The ISO-less Power of the X-Series | A Monochrome Film-Look straight out of Camera

A brief thought about chemical based photography

When I studied photography back in the early to mid 2000s for real quality prints you still had to rely on an analogue workflow. Yet you already could see that the golden age of film photography was slowly coming to an end. In the creepy basement of our university we had this dark room which I frequented on a couple of weekends and holidays to process some black-and-white prints. Besides the magical moment when the developer revealed the final image I sincerely hated everything else in there. The depressing red light, the smell and handling of the chemicals and my overall lack of technical capabilities were pretty demoralizing. To this day I cherish the possibility to sit in a cosy environment while developing my final images with a few clicks on the computer. That being said, I still value the principle of getting things right in camera and the resulting look of images taken on film. Given its relative young age of about fifteen years since it's been used on a broad scale digital photography already made a huge, not always beneficial, impact on how we expect to see a world based on images. Once in a while I flip through amazing books with film-based photographs and I'm always baffled to see what masterly results can be achieved under challenging conditions with limited tools. For todays so-called "standards" some of those photographs would be considered imperfect or even commercially unusable. Then again, in our days of countless film simulations and artificial grain, it will be interesting to see if digital photography will ever be able to fully overcome the distinctive characteristics of chemical based photography.

I'd always liked film-based black-and-white prints with grain and high contrasts. If you're a happy owner of the X-Pro2 or a soon-to-be owner of the X-T2, from what I've read, Fujifilm offers you a new film simulation named ACROS that pretty much gives you this look right out of the box. Of cause you can try to achieve this look with various more or less time-consuming efforts in post-production. As for my part, neither my "older" X-Series cameras can process files in ACROS nor do I love heavy post-production on any of my photojournalistic images. So for me the goal is to get this thing as right as possible in camera.  

ISO-less is more

I'm pretty sure you can apply the following technique to a certain extent on almost any digital camera that has an ISO-less sensor. By the way: If you're a Canon shooter, don't wast your time and stop reading right HERE. To learn more about the basic principles behind ISO-less sensors you can start with Jim Harmers overview and Rico Pfirstingers article on fujilove. The key element to gently force your camera into producing higher contrast images is to get better control over its dynamic range. In combination with various complementary settings you can shift the gamma value of your camera quite significant. I strongly recommend to find your personal sweet spot by testing different camera settings over an extended period of time. As of today, these are my current settings:     

(1) Switch your camera to ISO 800 and your dynamic range to DR400. Both settings can be found in the Quick Menu and in Shooting Menu 1. This step is mandatory to achieve a different gamma value. On a side note: According to Steven Madison the lab results of the X-Trans sensor proof that its RAW files reach at ISO 800 their highest dynamic range of about 12 exposure values (EV). Of cause you can try other combinations, for instance ISO 400 with DR200, ISO 1600 with DR400 and so on. Keep in mind that due to its technical nature the extended dynamic range always corresponds with a higher ISO value. You can't shoot DR400 with any ISO below 800 or DR200 with less than ISO 400. And since this method forces you to shoot higher ISO values be aware that this will inevitably affect the resulting files. You'll end up with a file that has more noise than an image shot at base ISO. So for commercial work that demands "the most clean files on planet earth" you're not supposed to use this method!

(2) Expose for the highlights only. No matter what your preferred shooting method is, concentrate on not overexposing the highlights. DR400 gives you a bit more leeway before blowing highlights but, depending on your method of photometry, you still have to keep a good eye on your histogram. I usually shoot in full manual mode with photometry set to Multi. Then I only adjust the shutter speed until the Exp. Compensation scale in my viewfinder reads something between -2/3 and -2 EV. This of cause can largely vary depending on how and where you measure your exposure, so keep a close eye on your highlights. As a general rule of thumb I recommend to start out by deliberately underexposing your image about -1 EV and go from there.

(3) Complementary Settings in-camera

Image Quality: RAW is for this particular method essential, since almost every image starts out more or less underexposed and gets a Push Processing of usually +1/3, +2/3 or +1 EV with the in-camera RAW-converter. You can push those files with the converter up to +3 EV which results in a former ISO 800 file pushed to ISO 6400. From my experience this is also a good alternative for everybody who likes to process JPEGs in-camera but dislikes waxy skin tones at higher ISO values. Give it a try: First, shoot a person properly exposed in low light conditions at ISO 6400 with DR100. Process a JPEG in the camera. Second, shoot the person by using the same aperture and shutter speed as before but now at ISO 800 with DR400. This of cause will "result" in an (-3 EV) underexposed image. Then push process this file with the in-camera RAW converter to +3 EV. Now the first JPEG (taken at ISO 6400 with DR100) and the second one (taken at ISO 800 with DR400 then pushed +3 EV) should be more or less equally exposed but only in the pushed JPEG the waxy skin tones are gone. Also you should have more micro-contrast in the pushed image and of cause much more noise. Which to some degree, due to the nature of the X-Trans sensor, replicates film grain, at least in black an white. For me that's also the reason why I always stick with ISO 800, while shooting in DR400. After deciding which aperture I want to shoot, I only adjust the shutter speed according to my needs. First this whole ISO-less concept seems pretty counter intuitive but with some practical experience I'm sure you can get used to it. I use this technique on my X100S almost exclusively with the optical viewfinder. If I use it occasionally on my X-T1 I switch the function in the electronic viewfinder called Preview Exp./WB In Manual Mode to OFF. Otherwise you might have some trouble to frame your constantly "underexposed" images properly. So this specific method calls for an optical viewfinder.

Film simulation: Monochrome + G Filter is my go-to black-and-white setting, the Monochrome + R Filter produces most of the time to fair skin tones for my taste and Monochrome + Y Filter only outperforms the Monochrome + G Filter in tungsten "polluted" light conditions. This of cause is heavily based on personal taste only, so feel free to use what ever simulation fits your aesthetics best.        

Sharpness: +1 or else, just choose your personal preference.    

Highlight Tone: -1 preserves details in the highlights. Which is helpful for the in-camera processing, since I usually push the files as mentioned above.  

Shadow Tone: +2 exaggerates the deep blacks and cuts some of the midtones. 

Noise Reduction: -2 because, to some extend and as mentioned above, I like the noise of the X-Trans sensor. 

White Balance: Auto but it can be beneficial to also try a different preset here, since color translates into different shades of grey depending on the chosen white balance.  

(4) Optional: Further Post-Production in Snapseed  

I usually transfer the resulting JPEGs to my iPad to check each image on a larger screen. Sometimes it can help to process in-camera a couple of differently pushed JPEGs and then decide on the larger screen which one fits the intended look the best. If I decide to further process the images I almost exclusively use the Snapseed app and always apply the following changes in the Tools section:  

  • Details = +25 Structure (no extra sharpening applied)
  • Tune Image = +25 Contrast, +25 Ambience, +25 Highlights 

And occasionally this one as well:

  • Vignette = -25 Outer Brightness, +25 Inner Brightness  

That's about it. Of cause, if I messed up something on the image itself, I'm forced to use tools like Transform, Spot Repair, Selective, Crop or Rotate as well. But those usually don't influence the intended film-look.

If you decide to further process the images in a photo app of your choice I recommend to heavily experiment with different methods first. Then make a decision on the adjustments you favor the most and turn this particular workflow into a regime to stick with, at least for a while. This will contribute to the coherence of your photographs. This will also settle your mind which otherwise will be burdened with countless options of individual adjustments. Keep in mind, that the vast majority of processing is already done in the camera and that some post-production might unbalance what you already archived in-camera. So choose wisely and sparingly.   

The bottom line and its limitations

At a first glance this approach seems pretty complicated but trust me it's not. After a period of trail-and-error to find your favorite setup you stick with it. From then on you just setup your camera once, shoot away and apply a few things with the in-camera RAW converter afterwards. Actually for me this particular shooting method overall simplified the process of adjusting to rapidly changing situations. I usually use the camera in full manual mode, focusing also set to manual (MF or M) in combination with back-button-focusing on AFL. ISO is fixed at 800 with DR400. I then predetermine my aperture value and from now on I only have to adjust my shutter speed. Frame. Shutter dial. Focus. Click! That is it! If you zone focus you even get rid of the focusing part: Frame. Shutter dial. Click! Doesn't get much easier than this. Also ISO 800 gives you a faster shutter speed in low light situations. In broad daylight I stick with ISO 800 and either turn on the ND-filter (X100S) or switch to the electronic shutter (X-T1). That being said, if you shoot a very high number of images within a single day my approach has its limitations since you deliberately have to develop each image in the camera first. Unfortunately the camera software doesn't allow a batch conversion of multiple RAWs. And shooting this method right to JPEG cuts off all conversion options at once. You'll still get a more or less contrasty image but the ISO-less benefits are just gone.

In the following gallery you'll find some images I shot and developed with the method mentioned above. The title image on top of this post was shot with a X-T1 almost all other pictures are shot with the X100S. Did I mention before that this little camera is a magnificent piece of engineering? 

Please let me know, if you have thoughts or questions about this quirky method. I'm also curious to find out what different settings you prefer and the results it produces. So feel free to comment below.