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I've recently been studying black and white photographs to learn how to understand the qualities found in the kinds of photos by Weston, Bullock etc. I've been making a point of looking at prints in books and in galleries (most recently in New York), and one thing I have realised is just how limited the tonal range of these prints are, with the blacks a long way from black and often no whites at all.

This got me thinking about how we experience black and white images printed recently (using the latest technology) compared to how we experience images printed 60-70 years. It definitely feels to me like the majority of more modern prints have a higher tonal range and contrast and therefore a very different quality. Obviously there has been the move from analogue to digital, but I'm also interested in improvements in film prints. So how has the quality of black and white prints improved (particularly in terms of dynamic range)?

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    Just because those prints by the "masters" don't include very dark blacks or very bright whites doesn't mean either or both weren't potentially achievable at that time. It might mean they just choose the tonal range they used. It might also mean those prints have faded a bit over the past 8 decades since much of their definitive work was created. – Michael C Mar 19 '16 at 22:19
  • @MichaelClarke That was the first thing I thought as this would potentially explain the lack of tonal range in both contemporaneous prints and in books (using copies of prints that had already degraded). I read the second edition of Adams's The Print yesterday and he clearly states that a good print should contain the full tonal range (from white to black). Obviously he doesn't speak for all photographers and you are correct that not every photographer intended to use the full range for every print. – Undistraction Mar 20 '16 at 8:46
  • @MichaelClarke However having kept a close eye out for it over the last few months, I'm convinced there is a quality to those earlier prints that is just so different from many modern prints. Perhaps it is something perceptual that isn't a result of a lack of tonal range. – Undistraction Mar 20 '16 at 8:48
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For Weston, Bullock, Adams, et al the "full range" of which Adams spoke when he said that "...a good print should contain the full tonal range..." (from white to black) was (and to a lesser degree still is) more limited by the ability of available printing papers at the time to reflect light at various tonal values when compared to the fuller tonal range available using CRT or LCD light emitting displays. A print can only be as good as the light it is reflecting. A monitor produces its own light.

Beyond that, I'm not sure Adams included only the darkest blacks and brightest whites in what he meant by "...full tonal range..." I'm fairly certain he meant one should use the entire range available, including all of those values in between the darkest black and the brightest white.

Printing papers have gotten better. The "competition" from light emitting displays has probably spurred a lot of the improvements. But beyond that I think current photographers are exploiting the full tonal range in a different way than in the previous century. The expectation now seems to be that such prints will be displayed under more meticulously controlled lighting that allows the full range of the paper's tonal range to be perceived by the viewer.

In the past I think there was more allowance for differing viewing conditions when producing prints for public consumption. This would especially be the case for reproductions, such as those seen in art books. Even if the original print on very high quality paper had wider tonal range, the narrower tonal range of the paper used to print most books, even those using "art" grade paper, means the reproduction lacked the fuller range of the original. Looking at Adams' work in books in no way compares to seeing it with your own eyes. The differences are profound.

The idea really isn't all that strange to our modern thinking. Photos mass distributed where they are most likely to be viewed on the screens of smartphones, tablets, and lower end monitors usually are edited with such usage in mind. Compare such photos to photos displayed via screens in which the producer of the art either has total control of the display device or at the very least can be assured the devices used to display the work will meet strident standards of uniformity and overall total gamut.

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Photographers like Weston used to look for wider tonal range. They would intentionally adjust exposure and developing time to get more tonalities and a creamy luminosity.

With film base (and paper), dynamic and tonal range are manipulated by exposure, processing time, temperature, and developer strength.

I used to shoot with Panatomic-X and I don't recall an issue with dynamic range; however, the latitude is limited. We used it because it was extremely fine grain.

On the other hand, if we wanted to decrease tonal range we would push a fast film like Tri-X and cook it in a hot developer, then print on high contrast paper. This also gave a sharp, noticeable grain. This style was more popular during the 70's.

Perhaps the most unusual but usually overlooked characteristic of Weston prints is that they were printed on Platinum paper--hard to find these days.

The luminosity commented upon can only be appreciated fully in MOMA or similar museums.

Here is a link to an interesting discussion comparing dynamic and tonal ranges in digital and analog format.

  • Thanks. I'm not suggesting that photographers like Weston didn't want or suceed in using the full tonal range that was available to them at the time, but I'm interested in why many of the prints I have looked at from those days seem to lack the tonal range of modern prints. I'm interested in whether a modern digital photographer or indeed film photographer can achieve prints with a much larger tonal range (compared to Weston et al) due to changes in technology. – Undistraction Mar 20 '16 at 8:44
  • Here is an interesting discussion comparing tonal and dynamic range for Digital and Analog. normankoren.com/digital_tonality.html – Cascabel Mar 20 '16 at 16:01

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