in the same way? Similar for darkroom printing; is the extra effort rewarding, or drudgery? Does it add value to a work, or is it irrelevant? Different people will come up with different answers to all of these.

So, after all of that, here's a couple of examples of objective, hard evidence:

  • the red filter on the typical Bayer array doesn't allow you to reproduce the effect of deep-red filters on film2. In practice, you'll never know the difference.
  • if fine detail/resolution is the criteria that trumps all others for you, then 35mm film is probably still a good choice. But even dedicated film shooters (like me) balk at ISO 12 for regular use.

I think you can see how given all the other factors, the objective technical details sort of fade into the background.

1 Yes.

2 For which I've unfortunately lost my reference, which was several years old and may have changed in the mean time. Hopefully the larger point remains clear, but if anyone wants to look up the requisite transmission curves, that might be interesting to know.

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I agree that the question is hard to answer because it is so vague, and there are so many possible variables involved in process, materials, and tool choice. Here are some differences I noticed moving from the traditional BW darkroom to Photoshop.

Digital can be processed by inspection. Meaning I can see exactly what is happening to my image in real time on my calibrated monitor as I process. My eye and mind assess the image aspects, and I adjust to taste. Digital processing can be reversible. As long as I've used non-destructive processing techniques I can re-adjust or start over at any point whether it's because I've changed my mind or made a mistake.

Although a few darkroom wizards process by inspection, most film users do at least some of the processing by prediction. Meaning I have to plan the film development based on previous experience and knowledge to achieve the desired visual results, and I cannot see if I am achieving those results until I am finished processing. Methods such as the Zone System allow for quiet a bit of control, but it's sort of like the difference between understanding the physics behind throwing and catching a ball (the Zone System), and just throwing and catching a ball (assessing visual aspects with my eyeballs). Film development is not reversible. Once it is done I have to live with what I've got even if I've made a mistake or changed my mind. There is potential for adjustment in printing.

Both film and files can be easily damaged, destroyed, or lost. It is more difficult to make high quality reproductions of film negs/slides for archiving than copying digital files.

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+1 "Although a few darkroom wizards process by inspection, most film users do at least some of the processing by prediction." When I was learning photography, back in the "waste garbage cans of film to learn" era, we learned to predict, whether it was shooting color or B/W. Digital seems to encourage experimentation after the fact, in the digital editor, rather than in the camera, at least initially. People who truly "get" photography eventually seem to balance that out, then begin doing prediction again. Some never "get" it and only experiment in the editor. –  Greg Jan 13 '11 at 14:20

The one clear benefit of digital that I see is the ability to emulate color filters in software.

On the other side, many feel that film grain has a much more pleasing appearance when compared to digital ISO noise. Many black and white photos are taken in a way that accentuates the film grain, and while this might be possible to emulate with software, it is probably still easier with film.

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The most obvious, and most distinct, difference will be cost. BW film has been expensive to develop for years, but it's only going to get worse. However, I suspect you knew that.

At this point, I think the difference will be between how the light is captured. While an imaging sensor just captures photons, it's filtering mechanism is there to ensure that a given photosite captures one particular color and records the intensity of that. This is different from film which would be capturing light intensity, period.

So, net effect, there is some loss of information at any given photosite versus film which means that the tone of a black and white film capture would be more challenging to recreate. However, that doesn't mean that the outcome of digital is any worse, or better, than the film option.

Mind you, this is just me thinking through what would seem to be the essential difference.

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1  
Cost is more complicated than just "film costs money to develop," as it's a comparison between a high initial cost (DSLR) and low continuing cost (film). It also depends on how you measure, e.g., per-frame (digital wins), per-year (film, usually, given typical digital upgrade cycles), or per-picture-you-hang-on-your-wall (my favorite, but much more complicated). Anyway, upshot is that there's no reason that film is especially expensive in the context of a generally-expensive hobby. –  ex-ms Aug 5 '10 at 21:11
    
@matt Black and white film has been more expensive to develop than color for decades, so with film itself getting less common, that's a situation that will continue to worsen. Anyways, I didn't say it was especially expensive, that depends on the person, just that it is expensive and, if you already have the dSLR, then buying a film camera and film changes the cost discussion. –  John Cavan Aug 5 '10 at 23:13
    
@John as I said, it's more complicated than "BW film is expensive," because it doesn't have to be. Your argument strikes me as saying that digital is expensive because you have to pay someone to prep the photos for you. Of course you don't. You can also print well at home for less than professional labs cost. Film is no different: there are simple steps to take to keep it affordable; my costs are just under $3/roll. –  ex-ms Aug 6 '10 at 1:56
    
@Matt I've taken 14495 (actual exact number as of tonight) shots on my K20 which cost me about $800. If I use your $3 a roll figure, you would have spent around $1250 to develop the film for the same number of shots (assuming a roll of 36, it's nearly $1900 for rolls of 24). The incremental cost of film is a curve that gets worse as the shot total increases, not to mention that it takes substantially longer to develop film images versus digital, which is also a cost. Film has a distinct cost versus digital, be it time or money, or both. –  John Cavan Aug 6 '10 at 2:20
    
@John So if you just hold down the shutter on your digital camera, it makes film somehow more expensive? How many shots have you taken that are good enough to print? That's the interesting metric, because it eliminates the chaff that's viewed once and deleted (or archived). Naiively applying the working habits of digital is a weird idea; film and digital aren't the same, and don't need to be the same. You work any medium to it's strengths, and I've been working with film for years, perfectly happily and affordably. –  ex-ms Aug 6 '10 at 9:52

My $0.02: B&W on digital is just easier. No film to develop, immediate results, use any color filter you want, etc. I like using a film simulator (e.g. the iNDA plugin for Bibble) as it gives great results and it's very quick.

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I personally believe the Pros and Cons of each system are nearly the same in color as they are in B&W.

Some things are either a pro or con depending on how you slice your cake. For example:

With digital, your image is constrained to the limits of the CMOS sensor and the software that translates the sensor data into a meaningful image. The discretization of an "analog" light source does mean some amount of information is lost. Many people can not tell the difference between CD audio, and a vinyl record, but there are those who can.

In film, your image is constrained to the chemical reactions in the film itself.

I'd argue that the pros of one format are the cons of the other, so I will list only the pros of each.

Film:

Pros

  • Variety of film for different look and feel for images
  • You will end up with a hardcopy of each image. It's possible to have the images scanned, but lets just ignore that for now and assume you will have your film images developed
  • Full Frame for cheap. Get all the wideness from your lenses.
  • Typically shot with b&w film, so there is no conversion process

Digital:

Pros

  • B&W processing is much simpler using digital images and a computer
  • No need to have specialized B&W film
  • No need for color filters.
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It always depends on what you are comparing. There's lots of different films and film formats, and there's lots of different digital sensors. All have their pros and cons. What format are you looking for? What film speed/sensor sensitivity? ...

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