Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Digital Monochrome: Waiting for the past

Last time I got into Luige Colani, figuratively speaking. Maybe his camera designs never became actuality but the digital world kept hopping ahead even without the Frog. Now the little hardware-stuffed buggers are everywhere. The cameras, I mean.

One huge hole remains: digital monochrome.

There are books on the subject. Postings at The Online Photographer have covered a few of these books, as have articles at The Luminous Landscape.

A few people such as John Cone have spent a huge amount of time working with desktop printers, developing techniques, software and inks to allow black and white printing from digital images, whether they have been scanned into a computer or directly generated from a camera's sensor.

Pete Myers did something else.

Mr. Myers had an almost unique experience with a purely monochrome camera, the Kodak DCS 760m. He wrote about it twice for The Luminous Landscape, first in "Kodak DCS 760m (monochrome), A Unique User's Perspective" and later, as he was giving up on the camera, in "Enough Already!"

Myers had shot for years with a Leica rangefinder camera and a 35mm lens, doing black and white landscape work in the American southwest. That's "a 35mm lens" in the sense that he used exactly one focal length for all his work, capturing the images on film and then scanning the negatives and taking it from there.

Kodak began work on its digital monochrome camera in the 1990s. Myers got wind of it and managed to serve as an ad hoc consultant in the wild for Dick Pignetaro of Kodak, who was in charge of development.

In September of 2002 Myers spent $10,000 to buy one of these cameras. They were built on Nikon's F5 body. "It is a pure monochrome camera -- not a color camera. It does not 'see' in color, but in black and white," he said. Months of obsessing about it preceded his purchase. He just couldn't avoid having one.

But that was only the end of one story and the beginning of another.

Myers was not happy making the switch from the tiny Leica to the big Nikon/Kodak crammed full of electronics and batteries. He was especially annoyed by Nikon lenses, which thoroughly disappointed him.

"I needed to find the right glass to take advantage of the camera's resolution. Without an anti aliasing filter and no Bayer color matrix, the resolution of a 6 mega pixel monochrome camera is astonishing. In monochrome, 6 mega pixels effectively does what it takes 12-24 mega pixels with a color matrix," he said.

As you might guess, shortly after Myers bought this camera Kodak discontinued it. He had spent about six months trying to get lenses he regarded as usable (older, and better-performing Nikon 24mm and 28mm models). The design of these older lenses required him to remove the camera's built-in infrared filter. That sent him searching for a front-of-the-lens infrared filter.

The result was not one filter but two working in concert. An infrared filter combined with a green one did the trick. The filters hopelessly confused the metering system though, so Myers either had to guess the exposure or use the camera's histogram with a trial and error process.

About this time other photographers began seeing his digital work and wanting similar cameras, but they were no longer available. Then Myers discovered that there was banding across some images, caused by some kind of problem in the sensor, and no one at Kodak cared to talk to him about it any longer.

Eventually this got resolved, but Myers returned to his Leica for most work. He did keep the Kodak handy for the occasional piece of work though.

I believe he later mentioned switching to a digital Hasselblad with a 50mm lens (about equivalent to a 35mm lens on a Leica), and that he had finally found peace, sort of. At that point he had a good camera, a good lens, built-in digital, and advantages like autofocus if he needed them.

Even this setup apparently still isn't the equivalent of a purely monochrome camera, but a purely monochrome camera may be a while in coming yet. I'm sure that we'll get one in one form or another, one day or another, because the trend for the future is toward cheaper electronics and more customized products for more targeted audiences.

Some day, somewhere it will be possible for someone to take mostly off the shelf hardware and combine it into a workable digital monochrome box (maybe assisted by software) to produce first rate results at a reasonable price. Even for a vanishingly small market.

That won't create a monochrome imaging chip, but it's likely that someone will figure that one out as well. Maybe a larger and relatively much cheaper imager of the near future could be reprogrammed to compensate for its (unnecessary) built in color mask and three color sensitivity.

With prototypes of solar cells and even batteries being manufactured on flexible sheets already it might not be too long before we see very large programmable imagers that don't have to be sliced from flawless single wafers of pure silicon.

Meanwhile we have pioneers like John Cone, a bunch of books on digital black and white, a newer generation of printers capable of acceptable monochrome without special inks, and lots of great images from someone like Pete Myers no matter how he manages to produce them.

At least check out his site to see what's possible.


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