The brightly lit buildings and empty spaces of the Foro Italico compound in Rome make one of the most celebrated masterworks of the Italian Rationalism, as well as the ideal subject to test the monochrome attitude of last generation's Fuji X-Trans sensor. As Fuji-related posts build up on this blog, I realize that my announced review of the X-T1 has already started, and will continue with further "chapters", each focused on a different aspect of the camera. PhotoGraphia readers could call it an "in-progress review". Of course, as far as the imaging pipeline is concerned, X-T1 and X100S are to be considered exactly the same.
For different reasons Fujifilm X cameras, like Leica and Sigma, play in a different league. They can be considered as "statement cameras", and in most cases their owners consider themselves as "aware" photographers -of course being good photographers is another kettle of fish-. No offence meant to other brands' buyers, we are speaking here of imaging tools that can not be bought by accident. At the most, people choose them out of snobbishness. So having in mind this kind of photographer, the effectiveness of the monochrome workflow is something worth focusing on.
Since black&white dedicated cameras like the Leica M Monochrom or the Phase One Achromatic make the ideal while unreachable (for most humans) tools in this respect, setting our camera's picture mode to monochrome, choosing perhaps a red filtering, is definitely a tempting option. All the more so if our camera is an X Fuji, thus capable of delivering mind blowing out-of-camera jpgs: set to b&w, filter in red, tweak low-light curve to dark, add a notch of contrast and you are done, right? Wrong.
Too good to be true. View your file 100% in your PC, and you will find that the marvellous blue sky you shot earlier in the day now shows the most irksome blotch artifacts, along with the inevitable white border randomly marking the edges of trees, roofs, antennas and lampposts. As I already described in a previous post, the X-Trans sensor doesn't perform the miracle, alas. Moreover, in out-of-camera monochrome jpg, the lowlight areas tend to be too blacked out, while the highlights show too steep a curve towards their maximum level. Of course such an ooc-mono-jpg could be good "enough" for the intended use sometimes, but people investing in gear like this are supposed to be a little picky, at least.
This is why I tried to fine-tune a reliable monochrome workflow for my X-T1 and X100S cameras. The aim of which is to obtain a tonally rich, low-contrast and flat file. Like we used to do during the film era, when a dumb and muddy black&white negative was considered as the ideal base for a good printing (editing) process. "Expose for the lowlights and develop for the highlights" was the rule of thumb at the days. Nothing much has changed. So here is my how-to list for the shooting part:
- Shoot raw+jpg (raw is a good parachute, just in case).
- Set Dynamic Range to "Auto". This involves going up to ISO 800 in daylight sometimes, but believe me, it's the only way to get smooth and less likely to be blown-out highlights. Plus, the X-Trans sensor gives you more than enough headroom as far as image noise is concerned, so don't worry.
- Set film simulation on "Negative Pro Standard", which ensures smoother color gradation (yes, you need good color to get good black&white). Forget all those crappy "Provia", "Velvia" and "Astia" presets. They are marketing's and not photographer's invention. A name reminescent of a great film doesn't necessarily make a good digital capture.
- Set white balance on "Auto": Fuji's is the best I have known in my entire digital photographer's life.
- Set color on "0".
- Set sharpness on "-1", in order to avoid or at least reduce the impact of the white border issue.
- Leave highlights and shadows on "0".
- Set noise reduction to "-1". Why give up the awesome X-Trans sensor's detail rendition when you can selectively take care of noise in post-processing, if needed? Have you ever tried to apply Noise Ninja or D-Fine to the smooth areas of a landscape (the sky, for instance), while leaving the crispness of the detailed areas (rocks, building, the sea surface) intact?
- Enjoy yourself.
As for editing, either you are an X-T1/X100S user or not, follow the steps listed below (which are a copy/paste from a previous post on the same matter):
- At home, open your file in your photo-editing application and tweak levels in order to get a full-range histogram, from far left to far right (a brightness-calibrated monitor is de rigueur).
- Launch Nik Silver Efex Pro plug-in and select the red or yellow color filter to begin with. You can also tweak filter's hue and/or intensity according to your needs.
- Second step: generously push the luminosity/midtones slider to the left. This will exceedingly darken your image: it's all right.
- Now try and recover highlights by alternatively pushing the dynamic-brightness or the white-enhancer cursor to the right (the former could cause halos around objects surrounded by a plain dark sky, while the latter could give too much contrast). This is when your photograph almost takes its final looks.
- Never use "structure" sliders on the whole image: this will spoil your job with fake-sharpness borders and artifacts. At most, sharpen your image locally (see next step).
- Use Nik's control-point technology to brighten/darken/contrast/uncontrast/sharpen/soften limited areas of your image: you can activate as many of them as you wish, and -believe me- the whole job is a breeze.
- If your composition needs a little visual help, maybe you would add some vignetting to it. You better postpone this enhancement and use your photo-editing application: Silver Efex does a lousy vignetting job.
- And now the final step. Go to the toning options and select a hue value of 30° with a 20% of "silver tone". This is the way I always warm up my black&white tone a little bit, in order to be sure that the CMYK printing conversion will remain on the warm side (I hate random blueish tones in my printed photographs). Of course cold-tone lovers can pick their tone values accordingly.
- Back to the photo-editing application, check the histogram: sometimes the highlight slider needs a little adjustment.
- The final touch, if needed, is a smooth curve tweaking, in order to get exactly the brightness and density your photograph deserves.
- Proudly post/print your photograph and be happy.
My in-progress Fuji X-T1 review will continue in the next few days, so stay tuned.