B&W- looking for the sharpest image

Discussion in 'Black and White' started by matan_levinson|1, Aug 7, 2003.

  1. what film/developer/paper combanation would you reccommand for
    achieving the sharpest b&w image?

    I know that the true path for sharpness is a larger format, but I use
    35mm and can't afford anything else.

    I do my own developing and printing, but due to a restricted budget I
    can't afford trying out everything and decide for myself. so I'll let
    you decide. regarding the film, it should be a 100-400 ISO film.

    thanks, matan.
  2. The sharpest image: TMax 100 in Rodinal 1+50 (yuck!), followed closely by Technical Pan, then Pan F in Ilfosol-S, and XP-2. There's more to photography than sharpness, though.
  3. Maco ORT25 is pretty damn sharp.

    IF you can scan your stuff, any film that runs through the DR5 process will be sharper that way, as a positive, than if you process it yourself to get a negative.

    Sharpness.. be sure to use a steady tripod, and some high acutance developer like TFX-2. FX-1 is good but I don't really like it as much as TFX-2, which is VERY flexible.
  4. If the sharpest B&W image is your top goal for the 35mm format I would choose a medium speed film like Agfa's APX 100 and develop it in FX 1. As to paper I would suggest that any you select will meet your needs in the sharpness category. But film and developer are just a part of the quest for sharpness. Do you have a mirror lock up? Many believe a prime single focal length lens will out sharp a zoom. How big and heavy is your tripod. How about your enlarger-is it properly aligned and what type of lens is mounted? How accurate are you focusing the enlarged image? Further, I disagree that the true path to sharpness is large format. Yes, if you want 20X24 prints a 4X5 negative will be "sharper" than from 35mm but if you limit your enlargements to 5X7 to say 8X10 the differences are very much smaller than you may have believed. Personally, I believe you should be more concerned with gradation and less with sharpness but that was not the question.
  5. Sharpness is relative because it's an imprecise term. The word is used as shorthand to describe all or some of these characteristics, in varying combinations: fine grain, high acutance, high resolution and snappy contrast.

    TMX (T-Max 100) has extremely fine grain, possibly the finest of any b&w film. It also has very high resolution (meaning it's capable of resolving fine detail). Some fault it for lacking "sharpness" which I interpret to mean acutance and, possibly, midrange contrast. This can be addressed by careful choice of developer. But it's not an easy film to work with.

    Agfa APX and Delta 100 are slightly grainier but appear sharper because of the more noticeable grain. To my eye Delta 100 is inherently contrastier, APX 100 a bit more moderate.

    FP4+ is grainier still yet gives the impression of very high sharpness. It also has snappier mid and upper tone contrast, which can actually sometimes be a problem. I find myself trying to tame the contrast in FP4+ rather than finding it useful. With the right exposure and developer it can be a very satisfying film for a variety of subjects and lighting conditions.

    But film, paper and developer? There's no single correct answer. Above all I'd strongly suggest trying one film, one developer and one paper at a time until you've thoroughly explored all the possibilities. Otherwise you'll be chasing your tail, not knowing what to thank or fault for your successes and failures. I'd suggest spending 3-6 months of regular work with one film, one developer and one paper before trying something else.

    Other factors, of course, include using a good sharp lens, avoiding either softness from maximum apertures or diffraction from the smallest apertures, a lens hood to minimize flare, a good quality filter or none at all, and a tripod.
  6. If you want sharp grain you need to use a high acutance developer like FX or
    Diafine or Rodinal. If you want extremely fine grain!!!! a divided developer like
    Divided D76 gives astounding results. Side by side comparisons are an eye
    opening experience! Agfa APX 100 or 400 are nice films that will give great
    results. Ilford's FP4+ and HP%+ yeild a different looking grain pattern but still
    pleasing... and then there is always Kodak and my favorite is Ektapan but that
    is only in 4x5.
  7. After thinking for a second... Neofine Blue is a stunning high acutance
    developer too that I really liked but I think you will have to mix that up yourself.
  8. Scott, I just received some Neofin Blau (hey, their spelling, not mine) along with an order of Efke film and Foma paper from JandC Photo. Looking forward to trying it. I feel like I've kinda hit a wall with my push processing experiments and am ready to go the other direction for a while. I'm a little tired of grainy negs, tho' it's an unavoidable consequence of my handheld, low light theatre photography.
  9. Sharpest conventional B/W film on the market is TechPan. Anybody who says differently needs to put the crack pipe away.

    In the 100 speed film range things get a bit more subjective because of the density range issue, but I still insist TMX 100 wins this race by raw LPM capability. Fuji Acros is next, followed by the rest. I'd certainly start with TMX 100 because of it's high availability.
  10. Want sharp images? Buy the best, heaviest, tripod you can afford and use it at all speeds. Lock the mirror up if you can to reduce vibration and use a cable release.

    Next thing, buy good glass. Stay away from the after-market lenses.

    In my Blad or 4x5, APX 100 developed in HC110 Dil B is magical. You might also want to try out FP4 with Pyro-Cat HD. Extremely sharp and good tonal range.

    But it has already been stated there is much more to photography than a sharp image. But it doesn't hurt either.
  11. Lex is right on the money: What you call sharp can be a lot of different things: resolution, contrast, acutance or even a certain grain quality. Problem is that you can't have all of it.

    For example TMX has the highest raw resolution in ANY speed film except TechPan, fine and fairly high overall contrast, but only so-so acutance in most middle-of the road developers. Together with it's unique tonality, TMX often looks blah and anything but sharp. That's why many people like to soup it in Rodinal to increase acutance, but you take a grain (and resolution probably) penalty.
    But prints from TX with more grain and less resolution can actually look sharper, partly due to it's different tonality. TechPan is the uncontested overall resolution and fine grain king and has/can have good contrast and if it weren't for 25 ISO or lower and high price I'd shoot it over TMX on many occasions.

    My point is, you have to decide first what you want (resolution, contrast, acutance or whatever), then ask for the film develper combo that does that.

    If you want to give a few things a try: TechPan in Technidol, TMX in T-Max Developer (or maybe Xtol), TMX in Rodinal, TX in Xtol and TX in Rodinal will give ideas about different kinds "sharp".
  12. Lots of good answers here. Just remember that if you optimize sharpness above all else, you may not have a practical combination that works for the stuff you want to shoot. Low film speed or restricted contrast range, for example. I went through a period of great unhappiness with the sharpness/acutance of TMX. Even though I could make incredibly high resolution images, they lacked something visually. Souped in Rodinal, the snap came back, but the grain penalty was too high. I finally settled on FP4+ and FX2, lowering the EI a bit for better shadow detail. It was like buying a whole new set of lenses! OTOH, your tastes may be different, and it isn't a combination that scans very well. The point of my ramble is that you have to optimize for the whole situation, and you're the only one who knows what that is. BTW, it isn't that expensive to go to a MF TLR or inexpensive 4x5, if you really want to.
  13. You can get a nice, clean and solid 4x5 with a lens & film holders for less than a middle of the road 35mm these days. If you want what it gives you, get it. You cannot get the same quality in 35mm. Just as with race engines, there is no substitute for cubic inches.(square inches on the film)
    The added bonus of having camera movements to control the image as you take it will be more than made up for in time savings in the darkroom & in not having to buy more computer crap to manipulate images that you couldn't get right in the camera at the time of shooting.
    The real bonus will be that the concerns of 'sharpness', grain & whatnot will pretty much go away as you see the tonal quality the larger negatives give.
  14. Dan.. You GO Bro!

    As the world drives relentlessly down the path of more and more digitalization, I leave my job every day as a robotics SW engineer and wander back into my guest house and fiddle with my old decrepid almost obsolete film cameras, relearning the secrets of ancient processes and techniques.

    As for those who point out that at 8x10 off a 4x5 negative is no sharper than a 35mm... the math don't support it.

    tim in san jose, wandering off to further investigate gum bichromate printing and bromoil processes
  15. Tim:

    My surprise (I don't disagree with the issue of sharpness) is that when viewing to 16x20's side by side, one from 35mm, one from 4x5, is that it was the tonality that I first noticed, then the sharpness.
  16. Andrew,

    I agree, the tonality shows first. But... The sharpness is a very close second in the amazment department. Looking at a well done 8x10 Azo contact (yes I know that's redundant) still gives me shivers from the clarity of the individual elements.

  17. I'm still far less impressed by differences in sharpness between film formats than by the differences in tonality.

    Earlier this year, when the Amon Carter displayed a large portion of its Eliot Porter collection, I got a chance to examine both contact prints and small enlargements (8x10) from his LF negs alongside 8x10's from his 35mm work (which he did during his trip to China).

    I saw very little difference in sharpness. Any difference I did see was due to camera blur - Porter was getting on in years by the time of his China trip and he was often handholding the camera.

    There was some visible difference in grain but a striking difference in the overall look. The contacts and small enlargements from his 4x5's were velvety.

    But a major difference in apparent sharpness? Nah.
  18. I agree with Lex. Having spent years printing with Focomat enlargers and fixed Nikon/Canon lenses I know what sharpness is all about, and to be fair, just how glorious large format is. Got one problem though with LF; I like to take pictures of things that actually move sometime.
  19. Ditto Bill, TMX in Rodinal. I rate it at 50 ASA and dev in Rodinal 1:50, 20 C, 7 minutes (for condenser head). But I actually prefer Ilford Delta 100 (also rated at 50 ASA). Delta 100 is inherently sharper but grain is slightly more evident in Rodinal. Agfa 100 has good tonality but grain is even more evident.
  20. I like Delta 100 better too - especially for high-contrast shots. The grain pattern appeals to me more than TMax. I've never rated it at ISO 50, but it's VERY sharp at ISO 100, even without a developer like Rodinal.
  21. Matan,

    You've been given lots of good advice. In your quest for ultimate sharpness, don't forget the importance of a really sharp enlarging lens on your properly aligned enlarger. You'll want those sharply etched fine grains to practically jump off the print.
  22. You want sharpness?
    Make sure you shoot with sharp lenses and use a good quality enlarger lens.
    T-Max 400 in Ilfosol S gets my vote for sharpness.
    With T-max 100 you get finer grain and a lot more detail and it is sharp, but you need a certain amount of grain for super sharpness. T-max in Ilfosol is still fairly fine grained but definition is razor sharp. Try it.
  23. Well if we are going for Max. sharpness, an grain isn't a consideration,(after buying a sharp enlarging lens, aligning lens /negative/ baseboard, and braceing everything to the wall) let not forget to print with a "point light source" enlarging head.
  24. I do have a point light source fitted to a Laborator 138 enlarger but never used it... any tips? Eduardo
  25. Matan —

    Lots of good information here, but I did want to add my 2¢. Looking at your previous postings to Photo.Net, I don't get the impression that you have a lot of B&W experience. If that is true, than what I have written below is for you.

    As others have indicated, if you pursue high sharpness you might also diminish other desirable attributes of the image - fine grain being one, smooth tonality being another. Also keep in mind that some film/developer combinations are inherently more finicky to use than others. TMX can be difficult to work with if you are not very careful in your metering - the highlights block up easily and can be difficult to print. TMX also is very demanding in temperature and agitation consistency - if you are inconsistent in either one, you will get inconsistent results.

    Likewise, by all reports Tech Pan can be a real bear to work with. It's very fine grained, true, but Tech Pan was originally deigned as a document copying film, where its *extremely* high contrast is not a problem (think two tones: black letters, white background). Special developers are required to tame Tech Pan's contrast.

    So, if you select a film and developer in the pursuit of the ultimate in sharpness, you might find yourself working with a film/developer combination that would challenge an experienced B&W worker, let alone someone new to B&W.

    My recommendation: Pick an 'old technology' film (FP4+, HP5+, Tri-X, the Agfa films, etc) and a standard developer like D76 1:1 for a while and see how they work for you. These are all pretty sharp films (obviously, the slower the film, the more resolution and better tonality you will get) but they are ones that are pretty easy to get good results with.

    Once you have a few months experience with this film/developer combination, you will have a better idea of where you want to go next. I just think at this time it's more important for you to have a good experience and to get very good results than a potentially frustrating experience for a sharp image that has poor tonality or high grain. Your pictures might be sharper, true, in all likelyhood not 'better'.

    The old saying 'Be careful what you ask for - you might just get it!' is a good way to summarize this.

    Good luck! Let me know if I can be of more help.

    -- Bill

    PS: I don't think anyone mentioned it, but paper resolution is not an issue - it's higher than you can use.
  26. many good answers indeed. just to make things clear:

    so far I've concentrated on landscape photography, using the best products money can buy- velvia film, canon prime lenses, a sturdy tripod, mirror lock up, and of course- the best lab around.

    about a year ago I've started doing photojournalism and decided I want BW for that.
    so far I've used agfa apx 100 and 400 iso, kodak tmax 400 and 3200 iso. I develop the films in a BX developer (1:14, 20c) and print on agfa mc premium paper. I hate to admit that I don't know what enlarger and lens I'm using, since it's not my own darkroom. I don't even know if it is well alligned.

    obviously I have alot more to learn about B&W photography and darkroom workflow! I never knew BW could be THIS complex.

    now I have ANOTHER question:
    I understand that picture sharpness is compiled of several factors like acuteness, grain, tonality, and maybe more stuff. what are those? how do these factors affect on the image and on each other?

    again, thanks foryour answers,

  27. As mentioned above, sharpness is a term used to indicate a subjective experience. Objective correlates of sharpness that are typically used are resolution and contrast. Resolution is the ability to resolve finely spaced detail, typically measured by photographing a test target consisting of alternate black and white lines of varying spatial frequency (i.e., size) and expressed in line pairs per mm or lpmm. Contrast refers to the slope of the line dividing different density areas i.e., whether the resolved 20 lpmm is a fuzzy 20 lpmm or a crisp 20 lpmm - is there a black line that abruptly shifts to white or does the black line go through a small area of transitional grey before changing to a white line. MTF graphs are often used to summarize both aspects of an optical system in one graph.

    Both acutance and contrast are affected by myriad factors - format, lens, lens-to-film distance, film, developer, technique etc etc.

    Touching on only the format issue, there are obviously multiple things that differ across formats. But as far as the sharpness issue goes, the math is very much in the favor of bigger formats (with a couple of caveats, touched on later). The typical figure quoted for human eye resolution is somewhere in the region of 10 lpmm. So, that is what you need on the print. If we assume an 8x10 print requires about a 6-8 X enlargement from a 1"X1.5" 35mm negative, this means that you need at least somewhere in the region of 70 lpmm resolution on the negative (and this is assuming that you have no losses at the enlargement stage which is an impractical assumption - so, for practical purposes, you are talking about needing something like 100lpmm on a 35mm neg. This means using good lenses (which are typically expensive) and having spot on technique every step of the way. And things get even messier if we listen to analyses by some folks (e.g., Ctein) who claim that including the contrast function in addition to the resoltuion ends up increasing the on-print performance to as high as 30 lpmm (i.e., less that 5-10 lpmm looks plain unresolved, betweeen 10 and 30 lpmm, the human eye can make out a difference between a high contrast 20 lpmm and a low contrast 20 lpmm - a gross oversimplification but it sort of gives you an idea). Larger formats do suffer from a couple of drawbacks in the sharpness sweepstakes. The first is ensuring that the ground glass and film plane occupy the exact same position (most LF cameras do not utilize a pressure plate like 35mm and MF cameras do). Second, larger formats use bellows stretched out and this can act like a sail in the wind and introduce shake more easily as compared to metal housings. But all said and done, the math favors the larger format, especially if yo work carefully and methodically.

    The issue of gradation is a very valid point as well, but I think it a little different. If you do not exceed the enlargement potential of a negative, it is unlikely you will detect a difference in sharpness per se. For example, an 8x10 enlargment from a 4x5 neg is not going to look less sharp than an 8x10 contact print from an 8x10 neg - the human eye will, in all likelihood, be unable to tell a difference in resolution. However, many folks suggest that the contact print has an image that is more 'lifelike' - I suspect that this is related to the notion of gradation. Gradation is a somewhat vague term in the literature but I think it refers to a combination of local contrast and overall contrast. And it is here that the advantage of a larger format is most visible. Think of it this way. Microdetails and microgradtion are captured with less grains of silver in a smaller format. So, as you enlarge this to a greater amount (than larger formats), the first thing that you are likley to notice is the structure of the image breaking up - enlarge too far and grain start becoming apparent but even without going that far, it is possible to detect the difference from having more information in the larger formats. Small gradations are captured with greater fidelity in larger formats because of this. A difference in luminance in a small area is captured with more silver in a larger format film. At the limit, you can imagine a small film that has light from this entire area (that actually consists of small differences in luminance) falling on just one silver grain and will thus produce just one shade of grey rather than the actual differences in luminance that actually exist.

    The choice of format is a pretty personal choice but Dan does make a very good point in that good 4x5 systems are among the most affordable ways to start making really high quality photographs. Smaller formats do require equipment that need to operate at higher tolerances and that is an expensive proposition. Not that it can't be done with smaller formats, but it is done easier and cheaper with larger formats. Caveat: As mentioned before, format choice is pretty personal stuff and sharpness isn't all that matters etc.

    If you do want to use 35mm, the way to go is probably to use a technical or document film like Tech Pan coupled with an appropriate developer to control the inherently high contrast these films develop to (lots of options for developers that can yield pictorial gradation from these films - POTA, POTA modifications, Technidol, and most acutance developers should work). You will have to work on a steady tripod, use first rate lenses, use mirror lock-up to avoid vibration, develop carefully etc etc. If you insist on using an 400 speed film, it is going to be an uphill battle. Grain and resolution tend to be more problematic with films of this speed in 35mm, especially if you are enlarging to 8x10 sizes.

    Cheers, DJ
  28. It may be a completelly lost shot - but with your unknown enlarger/lenses that may be the real problem...

    Try to get a good loupe (a wide angle objective - 28mm or less is very good used backwards - you point the camera side to the neg) and look at the negative.

    Is it sharp, good detail contrast?

    If so, you need a better enlarger/lens.
  29. I agree with Lex about choosing one film, developer and paper and really learning how to use it. I settled on Tri X and HC110B twenty some years ago. I doubt it is the sharpest combo, but it has served my needs well and allowed me to concentrate on making images.
  30. Ditto. I used nothing but Tri-X and HC-110 for years until I knew everything that combination was capable of between EI 250-1600. Only after I quit the photojournalism field did I expand my use of materials.

    I'd still like to settle on one fine grain film, one fast film and just one or two developers for all purposes. But the subjects I photograph and styles I explore defy this effort at Spartan photography.
  31. Try http://www.gigabitfilm.com or Agfa Copex Rapid Pan + SPUR NANO Speed developer combo from J and C photo
  32. Agfa Copex Rapid Pan developed in SPUR or Rodinal is sharper than
    Kodak Technical Pan developed in Rodinal. <p> Copex/SPUR combo provide the sharpest rendering of finest detail, not possible with
    any other known film/developer combo.

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