Is digital monochrome as good as film?
The short answer....Yes, especially when printed, but you need to know what you are doing with digital.
In June 2012, I was commissioned by Canon to help Sir Don McCullin take his first steps into digital capture. Don hadn't used a digital camera before and, like many professionals from a film background, he was keen to learn, but with a slightly sceptical side to him.
We were based for a week in the small town of Laurens in the Languedoc region of France. After spending each day shooting streets and landscapes, we would spend the evening processing images. Don's initial scepticism about digital disappeared the moment he saw the first print roll off the printer. "I could sell this print in a gallery" he exclaimed with a smile on his face.
It was amazing to witness Don's enthusiasm for those first digital prints I made for him. It somehow vindicated my own move from film to digital. I always knew that digital monochrome could be compared favourably to film. Ever since I picked up a digital camera, I've been obsessed with making film-like images. I grew up with film and spent 15 years of my career working with it. I like the convenience and cost effectiveness of digital, and the ability to shoot at high iso, but I've never liked the look of a clean digital file. Film hasn't changed much in 70 years. As a consequence, achieving the look of a film (analogue) image printed on a silver based paper has become, for me, the Holy Grail of digital photography.
The digital industry doesn't do anything to help. Each new camera model brings better noise reduction, higher ISO capabilities, and sharper images. These are things which appeal to those who shoot in colour, but for a black-and-white photographer where grain, contrast and texture are important, it makes achieving good prints harder.
Some cameras are better suited to monochrome than others, and when evaluating any new camera, the monochrome side is always tested first. At the time of writing, both myself and Sarah have settled on the cameras we feel give us the results we want. Sarah uses two Leica M9 cameras which were introduced over a decade ago. She likes the film-look of the CCD sensor. For many months, a small LUMIX DC-GX9 has been my choice of camera for street work. The quality of the sensor is perfect for creating soulful black-and-white prints. It's not a 'professional' camera, but it's a near-perfect black-and-white camera. That, for me, is the most important thing. Both the Leica and LUMIX files retain noise throughout the main ISO ranges we use. The mid-tones aren't smeared with noise reduction, and the files retain a lot of highlight detail and texture. When it comes to using DSLR cameras, I never shoot below 800 or 1600 ISO (depending on the camera) to deliberately degrade the file. In daylight, a ND filter is used to help with the aperture and shutter speed. A super clean, sharp image is the last thing I want. When it comes to processing, the techniques I learned from fifteen years of darkroom printing are used on everything. I don't make selections, or get involved with luminance masks, LAB channels or any of that geeky stuff. If I want an area to be lighter, I take an adjustment brush and make it lighter. I like to see the small areas of overspill from the brush. Any imperfection moves me closer to a silver print. I add grain. Lots of it, but not to the whole image, just to those parts which would see grain in a silver print. And when it comes to printing, I make tests strips, just as I did in the darkroom, and adjust brightness and contrast as necessary. I should mention the great success I've had in shooting black-and-white film, scanning the negatives, adjusting contrast in Photoshop and outputting to inkjet printers. The results are exceptional. Given unlimited client budgets or a lottery win, nothing would give me more pleasure than to walk around all day shooting rolls of film. It's the best of both worlds but reserved for those special occasions.