What’s your tone?

Kodak TMax 100, 75mm, 1/250 sec, f/16, Mamiya 6MF

As I continue learning the nuances of B&W, both digital and film, I’m realizing I have a bias for the look of an image, a bias that is getting in the way of my expectations.  After looking at some scans with default settings versus manual settings, I’ve found my bias is toward lower contrast, more evenly toned images.  I didn’t notice this with digital because my exposures are pretty much that coming out of the camera but when I started scanning some higher contrast films, like TMax, and watched myself making changes to the scanner settings, I see how I’m pushing the tone curve together, eliminating the deep blacks and bright whites.

Why?

Don’t really have a clue.  All the experts in this field continually point out the value of some deep black and bright white in an image, something to give the viewer a frame of reference for the endpoints in the tonal range.  Seeing my bias now I realize why I keep getting frustrated at the “flatness” of my B&W images – there’s no wide range of tones and thus low contrast between dark and light areas.  Especially at edges, where depth is created with skillful control of the dark to light transition.  Perhaps my bias comes from using slide film for so long and trying hard to fit the exposure of a scene into the narrower dynamic range of transparencies.  At least I’ve recognized this aspect and can now take more effort to connect my artistic expectations with my technical application.

It appears my scanner is smarter than I am about this.  Perhaps I’m putting too much thought into trying to be more skillful than the machine.  A photographer I talked with today made the point we need to be skillful enough to get the most out of our tools – camera, lens, film, sensor, scanner, printer, etc. – before we seek more sophisticated (and expensive) ones in the belief they will magically improve our images.  Wise words.  I don’t believe I’m threatening the capabilities of my tools so there’s some road left for this part of my journey.

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