A simple question. Does it have a simple answer? Is there a single answer?
Digital photography has taken hold. It’s established. It has supplanted film for the most part.
In the (relative) earlier days of digital, there was a trend to try to replicate the look of certain colour films – Velvia being, I think, the most common. There were actions and recipes available for creating the ‘look’ of different film stocks. These were popular for a short while but eventually receded into the background – for the most part. People came to understand and realise that digital was different from film – for the most part. People came to embrace that fact and deal with digital capture on its own terms – for the most part.
For the most part? Yep. For the most part. One area where there still seems to be a desire to cling to the analogue world is with respect to black and white photography. There still seems to be a yearning on the part of a good many people to try to replicate the look of a favourite b&w film. There are still plugins, actions, recipes and so forth that attempt (some better than others) to replicate or emulate the look of different black and white films. Why?
This past winter, I decided that I probably was, truly, once and for all, done with film. I sold off my film inventory which included several hundred rolls of 35mm, medium format and large format. Colour and b&w. I had, over the years, accumulated a stock of b&w film that had some still much sought after emulsions: Tech Pan; APX25; Verichrome Pan and a few others no longer manufactured but still loved by enough people that I was able to make a very decent dollar selling them.
My black and white photography now comes through converting colour photos to black and white digitally. I was never very good in the darkroom so the quality of my b&w photography is much better now than it was in with film (that’s not saying a lot). I don’t want to emulate certain, old film stocks; however. And I don’t know that I understand the interest among many to do so. When I made the move to Nikon from Canon earlier this year, I made sure that the lenses I bought had manual aperture rings. This way, if I developed an overwhelming romantic urge to shoot in black and white again, I could pick up an old Nikon F of some variant or other, buy some b&w film and set about to shoot in black and white again. There’s still some terrific b&w film being produced. Plus-X, Tri-X, HP5, FP4, Fomapan, Efke, Neopan (notice I didn’t mention Delta or TMax in there :-o). Hell, you can even still find Scala! I can still get b&w film processed in Toronto if I don’t want to do it myself. There’s a lab in Toronto that rents darkroom space so I can make some of my own prints again if I want to. I know there are other labs in North America and elsewhere that will process b&w film. Not sure about darkroom rentals (there used to be a place in Atlanta, not sure if it still operates) but there are still labs that will do wet prints from negatives as well as scan to make laser exposed prints on traditional paper.
Black and white photography has a romanticism associated with it that, personally, I only partially understand. There’s nothing romantic about stained fingers, being cooped up in a small room with unpleasant smells, craning your neck to try and use a grain finder. If you want ‘the best of both worlds’ then there are places that will make wonderful traditional, silver gel prints from digital image files. But printers, inks and paper for digital printing of black and white photography have become so good that there really is no need to make traditional b&w prints from a technology/longevity standpoint.
Digital is different. Better? Worse? That’s not the issue and it’s not part of the debate; at least not this debate. It’s different. Embrace the difference with black & white the way it has been embraced with colour. Vive la différence! Most of the efforts on the market to emulate different b&w films aren’t hugely impressive. I’m not aware of any that would allow me to emulate Efke 25 in Acutol at 1:20 and 24 degrees or Tri-X in Perceptol at 1:3. I understand the desire to add grain to give a photo a more ‘traditional’ look. The problem here is that grain has a more ‘organic’ look than digital noise and none of the plugins or other attempts at recreating b&w film have that same ‘organic’ look – including Nik Silver Efex Pro, which many consider to be the Mac-Daddy of b&w conversion utilities. The new grain effect in Lightroom 3 is OK but not great. When it’s increased beyond just a small level, it begins to look like an overlay of grain/noise sitting on top of the image. The Nik software result is similar although to a lesser degree. The ‘grain’ doesn’t appear to be a part of the image. Not at all organic. Sorry but it does, at least to my eyes.
Digital is not film. Film is not digital. Embrace one or the other or both but I believe this is one instance where we can’t have our cake and eat it too; not should we want to.