1.08.2022

How well does the Leica CL "do" black and white? And, how well does the TTArtisan's 50mm f1.2 handle black and white?



For many years I mostly shot and printed black and white film for my own "personal" work. That was back in the period of time when I owned a nice, well equipped darkroom. I used a Leica Focomat V35 enlarger for my 35mm enlargements and an Omega D5 enlarger for my medium format and large format negatives. I used Thomas Duplex sodium vapor safelights and also had a nice little sound system dedicated to the darkroom. I did not listen to jazz in the darkroom but had a huge collection of classic rock, mixed with traditional classical music. Your taste will vary.

I loved the isolation and quiet of the darkroom. Music when I wanted it, but mostly just the sound of water cascading through the print washer. It was a wonderfully meditative place. I regret that we mostly moved on from the chemical darkroom and into the "digital darkrooms" we now occupy. 

One of my biggest challenges in the transition from chemical imaging to digital imaging was getting black and white prints that I liked. Early digital cameras seemed to fight me at every step when it came to making good monochrome files. And the battles were even more bitter when it came to printing out images on paper. I guess my most successful adventure, pre-2010, in making black and white prints was when I dedicated an Epson 1280 printer to using all gray and black inks. The process was very hit and miss but I was able to make a number of prints that mimicked quite well what I was used to getting, easily, in the traditional darkroom. But keeping the print heads unclogged and the ink flowing was a huge burden of both time and money and eventually I despaired of ever being able to do what we had done, after years and years of practice, with film and paper. 

At some point computer monitors (and calibration) got a lot better and we practitioners got a lot better at using print profiles and tweaking the looks of our digital files in PhotoShop so they would print in a way that was much closer to what we were used to. In many cases, even just right

The final hurdle, at least for me, was trying to get the camera files as close as possible to my memory of what black and white should look like when it comes squirting out of a camera. I suppose that if I were a full time printer instead of a photographer I would have been able to master the conversion from color files to monochrome files with more panache but then I would be sacrificing the time spent shooting for time sitting on my ass, nursing software, and tut-tutting over what the test prints might show me. Not a good trade off for someone who prefers constant movement. 

The big move forward for me came when I started using Fuji cameras and, by extension, their Jpeg film emulation settings. That convinced me that we could do some really competent black and white work with those cameras. When I bought some Leica cameras last year I was a bit underwhelmed at the menu choices (sparse) for black and white. I have come to realize that simplicity can coincide with getting the right files at the time of photographing. I've come to the conclusion that, for me, all black and white files from digital cameras require more contrast and more sharpness. With raw files I can make formulas in PhotoShop that, when tweaked for subject matter, can be really good. But I like to "see" what I'm shooting in camera and so I've spent trial and error time getting the files in my cameras as close as I can, and then shooting mostly in Jpeg. 

The original Leica SL camera is the most rudimentary when it comes to file customization. In each of the available parameters you basically have a limited range of adjustment. You first choose "monochrome" under the Saturation sub-menu from the parameters. Then you have three other choices: Noise reduction. Sharpness. Contrast. I set noise reduction to the lowest setting possible. I set sharpness to medium or medium high. The more detailed the scene the higher I like the sharpness. I set the contrast to medium high nearly all the time. Unless the day is overcast and then I choose "high." The gradations in the Leica SL aren't as dramatic as their descriptions might imply. High contrast isn't that much more intense than medium high. And medium high is just a few steps above medium. You might set the medium high contrast and still need to add some mid-tone punch in post processing...

The only setting I occasionally think I've overdone is when I use high sharpening. Most of the time I'd be better off setting that parameter to "medium" and then seasoning to taste in PhotoShop. In fact, when leaving the setting at medium I get better results by ignoring the sharpening menu in P.S. and using the clarity slider instead. It's more in line with the way I see files. 

My work flow is a little bit different with the newer cameras. Both the SL2 and the CL have settings for HC Monochrome or High Contrast Monochrome. I know from looking that Leica is doing some color filtering within the files to make them closer to the way panchromatic film worked with daylight and colors. So lately I've been using the SL2 and the CL in the HC Monochrome mode more and more when I know I want to make in-camera black and white files. I try to hew to a moderate course of action with the sharpening and contrast setting with the CL and the SL2 and then add more intensity in post processing. 

Lately, I seem to have found sweet spot for the way I like to see images. I'm shooting in a way that gives me a long range of tones but tends to preserve the highlights, sometimes at the expense of shadows. I like the way the highlights look without any more intervention but usually use the shadow slider in Lightroom or PhotoShop to bring up the shadow detail. I back off when noise starts to become intrusive. But not by much. In black and white images both noise and some blocked (contrasty) shadows seems very natural to me and I don't fear it. I was never a big fan of Tech Pan film or gently processed Panatomic X. More of a Agfapan and Rodinal kind of guy. Or, at my best, a Tri-X plus D76 1:1 aficionado. 

One final characteristic of my current way of working that interests me is the way older lenses (and some new cheap ones) seem to work better in making black and white images than some of the more advanced and higher performance, newer generation lenses. I'm presuming that the older designs have less contrast and bite in the shadows; in fact, they allow a certain amount of flare into the shadows, and this "lifts" the darker tones up in value. Not as accurate, perhaps, but in this instance more pleasing to those who worked in traditional, film monochrome. 

In particular I am impressed with the way the $98 TTArtisan 50mm f1.2 renders black and white files, like the ones here. There seems to be good and snappy tonality in the highlights but a "kinder" representation of lower tonal values. In concert with the Leica CL the TTArtisan lens gives me a rendering that gets me very close to what I used to see when working with film and paper prints. It's nice. 

 

A convenient target on which to evaluate high ISO monochrome from the Leica CL. Shooting in Jpeg.
Also, I wanted a nice photo of my hat. 




It's a gray, but warmer Saturday here. Time to head outside and make some photos. Or just walk around and then get coffee. Either is correct.