Rekindling the Romance of Black and White Photography

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There is a renewed interest in the romance of black and white photography for several good reasons. First, hyped color is becoming boringly predictable. Second, automated software presets and templates deliver a predictable variety of pre-digested looks that can be applied to any image and deliver similar results.

Just as Hollywood movies have fallen into the same predictable themes and plots, color digital photography has lost some of its originality to over-processing. As you noticed, the common theme here is predictability. Serious photographers want to do unique and serious work and that all points to a resurgence of black and white images.

In the Beginning

Heidelberg Pipes - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

There was a certain warmth and personality to black and white prints in the days of film and darkrooms. Photographers got involved with this medium for more than a technical exercise, it became a conduit for personal expression and emotional input. It was a way for the photographer to be involved in every aspect of the process.

Black and white prints were produced in a more personal way than color prints. While color prints were cranked-out mechanically by drugstore photo labs, black and white prints were produced one at a time by photo-artisans, many times in makeshift darkrooms.

These darkrooms didn’t have to be state-of-the-art facilities; any room large enough to house a small enlarger, four 8×10 trays, and a clothesline would do. Many times bathrooms were taken over for the evening simply because they had running water, a countertop, and electricity; the three necessities of a well-equipped darkroom.

Taping off the small window with a bath towel and duct tape was simple, and a hand towel stuffed under the door sealed the deal. A nightlight wrapped in Rubylith made a perfect safelight.

Tybee Window - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

You can make a stronger statement with black and white than you can with color. Nothing “pops” like good black and white.

Black and white was a labor of love

The lure of black and white was personal expression more than technical achievement. The drugstore produced stacks of little glossy snapshots in an envelope, but YOU were creating one-of-a-kind masterpieces worthy of wall placement. The wannabe artists weren’t really in a bathroom, they were in a custom photo lab.

Creativity was the mystical elixir that compelled us all to work in hot, cramped little rooms without proper ventilation, dipping and dripping various chemicals on clothing, tables, and floors. The acidic smell of stop bath and fixer lingered in the air and on hands and clothing for hours.

Hawaii Lava Rocks CR750 - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

The RGB image above provided over 4 billion colors that could be pushed and shaped. This monochrome shot provided only 256 tones to do the same job. With film, this would be nearly impossible but with digital…

Sometimes entire 25-sheet packs of photo paper were needed to produce a single perfect print. But all the expense and inconvenience was willingly paid for the sake of the prize and the pride of the print. In the end, the masterpiece was paraded around for all to appreciate.

Hawaii Lava Rocks CR750 Toned - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

This original RGB capture of the lava pools in Hawaii presented a challenge. How to capture and delineate detail in the extreme shadows and highlights. Tough enough for color but almost impossible for monochrome.

Those were indeed magical escapades, but ones that can still be replicated (to some extent) today in the digital world. The stifling air, low light, and acrid aroma may be a thing of the past, but the personal expression and purity of purpose are all waiting to be relived.

The Romance

Black and white photography quietly transports your mind into a playground of creative thought; a semi-guided tour into your imagination. Black and white photography doesn’t enclose your mind inside the bookends of a specific color scheme. It sets your imagination free to discover a place filled with emotion and open to interpretation. Black and white photos deliver moods, not just pictures.

Color can totally capture your mind, but not always in a good way. Here’s what I mean. Once you see a color picture, mental blinders close the deal. You can no longer imagine the scene your way. Before you know it, you find yourself subconsciously critiquing the color rather than interpreting the subject. Color captivates your mind but black and white enables you to dream.

The Reality

Both film and digital cameras capture color information and transpose that color into black and white images. But there’s a significant difference in the way it’s done. Black and white film in the hands of an old-school darkroom artist can produce a print that captures the imagination, though a straight RGB-to-B/W conversion from even a good color photo can deliver ho-hum results. Here’s why.

Black and white film is composed of silver-halide particles that are uniquely sensitive to specific colors but this spectral fingerprint doesn’t automatically carry over to digital image sensors. A scene’s colors captured with panchromatic film will produce different values than the same scene captured by digital sensors.

This means that YOU must get involved shaping the luminance (brightness/contrast) values, and adjusting the chrominance (spectral / color) values of the RGB image. Color frequencies influence the tonal values when converted from color to black and white. Fortunately, both the chrominance and the luminance are controlled in virtually all RAW Interpreter software.

Digital cameras follow a purely statistical recording process and thus, don’t emphasize the strength of one color over another. Different film manufacturers (Agfa, Kodak, Ilford, and others) parsed these color values slightly differently. The photosites in your digital camera’s image sensor simply count photons (the atomic level of light measurement) and use electrical current to set the gray levels.

These values vary based on the camera’s current ISO, white balance, and color mode settings. Just as both black and white and color images captured with film cameras were influenced by various colored filters, these color settings affect both color and tonality values in digital captures.

BountyRGB - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

This is the original RGB image shot in San Juan Puerto Rico.

The Problem

When a digital image is captured in monochrome (Black and White) mode in JPEG format, the camera discards all RGB information and retains only a very sparse number of gray tones. While this sounds like a logical way to arrive at black and white values, it’s not!

Monochrome negates the nuances of spectrally-weighted color transformation. Quite simply, the process removes the emotion and personality of the image. Each camera’s engineering team determines the way each color is parsed as a gray value, and we know how emotional engineers are. There’s a reason we tend to avoid guys with pocket protectors at parties.

Bounty BW in-Camera Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

This is a simple conversion from RGB to B/W with no adjustments, as your camera would do.

When you capture images in black and white (Monochrome) mode, you are literally at the mercy of the engineers who wrote your camera’s algorithms. But while some very interesting color/monochrome translations are provided by camera manufacturers, you are still locked into someone else’s interpretation. So what to do?

Bounty CR BW750 - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

This is the conversion from RGB to Grayscale using Camera Raw’s HSL Grayscale tools. The intensity and saturation of eight different colors determine the internal contrast of the gray tones.

The Solution

There are several ways to address this problem.

  1. Record all images in both B/W JPEG and RAW formats.
  2. Investigate the interesting results that can be achieved when monochrome images are captured in one of your camera’s “scene” presets. Experiment with your camera’s settings to get a fair sampling.
  3. When digital images are captured in RAW format, all spectral (color) information can be accessed (see below) and used to influence the tonal values.
BountyColorize - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

To add a little sparkle to your monochrome, try the Colorize option in Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation dialog box.

The Two-Stage RAW Approach

When these controls (provided by Camera Raw and a number of other RAW Interpreter software apps) are involved in shaping the spectral information into B/W, some absolutely magical results take place.

Remember, both the luminance and the chrominance need to be optimized for the best results in RGB-to-Monochrome conversions. I suggest that the chrominance be addressed first and the luminance second. This combination of controls provides all the tools you’ll need to take total control of your black and white images.

BowersBWMix - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

The chrominance settings reside in the Black & White Mix panel.

Bowers Basic BW Panel - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

The luminance is adjusted in the Basic – Black & White panel.

In Camera Raw, toggle back and forth between the original RGB image and the current settings using the P-key, noting the colors in the original and the influence that each color slider has on the final product.

Bowers SBS - Rekindling the Romance of Black and White

When either of these processes is put to work, you become creatively involved in converting colors into gray tones and the magic of silver halide interpretation gets replicated in the digital process. And here’s the kicker… using digital controls, you can surpass the mile markers established by the black and white masters of the past.

This is scary good stuff, and Ansel would have loved it.

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Herb Paynter is the owner of Imageprep Communications, photographer, author, and print consultant suffering in sunny Ormond Beach Florida. He is an award winning Photoshop plug-in software developer who has been teaching digital imaging and production image editing for more than twenty years. Check his blog The Way Eyes See It, download his iBook Digital Color Photography from the iTunes store or view his digital color video series at Gotta Know Videos.com.

  • PJB_NUFC

    Excellent article, Herb, thanks for posting it.

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  • Herb Paynter

    Thank you PJB. Glad you liked it.

  • KC

    Excellent points. I agree: shoot in color (preferably Raw) and post process for monochrome. You want as much data as you can capture to do the conversion.

    Learning to work in monochrome isn’t a limitation. It changes the way you perceive a subject. You’re not relying on color to make an image work. You’re watching the play of light and shadows. It can make your color work better.

  • Herb Paynter

    Very well put KC. Black and white is “mood central” for me. Fell in love with it pre-digital for years and shooting RAW opens the doors wide for interpretation. Thanks for the comment.

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