I began serious photography in the 1960‘s shooting Kodak 35mm Black & White Tri-X film while working for my University’s Newspaper and Year Book. That was the first and only time I worked as a “professional” photographer. Now I am a serious amateur photographer who might be considered crazier than most. And why is that, you might ask? Read on.
Dedicated Black & White Cameras
Most digital cameras offered today have Bayer filters over the sensor making them color digital cameras. But what happens when the Bayer filter is absent? You are back to a Black and White (B&W) camera. Phase One (P1) calls it Achromatic and Leica calls it Monochrom. To me, they are essentially similar although the original Leica Monochrom (MM1) has around a 70% IR filter on its CCD 18MP Monochrome sensor and the current CMOS Monochrome is 24MP with a bit of a stronger IR filter. Both the Phase One CCD IQ260, a 60MP Achromatic digital back (DB) and the latest CMOS IQ3100 101MP Achromatic DB (ADB) have a clear glass filter, nothing more. I have either owned or used all four of the above B&W devices.
What is unique about the P1 Achromatic configuration is that not only is the Bayer filter absent, but also there is no normal IR cut filter either, simply a clear glass filter. So what does this do for image captures? Because each capture is pure in that data is not passed through color filters nor an IR cut filter, it has more resolution and produces a smooth area of tone where all pixels capture similar tones making for a smoother and cleaner range of tonal quality versus the same IQ3100 color sensor even when converted to a B&W image due to Bayer and IR filter distortions. By smoothing B&W tonality one has the ability to enlarge these images much more than the color IQ3100 equivalent because it captures extreme detail with fidelity per pixel. Even when using various filters on this ADB, there is no change in the densities that can tend to give us pixel degradation or posterization with color sensors due to interpolation of incoming light whereas the ADB requires no interpolation of data as each pixel captures reality, one-to-one and without distortion.
If you are expecting a technical article stop right here. I am not technical, except for shooting with a technical camera. I shoot what I like to shoot with and that generally means I use whatever camera produces images I like for a specific use and one that produces files I can render as prints.
I currently use the MM1 for street captures where midday shooting with a B&W camera is fantastic as you are simply looking to capture luminance values. Landscape photographers using a B&W camera can extend their shooting time between sunrises and sunsets to increase daily capture opportunities. The images from this camera have a special quality, depth and tonality I have found difficult to beat when converting Leica or Phase IQ3100 color images to B&W using either Lightroom, Photoshop or Capture One (C1) which I now use exclusively as a RAW converter. I attribute this to having no Bayer filter interpolation and no IR filtration at least in the case of the P1 ADB.
The best part of using a B&W digital camera is that you are not left with the smell of chemicals on your hands. That being said, the learning curve for perfecting B&W digital images can take considerable effort. At least it has for me since I only began digital photography in 2011 and began printing my own images in 2013. “Perfecting” images has a different meaning for most of us as it lies in the eye of the beholder. I most often like my images with perhaps deeper blacks than some might prefer and I must confess I like my images with strong contrast too. Is that my style? Perhaps, but nevertheless, that is what I like.
I decided to try the IQ260 after having used Leica Monochrom’s for some years and was yearning to capture pure B&W images while using my Alpa STC for landscape photography. I tested the IQ260 against my IQ3100 color model where I converted similar color images to B&W using C1. The color conversions showed me the way. Buy the IQ3100 Achromatic if I wanted great P1 B&W images with 101MP size. Sure I admit I’m a crazy photographer but aren’t we all?
I headed off to Ireland for two weeks shortly after the ADB arrived. Before heading out into SouthWest Ireland I put the ADB to good use in Limerick. My first few shots were not great as I found out I was underexposing too much after being worried about overexposing and forever losing my highlights based on my Leica experiences. When certain areas of the Exposure Warning Tool turned red, I dialed my exposures back to eliminate the red levels. Overexposed images actually show up as purple and not red on P1 backs allowing for greater use of the Dynamic Range by allowing red areas to remain. I found the light sensitivity of the Achromatic DB very high, in part due to its native 200 ISO versus my IQ3100 DB having a native 50 ISO, a 2 stop difference. This sensor is able to retain a lot more detail in the really dark shadows than other sensors when exposed properly and also holds more detail in the really bright highlights than other sensors typically would.
I was advised to use B+W 486 UV IR Cut filters for a start as this filter yields normal looking B&W images with the ADB. Since my favorite B&W filter on the Leica Monochrom is the B+W 040 Orange filter, using this filter on the ADB was going to be interesting to see how it captures images. Further, I wanted to see what combining the 486 and Orange filters on the C1 Achromatic DB would accomplish.
My Alpa Kit
If my images were not good and sharp it would be on my back as technical camera lenses are about the best made and are certainly up to the task. The beauty of my kit is that even with two DB’s it weighs just 9 pounds in an F-Stop Small Pro ICU containing one DB and lens attached to the ALPA STC, 2 more lenses, 3 lens hoods, and 2 extra batteries plus another 3-5 pounds in a less than full Small Shallow ICU containing the second DB, 10 CF cards, 15 filters, 4 extra batteries, magnified viewfinder, a small P&S camera, some Alpa adapters, an additional DB sensor cover plate, extra RRS Arca-Swiss plate, a small hex wrench, etc. These weights do not include my F-Stop backpack, tripod and head, battery chargers and other photographic goodies most of us seem to carry.
Combining the 101MP sensor with B&W captures can be stunning. Once understood, this system is very easy to use. Just set focus, composition, and exposure after deciding on filter choice. I will not get into tilt, shift, swing and the like while using the Scheimpflug technique.
I exclusively use Electronic Shutter (ES). As with all IQ3 P1 DB’s, one sets the tools you want to be displayed to the right side of the LCD and next to your image capture. Everything is clear and concise. I like my Histogram at the top and then prefer the Exposure Warning Tool under that where I can readily see areas that are over or underexposed and at the bottom, I have the Exposure Evaluation Toolset to EV. There are 3 tools visible at a glance with many more tools available with the swipe of a finger.
Camera data is set on the back of the ADB with ISO, exposure time, set the f-stop on the lens itself, enter f-stop for EXIF data and then remember to lock the lens in open position. I set a delay of the ES to 4 seconds just in case I stab the shutter icon on the LCD too hard and set White Balance to Daylight. Once you tap the shutter icon on the LCD one can see the delay timer countdown until exposure takes place. Most often I capture a black frame for noise reduction which is an option on the ADB. With the Alpa after the black frame is complete, I set it to get a beep indicating the ADB is ready for another capture.
One of the many interesting benefits of shooting the P1 B&W sensor design is it allows one to capture light beyond the visible light spectrum that we see. Under 400 nanometers you have Ultraviolet (UV) light. Then our visible spectrum starts with purple at a bit less than 400 nanometers up to red ending at just over 700 nanometers. Just beyond 700 nanometers begins the Infrared (IR) light spectrum. This specific ADB sensor is extremely sensitive to the visible, UV and IR light spectrums. So one has to decide which light spectrum you want to capture because capturing all those lightwave spectrums will result in blurry images since one cannot focus all 3 light spectrums simultaneously. This means that by employing certain filters on your lenses one can shoot IR images with this Achromatic DB because it sees into the IR spectrum. It is nice that one has choices with this ADB between using it as a standard B&W camera using the 486 filter or using it as a specialty IR camera with either a 092 IR 695 or 093 IR 830 filters. Many photographers convert their color cameras to IR cameras by removing the Bayer filter and inserting an IR filter over the sensor, leaving them with an IR camera only. In the case of the ADB, P1 decided to remove all filters in front of the sensor leaving it up to the photographer to decide which filter(s) to use in front of the lens for B&W or IR photography. Nice choice.
Images captured with the ADB show it is beginning to pick up light beyond our visible spectrum and this is evident while shooting things that emit IR light. For example, when viewing images of skin tones or foliage, grass & trees, they will be captured in brighter tones because this sensor can see into the IR spectrum of light. In order to tone down the brightness levels of these types of images, one can use a 486 IR cut filter which makes for a normal looking B&W image. More importantly, while the histogram indicates correct exposure, the mid tones shift so that one can optimize or shape captures to their own liking allowing for better optimization. This can be beneficial for portraiture, landscape, and architecture photography because it allows one to shape tones to their own liking.
With this DB and IR photography, one can use either the 093 IR 830 filter or the 092 IR 695 filter which makes for a hybrid type of capture yielding both visible light and IR light in the same image capture whereas the 093 captures IR light only since it cuts light waves below 830 nanometers where our visible spectrum lies. Images taken with the 092 filter yield a bit more contrast which is more to my liking probably because it lets through a bit of our visible light from 695 nanometers upwards combined with IR light waves. I am just learning what this DB can produce while using various IR filters.
Like most RAW images, the IQ3100 Achromatic images come out of this DB a bit flat and that is why post-production can be so important in making a good image, great. At times one might spend considerable time getting your image with this 15 stop DB as you want it, but P1 DB’s are built for that and it is why I use C1 software. As with all new cameras, there is a learning curve involved. Again, since I am new to digital anything, my learning curve tends to be very steep and long in duration.
Since this ADB captures light on a huge sized sensor versus red, green and blue channels for color cameras, I have seen its high ISO capabilities excel even up to ISO 12,800 with no nasty noise in even deep shadow areas.
I captured my B&W images in Ireland using only the 486 filter and I am extremely pleased with the results. After Ireland, I traveled to New Mexico and Colorado and since the Autumn foliage in late September of this year was not cooperating where we went, I often experimented with using the 093 IR 830 filter. This filter could cause hot spots due to the sensitivity of this sensor, but once tamed down I finally came to grips with using this filter and it was fun to experiment with captures and the results were often exciting to view.
One issue using technical camera lenses is they do not have red dots for IR focusing. Even though I was using Live View with that focusing method I was focusing using my visible spectrum and not the IR spectrum. Since one has to create a focus offset with each lens, sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not work as planned. At least with Live View, you can check your focus right after capture. Experimentation and adopting new focusing techniques is highly recommended and most often necessary while using IR filters.
Static composition with various filtration comparisons:
Many more comparisons and filter combinations are certainly possible not to mention infinite post processing maneuvers. In the interest of making all the filter example files look comparable, I reduced Exposure to eliminate overexposed sky, set Highlight Recovery to 100%, set Shadow Recovery to 65%, and set Levels to the “A” setting in Capture One. Many more adjustments are possible, but with the above settings, I tried to find an acceptable middle ground for all images without getting into Curves, Local Adjustments or other post-processing tools.