Monochrome Magic - part 1 of 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Published 01/10/2004


THE VERY FIRST ARTICLE I WROTE FOR THE (THEN) Society Photographer was on the subject of monochrome. That was more than 2 half years ago and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Sadly not all has been good and as the article was in preparation the descent of Ilford into administration was the hot news topic. Wet chemistry based monochrome has been under pressure from digital methods for some time but the artistic merits of single colour images remain as true as ever. The words of Craig McMaster in his recently published Elements eloquently sum it up:

"The removal of colour from a familiar scene instantly introduces and abstract quality to the image - if forces us to use our imagination"

So how have things moved since that first article 30 months ago? Well judging by our competition entries, monochrome has lost none of its appeal and it also features regularly in compiled wedding albums that we see around. The technology has moved on, as ever, and we include in this feature both digital and wet chemistry products, which are new.


The Technology

Photographers have always striven to create images that are marked out as different. At one end of the scale monochrome looks different amongst a sea of full colour. At the other end of the scale artists and image makers have set fire to their work during preparation, torn it, toned it, bleached it and painted on top of it all in the search for something different. All the while there has been a hardcore who have chased technical perfection through the use of large format cameras, slow film and painstaking processing, followed by archival printing and toning. It is to this latter level of achievement that digital monochrome is frequently compared. Currently we KNOW that wet monochrome prints can last for close on 150 years, for inkjet prints we are at best projecting lived from accelerated life testing. However, by most objective measures, inkjet prints can approach the technical quality of wet print and with more creative expression available because of more powerful dodge and burn facilities in Photoshop. Furthermore, for the limited edition print maker, there can be a higher level of consistency in digital printmaking - anybody wishing to challenge that should try and make two identical lith prints!

The Wet Route

We are frequently challenged about our leaning towards digital so we start with the latest non-digital technology - chromogenic film. Kodak Professional BW400CN is a nominally ISO 400 emulsion designed to be printed on standard C41 colour printers onto colour paper. For photographers wishing to match their mono and colour work within an album this is a boon as the surfaces and textures will exactly match. We had Loxley Colour send our negatives through their system. The results from the lab were impressive, as neutral as the most carefully bespoke profiled inkjet system. The neutral tone Lab co-ordinates were -0.06: -2.3 which mapped to within 1/10th of a point to the base white! The metamerism index was also incredibly low under all light conditions including fluorescent. It only rose above 1 for the real cheap and nasty fluorescent lights. For all practical purposes it could be considered nonexistent. In addition Loxley also provide a contact thumbnail and a CD with 18MB scans. This opens the possibility of using the scan to build montaged pages with any other digitised shots. We tested the film under bright overhead sunlight and the contrast was a little on the high side, in old-fashioned terms we would have used a ½ paper grade softer (not an option with a C41 process). Our thanks to Chris Kay of Loxley Colour who piloted this experimental film through their system; Loxley may be visited at

Options for Digital Monochrome

For digital, the process of creating the image falls into two categories, preparing the computer file and then making the print. A mixture of technologies is not precluded, Craig McMaster shoots large format film, scans and then outputs to Lyson papers using Epson Ultrachrome inks.

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1st Published 01/10/2004
last update 07/04/2022 09:14:22

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