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Old 04-03-2015, 01:06 PM   #1
Battou
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Black and White Photography in the modern era

I am doing this in response to the volume and quality of retrospective black and white conversions I am seeing produced by beginners among the various Facebook groups I frequent. Despite this is being written for beginners, I plan on hashing it out everywhere I can think of, to photographers of all levels, and will be restraining my efforts here to 35mm film and up to 35mm (Full frame) digital, based on the assumption that beginners are not rushing out and diving into medium and large format. Anyone who feels belittled or offended by this post I offer you these (link) to help you cope with what I am about to say.

We'll start at the beginning.

- Understanding the different forms of black and white photography

I see with some frequency people misusing the word monochrome. Monochrome has been misused as a term for black and white/grayscale imaging for so long one is generally not faulted for calling grayscale monochrome. However for educational purposes there is a difference and here is it.

Monochrome, based on Monochromatic, meaning singular color. Monochrome is literally color (most commonly black, cyan or green) and white or black with little to nothing between the two. The most common use for monochrome imagery was with the cyanotype which was frequently used (and best known for) for the reproduction of technical drawings for buildings, structures and other engineering marvels well into the twentieth century. It is from this cyan and white coloration they developed the traditional name of Blueprints. In photography, True monochrome style is currently referred to as Binary imaging or Binary photography derived from the on/off nature of the color within.

Below is an example of an image converted to monochrome or binary photography


Grayscale, Based on the Gray Scale, meaning various shades from absolute black to absolute white. Grayscale images are not usually strongly contrasted in black and white. They are black and white with a range of shades of gray between each end of the spectrum. Grayscale imagery has a plethora of common uses, too many to choose and outline just one "Most common". In photography, Grayscale style is currently referred to as black and white photography.

Below is an example of an image converted to grayscale or black and white photography


See the difference?...........Good, moving on.

- The problem

One of the biggest problems with many of today's black and white photographs is a direct result of thought process. A common trend in today's beginners and even the seasoned upstarts (for lack of a better phrase) is black and white conversion from color imagery with out thought out reason. Another trend is for aspiring professionals to want to offer both color and BW to their clientele. In both cases the photographer is thinking color first and black and white second, this is bad. With color to BW being a simple click away, It is not often taught to a person to stop and think about BW or Color before or during shooting, The phrase "Convert it in post" has become the norm. Converting an image from color to black and white in post is not wrong, it is merely another technological option provided to us as photography has evolved. Where color conversion begins to cause a problem is when it is used by those who are undereducated in an attempt to retrospectively save an image thinking "Does it look better in BW?". Those of us old farts who trained back during a time when we had to decide whether to shoot color or shoot BW before we even picked up the camera know through experience, that while the fundamentals are...well...fundamental, the compositional requirements for color and B&W evolved differently and are slightly different from one another. With modern equipment at even the most base level (You there with the cell phone, Sit down, you count too) being capable of switching from color to BW and vice verse on the fly as well as photoshop conversion actions for post processing puts the two styles at the photographers finger tips. Even film shooters like my self are no longer restricted by the film we choose put into the camera. Whether the conversion be from color to black and white or black and white into color, With the right skill sets all is possible in this day and age. These once top level tasks are growing easier and more accessible to every level of shooter with every passing day. Because of this, the idea of this absolute need to decide first, what to shoot has near dissolved in this digital age.

- The Process
First step, decide Black & White or Color before you shoot and minimize retrospective black and white conversion, it is very rare that a shot will truly work in both formats. As a photographer you should have the mind set of color or black and white before you shoot. At this early stage, as long as you stop and think your skills will improve. As your skills improve with both black and white and color this thought process will begin to become second nature and you can begin to see the differences between what will need to be in color to convey the desired effect and what does not as well as developing the eye to see through the color and spot the tonal difference that can generate a good BW enabling you to take full advantage of the ability to switch on the fly we have available to us in this day and age. This requires experience, failure is not, not an option here, it is mandatory. Train your thought process by committing to one or the other even if the end results come out looking like shit.

Second Step, Decide whether to use internal or external Black and White. While it may come off as hypocritical, just because you have to decide first whether to produce color or black and white, it is not necessary to commit in camera if you don't want to use in camera BW. Only the forethought process and mental commitment to one or the other is important. There are good and acceptable reasons to opt not to utilize in camera black and white, whether it be film or digital. As we have all ready discussed there are a number of ways you can achieve black and white imagery. The option is there and you can take it if you want to. For film shooters there are a multitude of black and white films available including some C-41 BW's from Kodak and Ilford. For Digital shooters many digital cameras from full fledged dSLR to the rinkey dink cell phone have an option within the settings to shoot in BW. Both formats have pros and cons which I will touch base on here momentarily.

Film shooters who are committing to in camera are committing to 24 or 36 consecutive shots in BW. While this is not a problem to those who have more than one camera or camera body, it is a commitment that beginners who have only a single camera have to weigh appropriately when loading their camera. They must also take into consideration film processing cost and needs, while C-41 processing is still available at many drug stores many of the traditional non C-41 processing labs have become few and far between bringing rise to home processing, which is a bit much for a beginner to bite off. The advantages of film vary from film to film and are heatedly debated all over the world so I won't bother delving into them here and move on saying that those of you shooting film, whether you commit to in camera or external BW is strictly going to be preference and up to you the photographer.

Digital shooters who are committing to in camera have a different can of worms to contend with, That can is the algorithms the manufacturer utilizes to convert to BW in camera. Bare in mind that a digital camera is a small hand held computer system purpose built for generating imagery and requires both memory and programming. The more specialized a feature, the the larger the program file must be consuming more internal memory. That said, In camera conversion is executed with a basic conversion method to save memory space for higher priority processes, like that auto mode that so many get locked into. It is simply not practical for a manufacturer to program an indepth conversion algorithm. With digital in camera conversion being so basic much detail and contrast can get lost in conversion. Additionally you can't just change your sensor (Or the internal conversion program) when you are not satisfied with the results like a film shooter can. The digital cameras I have used and explored this function in have all converted the display to BW which is a nice visual aid during composition, it falls short of making up for the loss in the simplicity of the conversion method. On that note, for Digital shooters I highly recommend external BW conversion.

Third step, get out and shoot. Take pictures, get XPs and level up. When shooting for black and white you want to look for scenes with strong native contrast, bold color and visibly high tonal range. Though not wholly necessary these three things are a good starting point when entering into the field of black and white photography. It should also be said that just because two colors are in strong contrast to each other in when viewed in color, does not mean they will be in strong contrast when viewed in BW. Take this image (Below) for example.



When this image is converted to BW in Photoshop using the gradient map conversion method it looks like this.


The same thing happens with color desaturation (only slightly darker) and other basic level conversions. Different results are achieved with more advanced conversion but the point is made. That point is that you don't all ways know how your image is being converted to BW be it film or digital and that you can not trust color contrast to translate to grayscale contrast. You will need to learn these contrast cues through experience. As your experience grows and you reach intermediate to advanced abilities you can begin learn about colored filters which were designed to combat that very issue exampled above.


For those of you who decide to be "Traditionalist" and do it all in camera, this is where this lesson concludes and are free to go. All ways remember that Photography is a game where there is no maximum level and the longer you stand here and argue the term traditionalist or how your digital Nikon is superior to my 35mm Canon or any other combination therein, you are not getting experience and are falling behind the rest of your colleagues. For the rest of you, We'll be taking a short break, you can step outside for a smoke, visit the vending machines for something to eat. If you are not interested in a smoke break or food, take pictures of people outside smoking or assaulting the vending machines. Either way, I know I need a break and we will be back in here in fifteen minuets, After we return from our break we will be moving on to step four.


Fourth step, The post process. For this I am skipping the film processing stage. While yes, it needs to be done, Home processing is not for beginners. We'll pick up at the "getting your pictures" stage. For those of you who do not wish to trust the in camera conversion there is all ways post conversion whether it is film or digital. Yes, that applies to both so those of you film shooters who don't have non C-41 processing means or just don't want to wait for that C-41 Ilford XP2 to get to your door step you still have these options available to you after your image is scanned. Many film processing labs have a digitization service where you can get digital copies of your images when you get your negatives back or you can opt to scan them your self at home. While home scanning is the superior method, home scanners are another heatedly and frequently discussed element. Information on the options is highly subjective and readily available so we wont go into scanning details.

Before we get too deep into this, I want to remind you all I am a 35mm film shooter and that I am traditionalist in that I like to get composition correct in camera. However I do have a limitation to color negative films locally and opt to convert my black and whites from them in post. That said I am not a photoshop guru. All of the methods I will touch base on here are discussed and tutorialized in great detail and accuracy beyond that which I am capable by people with superior knowledge of photoshop and similar programs. This part of the lesson is not a definitive how to, but a baseline on options available to you for converting your images from color to BW so you can explore the various options and find the ones that will optimize your conversions and minimize (and possibly eliminate) the flat dull gray, black and white photos we see. Now, while I use the term Photoshop, I use it as a generic term. Post processing color to BW conversions are not limited to the Adobe photoshop series. There are various other software available to choose from, some free, some paid and others subscription based. Some are better than others all have advantages and disadvantages, Your choice of post processing software is entirely up to you, your spouse and your wallet. I default to the term photoshop because I personally use Photoshop CS4 on my work, It's what I know. While I will try to be generic all of the processes I will talk about and demonstrate are available in Photoshop CS4 because it is what I have at my disposal.

I will provide a brief rundown on some of the conversion methods I have used and/or read about with an image depicting the default untweaked conversion using the method described. Higher resolution copies are available by clicking on the images. For this we will be running conversions of the color image seen below.



Grayscale color mode: When you open an image in photoshop it will usually be presented in RGB (Red/Green/Blue) Color. Switching over to Grayscale mode will simply discard the color information. This mode is fairly simple click of the button results that are generally acceptable with a full 256 shades of grey. One of the drawbacks to this is that once this is done, the user looses many adjustment features as many of them function on the red, green and blue channels which have been discarded in this method.



Desaturation: What has to be one of the most popular suggestions for conversion on the internet would be to use one of the desaturation features. Desaturation is so popular it literally shows up in three places in Photoshop CS4 with the same results. Desaturation offers a little control with adjustments to the various color when achieved through the hue/saturation sliders as opposed to the single click desaturation in the image menu. Results can be a little sketchy with too much tinkering with color channels and desaturation is susceptible to the color contrast failures we talked about earlier.



Gradient Map: Gradient map conversions is one I disregarded for a long time, largely because I didn't understand what was going on. The gradient map is another potentially single click conversion that produces a contrasty conversion with some limited adjustability during conversion. One of the drawbacks to this is it is not well suited for images that do not have good native contrast to begin with. It is best suited for images with mid to high native contrast.



Channel mixer monochrome: The channel mixer is a powerful conversion tool. While single click conversion is possible it hardly makes the best use of it. By allowing precise blending of the Red, Green and Blue channels the channel mixer is capable of producing a wide variety of grayscale effects in conversion. One of the drawbacks is that to make good use of this practice and experimentation is really a must and can easily become disheartening for beginners.



Black and White: Photoshops black and white adjustment is a very nice and relatively easy multi-click conversion. It is purpose built for BW conversion and as a result has a great many options for adjustment including built in emulation of color lens filter presets. While minimum effort can produce acceptable results it too takes practice to make the most of. One of the major drawbacks is if the image is of low jpeg quality it will exaggerate any jpeg artifacting present in the image when using the adjustment features.



I am excluding a few conversion methods because I am running out of time and I know it. These are among the top Photoshop processes that I am confident are available in the software of other developers. I highly recommend that beginners not waste time "Mastering" one conversion method but dabble with all of them because every image is different and one conversion method may default closer to your desired look than another making for fewer adjustments to reach the desired look. The ability to reach your desired look quickly will free up lots of time to play with other methods and gain XPs making the more complicated tasks come more easily.

Fifth step, Hang it on your wall. I don't care if it is a physical wall in your house or your facebook wall on the internet. Hang it, let people see it. Don't let it get to you if people tell you it looks bad, if we all ways produced perfect imagery, we would never get any better. Take what people tell you and roll with it, if it means doing something different the next time or the same things again, roll with it.

That and character limit will conclude this session, If you have any questions or wish to address anything I have missed feel free to do so and I will address them to the best I can.
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Old 04-03-2015, 01:14 PM   #2
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Character limits suck lol.

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Old 04-03-2015, 05:34 PM   #3
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Oops - sorry about the character limits. It's a vBulletin thing!

Wow, this is a very fleshed-out and informative article, Battou. Thanks for posting for us!
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Old 04-03-2015, 05:45 PM   #4
Battou
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Terri View Post
Oops - sorry about the character limits. It's a vBulletin thing!

Wow, this is a very fleshed-out and informative article, Battou. Thanks for posting for us!
It's ok, one of the major contributors to posting it this way and linking to it was because the character limit as well as the formatting options is far superior here than it is on Facebook. As it was my initial submit button was in breech by a little over 50, so it was almost enough, those last eleven were a bit tough to find and pull. lol

And Thank you, Can't tell you how many times I have spent days typing articles like this on various photographic elements and simply closed the window opting not to publish it because I am one of the first to say I still have a lot to learn.
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Old 04-03-2015, 05:49 PM   #5
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Well, we all continue to learn. You posted this in the best possible section here at the Beat, so it's perfect.

If anyone has comments, suggestions or questions, I'm sure they'll post them here for you!
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Old 04-06-2015, 02:43 AM   #6
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Nice Battou. I have a lot of fun with the channel mixer. The BW conversion not much luck--not enough fun. I should work out on the rest.
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Old 04-06-2015, 10:00 AM   #7
Battou
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Thank you Walter. I am guessing some of your disconnection to the BW conversion is probably along the same lines of using the digital Portra filter vs actually going out and shooting Portra. The filters are not quite true to that they are intended to emulate...and probably never will be.
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Old 07-03-2015, 07:12 PM   #8
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For what it's worth...
As already mentioned, I decide wether I want the image B&W or colour at the outset.
You have to 'see' the shot differently depending on which one you are doing.
For one thing (digital being very much like film) you have to see B&W with about seven and a half stops exposure range, and colour with about four or five. I won't go into the reasons - just trust me.
I don't convert in the camera but do it in post processing.
I use Aperture with the Nik Software 'Silver Efex Pro' plug in (I think they do one for Photoshop). It's easy to use and the results are good.

https://www.google.com/nikcollection/
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