Friday, October 16, 2009

Black and White: To convert, why, and how.

There are qualities and characteristics of black and white photographs that still command a great deal of attention. Black and white photography has seen some amazing transformations. From the days of black and white film, the darkroom with black and white prints, till the most update ways of converting digital files to black and white, and the newest products for printing black and white images from digital printers, we are in a period where black and white is easier to work with. A few simple clicks of a mouse, some adjustments, and setting up your printer to print black and white, (some printers have multiple black inks) is all that is needed to produce some incredible photographs.

Everyone knows what makes a black and white photographs so appealing. Well composed, properly lit, dynamic photographs with subtle tones, gradations from the whites to the blacks, strong blacks, beautiful shadows, bright whites, these are all qualities that need to be present in your photographs in order to have a beautiful black and white image. Of course, you need to see an image in black and white before you can make it black and white. Sound confusing? Well, it’s actually much more simple than it sounds. Photographers need to be able to see the final image as they are setting up their composition. You need to ask yourself, is this going to look good in black and white? The answer needs to be yes. Not every image works in black and white. Some photographs are meant to be color, while others need to be black and white.

This past year I have had the chance to meet some amazing photographers. Each of which bring some one great quality to the photography industry. I even had a chance to meet a photographer, (who will remain nameless for this article) who has spent her entire career, until this past year, working entirely with black and white film. This past year was the first time in her career that she started shooting color. Needless to say, I was impressed that someone could spend nearly 30 years shooting nothing but black and white film. Her subject matter and focus with her photography (social documentary) allows for some interesting images that when combined with black and white, we are left with photographs that have more visually appealing qualities outside of the subject matter.

For a recent job me and my business partner were contract to shoot, we were discussing the use of film, cameras, and how we would approach the shoot. It was suggested we shoot black and white film. To which I responded, “why invest in black and white film when we have color already and can just shoot, process, and scan the film, then convert to black and white digitally?” This made a valid point in which saved us some money and gave us the chance to work on converting the images to black and white.

There are numerous ways to convert images to black and white. Some of which are straight forward and do not produce the best looking tones. While other ways of converting allow you more choices in setting the over all look of the image and the tonal shifts from the deepest blacks to the brightest whites. For example in photoshop, you could desaturate the image, which simply removes the color from the photograph. Next you can go into the channel mixer and make your conversions this way. With the more newer versions of photoshop CS3 and up, there is a feature under Image > Adjust > Convert to black and white that allows you a few options to set the reds and oranges. Now, with black and white photography, the quality and color of light is of little importance, except for how much light is needed to make the proper exposure. Then why does changing the reds or oranges make a difference? Well in doing so, you can alter the tones of the blacks and give the image a slightly different visual feel. For example, say you convert a portrait to black and white, sliding the red bar to either side would drastically alter the tone of the persons lips, one side goes deep where as the other goes very light. Of course this type of editing is solely up to you.

In camera black and white: This is the black and white that is produced when using the camera to convert a color image to black and white.

In Camera 

Desaturate: Notice how the photograph has a large amount of grey, it appears to be more neutral in the tonal shifts and an even gradation between the whites to blacks.


Channel Mixer: This image has a slight gradation and is not as grey in appearance. The background is not as dark. To used the channel mixer you go Image>Adjust>Channel Mixer, set values at 60-20-20>click monochrome

Channel Mixer

Gradient Map: The gradient map does a great job of converting an image to black and white. It is a semi preferred way of converting. Take note that the blacks are strong and the whites a brighter giving a nice gradation in the tones. The photograph is not as grey. The gradient map has the strongest blacks out of all the other conversions.

Gradient Map

Black and white action: This black and white is my day to day process for converting photographs to black and white when I am not using the gradient map. I developed this action over the summer when I was asked to convert an set of portraits to black and white.

Black and white action

I was given two 8x10’s of the same image. I was asked to come up with a 3rd 8x10 that had elements of both 8x10’s. Basically what I needed to do was get nice whites, rich blacks, and keep the image from having too much shadow. In the end, I had created an action that reduces the shadow and gives great tones to skin while retaining the whites and blacks, without producing any neutral greys.

I have shown different ways of converting an image to black and white. However you chose to do so reflects the quality of your photograph. The numerous ways that exist to convert an image all have different variations that produce somewhat different looks. The overall final look of your image and the choice you make in converting the image is dependant upon the method you have to convert your image. You may want deep blacks and strong brilliant whites, or perhaps you want some grey to the image. There exist different steps you cant take to make any of these variations happen. I generally tend to use my action, as it has yields some outstanding prints in the final output of the photograph. This action and an entire package of actions will be available for purchase very soon.

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