Film & Digital B&W “Hybrid”; How To Get The Best Of Both Worlds

There is a substantial interest in black and white among photo enthusiasts, particularly if you include infrared. That's why Epson, Canon, and HP developed printers capable of reproducing good black and white prints. On the camera side of digital, however, there is only one quite high-end black and white possibility I currently know of--the MegaVision medium format digital E Series MonoChrome back. There are four different configurations of their E Series MonoChrome medium format digital back: from a 6 megapixel (24x36mm sensor array) to a 39 megapixel (36x48mm sensor array), ranging in price from $7000-$26,000, plus having a medium format body and lens system to use with the back ( So, how do you, in this digital age, make new black and white images affordably and without an often compromised conversion of an RGB digital image to gray scale?

In the Depression years of the 1930s it was rather common to build restaurants from old passenger rail cars, but today very few remain. This one is along US 101 close to the California coast and still remains, as a new freeway section left it stranded on the old highway. This subject typifies what black and white does best, providing sharp detail defining the shape and texture of a subject whose color has long faded away. This was achieved very effectively with the latest Kodak BW400CN film, scanned with the Plustek OpticFilm 7200i.
All Photos © 2008, David B. Brooks, All Rights Reserved

My exploration of this topic led me to be glad that I kept my 35mm film SLR camera bodies. True, I have only used the system lenses with D-SLR bodies for the last few years. But my motivation for getting my Canon EOS A2 out, putting a new battery in and loading it with film was thinking about the Plustek OpticFilm 7200i 35mm film scanner I reported on in the September 2007 issue of Shutterbug.

If you read the report, I found this very high-resolution scanner produced really fine quality image files from color negative film images. So, my thought process went, why not also from C-41 process chromogenic black and white films, like Ilford XP2 or Kodak Professional BW400CN? This project began with loading my 35mm SLR with fresh black and white film, easy to do as both the Ilford and Kodak emulsions are readily available.

For this project I took the opportunity to download and install the latest full Studio version of LaserSoft's SilverFast Ai 6.5 software to drive the scanner, replacing the SilverFast version supplied as the scanner's software. This upgrade provides all of the latest new features of SilverFast as well as LaserSoft's most refined set of tools. I found that the files produced from several dozen scans were, in fact, printer ready to output large, high-quality images in black and white. This SilverFast upgrade provides a greater range of capabilities with the Plustek OpticFilm 7200i scanner than reported on in my test in the September 2007 issue.

To have direct comparison images I photographed a couple of subjects I recently used for test purposes with my Canon EOS 5D. This is the remaining half of an MJB coffee advertisement painted many years ago on the side of a building facing north, thus always in shade. It is a curious subject but also one which tests the recording ability of fine detail in a very low-contrast original subject. One might as well shoot this building sign with black and white film because it is as neutral gray as you're likely to find, so it's also been valuable to test RGB digital capture for neutrality as well. But in this black and white film test it did establish for me the high level of sharp detail C-41 black and white film can record when scanned, even when the subject is very low in contrast.

Loading a camera with black and white film was a re-awakening of sorts. Even though I'd been out shooting just recently, having black and white film in a film camera turned a switch in my thinking about what subjects to look for. I had not thought for some time that photo visualization in black and white rather than color concentrates attention on different subject characteristics of light and dark, shape and texture, and pattern and details. You see very differently when color is eliminated. So off I went to "burn" some film after a very long time of shooting exclusively digital color.

After my field trips shooting with black and white chromogenic film I headed to the nearest pro color lab in Santa Barbara, and found when I dropped off the film for C-41 processing I could pick the sleeved rolls of film up in just three hours. Although there are two such labs in Santa Barbara, not all of you may have such services that are so convenient. In fact, living in a small town an hour away from Santa Barbara I could just as well have chosen one of the three minilabs in town, one in Wal-Mart and the others in chain drugstores, and obtained fast service and good, clean processing. While the availability of either Kodak or Ilford C-41 black and white film may not be easy to find locally, every one of the major online photo suppliers I queried, including B&H, Adorama, Calumet, and Freestyle Photographic Supplies, had the films in stock. You may also want to get even more "traditional" and try other options, including near infrared, like the recently rereleased Ilford 200SX or even the Rollei black and white films, including their own near infrared (near infrared will reproduce a close to true infrared rendition of subjects with a #87 filter).

Another of my local test subjects (for lens correction and distortion as well as depth of field), this skeletal frame of an old warehouse provided a higher contrast scene to evaluate just how finely scanned C-41 process black and white films will reproduce a subject. I would not hesitate to print the scan to 16x20" and expect every detail of the structure to be crisply defined, with fine grain in the areas of sky showing through the framework.

I was well up into the center of British Columbia, past noon, and road weary, so I stopped above one of the many lakes that fill the bottom of the mountain valleys. It was early fall and very hot for that latitude, so extremely hazy, accentuating the great distances of the landscape. I shot a few frames on Agfapan Pro 100. Ever since I have tried printing and reproducing this scene by every possible means, traditional and digital. The results were either too flat or too harsh, and with 4000dpi 35mm scanners the apparent grain was unacceptably strong, affecting mostly the distant mountains and sky. So, I gave the negative one more try with the Plustek OpticFilm 7200i and SilverFast Ai 6.5--finally I obtained a clean image with no exaggerated graininess anywhere, and a range of tones that represented this very unusual sight as I remembered it.