Tag Archives: Technique

Black + White Magazine (UK) – American Connection



I’m very honored to have been profiled in Susan Burnstine’s column, American Connection, in the April 2016 issue of Black + White Photography Magazine (UK).  Black + White Photography is a high-quality international magazine published in the UK, focused, as it name implies, exclusively on black and white photography. It is available in the United States at Barnes and Noble, international magazine stands, and online.

I met Susan Burnstine last Fall at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego. Susan’s own black and white photography is hauntingly beautiful, and created with hand-crafted film cameras and lenses made out of “plastic, vintage camera parts, and random household objects, with single-element lenses molded from plastic and rubber.” While quite different from my own work, I find it beautiful and intriguing, and presumably she saw something in my work interesting enough to write about as well.

The article can be seen here: Black + White Magazine – American Connection

(Courtesy of Black + White Photography Magazine (UK), April Issue, #188)


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Using Photoshop with Restraint

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” That’s an old saying, but it’s extremely relevant to manipulating digital images with Photoshop in today’s “digital darkrooms”.

Photoshop has become such a powerful and complex program that I doubt that anyone truly knows all its tricks. I would estimate, on the high end, that I might use 5% of its total capabilities.

Photoshop’s power can truly be a siren song, and it undoubtedly has played a major role in ruining many a good image (and many more bad ones). It’s human nature to want more saturation, more contrast, more clarity, more sharpness, and on and on.  It’s also now possible to make all these adjustments in truly complex and convoluted ways, all the way down to making changes on a pixel by pixel basis.

In my experience (in Photoshop and elsewhere in life), the more complicated things become, the more chances there are to screw them up. If I’m having trouble printing an image, the first thing I do is turn off all the adjustments I’ve done and go back to square one. Often, by simplifying things considerably, I end up where I really wanted to be in the first place.

I spent many years printing in a traditional darkroom, and follow the same basic approach when I print digitally. While the tools are different, the primary goal in black and white printing remains the same: taking the tonalities that existed in the original scene and translating them into the desired values by the use of filtering, global and local contrast control, and dodging and burning (lightening and darkening certain areas of a print). A quote from Ansel Adams, as relayed by John Sexton, applies nicely: “dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made when establishing tonal relationships.”

As in a traditional darkroom, it seems best to build up to a final print gradually. A final print shouldn’t be produced in one step. Print it, evaluate it, think about it – the process takes time.  Come back to it additional times and start over if necessary. It’s an evolutionary process. As in the darkroom, once you go too far, it is often hard to go backwards to what might be a more subtle, more delicate, and more appropriate print.

My aim is to present a final image that shows no sign that it has been manipulated in any way. Although each image has been carefully processed and printed, and may have many layers of adjustments, my goal is to make those adjustments invisible.  I try very hard not to let Photoshop get in my way.

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Shades of Gray

Black and white digital printing has come a long way over the last decade or so.  In ancient times (in digital terms) – say the year 2000 – color inks were used, and they were notoriously bad at producing black and white prints.  The prints often had an unpleasant tint, were subject to color shifting or fading, had less-than-satisfactory detail, and suffered from “metamerism” – appearing differently under different lighting conditions.

To combat these issues, dedicated black and white software and inks were developed, most notably by Jon Cone at Cone Editions in Vermont.  The early inks were prone to clogging, but when they worked properly, the results were impressive.

Fast-forward to today, and you’ll find a host of off-the-shelf solutions: for example, the “Advanced Black and White” mode offered in some Epson printers, and a variety of dedicated black and white ink sets.

What do I currently use?  I print with a modified version of the hex-tone process developed by my friend Tom Mallonee at Owens Valley Imaging. Hex-tone uses six custom-blended carbon-pigment inks (black plus five shades of gray) to create exceptional digital black and white prints.  Using six black / gray inks provides smooth tonal gradations, and results in what is essentially a continuous tone print, even though it is produced digitally.  The printer is controlled by special software called a Raster Image Processor (RIP).  I use Quad Tone RIP developed by Roy Harrington (which despite its name can be used to control more than four inks).

Ink Colors Used in Digital Black and White Printing

I’ve replaced the eight original inks in my Epson printer with carbon-pigment inks: black, plus seven different shades and tones of gray.  Using Quad Tone RIP, I’ve created two separate hex-tone profiles which control how the inks are put down on paper – one slightly warm and one slightly cool in tone.  The warm and cool profiles can then be blended to further fine-tune each print.  The result is exceptional control and beautiful prints.

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Farewell to Film? (Part Two)

Let me preface this by saying that film is not dead.  This is a personal farewell, based on my own preferences and ways of working.  There are still many photographers who use film – more power to them – and film actually seems to be gaining popularity in some circles, probably as a reaction to the pervasiveness of digital photography.

In my own work – which now involves digital printing rather than traditional optical printing – digital capture just makes more sense.  Now that I have enough experience to prove to myself that the final prints I produce that start with a digital capture equal or exceed the prints I produce that start with a film image, I can make the choice based on other reasons.

One is the availability of materials in the analog world, which is on the decline.  The film I relied on for many years (Kodak TMAX in 4×5-inch ReadyLoad packets) is no longer available.  While there are other options, none offer the light weight, portability, and freedom from dust spots (large sheets of film have a tendency to attract dust when handled in normal environments) offered by that solution.  Film images also require development, and in my case high quality scanning, prior to printing – two additional steps (and expenses) when the result is going to be a digital print.

What do I miss most about film so far?  Two things.  One: the sense of anticipation (and sometimes suspense) when looking at film images for the first time – after all, it can be days or weeks until you see what you’ve captured on film.  And two: the smell of a freshly-opened canister or packet of film.

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Farewell to Film?

Black and White Landscape Photograph

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly, 2011 © Jim Banks

2011 marked a major transition for me.  It was the first year (at least since I could walk) in which I failed to expose a single roll (or sheet) of film.  I made plenty of exposures, but in 2011, they were all digital.

I began using digital cameras for my commercial photography in 2000, but until last year, I always used film for my personal fine art photography.  This changed in 2011, when I acquired a used digital back (a 39-megapixel Phase One P45+) for my old medium-format Hasselblad camera.

Arguments abound in the film vs. digital debate, especially on the web.  There are loads of comparisons between medium format digital backs (which currently provide the highest quality digital captures available) and large format film (which provides the highest quality film images available).  Results are all over the place, suggesting that this comparison may be less straightforward than it might seem, and that the conclusions may be affected by the methodology, the subject matter, the conditions, the specific equipment being tested, and quite possibly, the bias of those doing the testing.

I’m quite happy with my own experience with medium-format digital so far.  Based on my methods of working in real world conditions, and a judgment based on final prints, which is what counts, I’m satisfied that medium-format digital capture equals or exceeds the results I was previously getting with 4×5 film.  Results may vary, of course.

As things currently stand, it looks like 2011 will mark the transition from film-based capture to digital capture for me.  I think viewers of my final prints will be hard pressed to tell the difference.  For the time being at least, it looks like it’s farewell to film for me, although I reserve the right to change my mind, which is as it should be.

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