To Black and White or Not To Black and White

June 03, 2012  •  311 Comments


"Ladyslipper" one of my favorite recent b/w's

I've thought about this a lot and figured I'd try to share my opinion as to why I choose to make my photographs and prints black and white when I do. I've been working in mono primarily for only really the past year, but since I made the shift to color-free I really feel like I've achieved a new confidence as a photographer and that I have really kind of "found my voice". Black and white has always had an allure for me ever since I have made pictures and my earliest camera that I had when I was a kid shot black and white and most of the early family photos are black and white and of course most of the forefathers and masters of photography whose books I took out of the library to learn from back then were comprised of black and white images. But when I would shoot landscapes and seascapes and get up early for a sunrise then I would always reach for the vibrant and saturated style of imagery- maybe thinking that since I had to get up so early to catch sky color then the whole point was sky color!? I would also venture to say that embracing the mono conversion was a direct reaction or protestation to the way I ended up feeling about HDR photography, which I fell way down the rabbit hole into back in 2006 and didn't pull myself out of until the last couple years! One of the big problems with HDR (high dynamic range) imagery besides the haloing of course, and the noise, and ghosting, and flatness, is that color tones become inevitably too strong. I remember having an interaction with a fellow Maine photographer Moe Chen whom I respect a lot over on Flickr and at G+, regarding that the color tones seemed off in a picture that I was liking more than I should have at the time. And I remember feeling frustrated at that wherein, perhaps the scene and color tones satisfied my memory of the scene and the emotional connection made through taking the picture and being at the place but in all reality the resulting image to a ordinary viewer would miss it's mark:

"Great Meadow 2010" Argh- it's just not right.

Black and white solved the problem of debatable color tones and took the distraction of color away from the scene. The words "distraction" here seems to have as many negative connotations as the word "addiction" which I talked about last week here: The black and white pallet is non-debatable and the b/w  photographers interpretation of a scene can be as different and individualistic as personalities. People sometimes say they dream in black and white and the evocative and ethereal qualities of a well made monochrome image can make for a strong and visceral connection with the viewer that elicits more of an emotional connection than a color representation could, at least I like to think so. Add to that all the fact that the worse the weather is then the better a black and white can be (to a point) and since it seems that it's always a little nasty out- that plays to our favor! 

One of the good things about HDR is that you end up looking for a particular kind of scene- HDR really pops with details and textures as does black and white. The HDR photographer to black and white photographer metamorphosis seems like a natural evolution because you have already trained your eye to look for details and textures. It was to me a phase like panorama making was and timelapsing was and what you end up doing when you work on a thing for a while is become hyper focused on the thing, which makes for good learning...

Now let's address the Ansel Adams and Edward Weston phenomena, which is to say when you see these masters works for the first time it's one of the important firsts that an experiential being can have. Like the first time you kissed a girl/boy (you know what I mean), the first time you are able to stay up on your bike without your Dad helping you to balance, the first time you hear music that gives you goose-bumps and takes you out of your body; resonating firsts. The Edward Weston pepper pictures and the Ansel Adams Moon Over Half-Dome pictures are those to me.

"Pepper #30" Edward Weston 1930

"Moon over Half Dome" Ansel Adams 1960

I remember deciding myself though back when I was first shooting landscapes that I didn't simply want to shoot in black and white in order to copy the look and feel of the black and white masters. I always have respected the idea of imitation in order to learn a craft, but maybe it seemed like too much of imitation to go mono back then, and like I said earlier it was definitely a goal of mine to chase vibrance and color. 

And then now let's talk about developing or post processing or however you want to call it. Our post processing software has come a long way baby, where now with the new shadows and highlights adjustment algorithms in Lightroom 4 we don't even need to consider HDR but for the most extreme of light situations. And the control and finessing possible within Lightroom enable making a beautifully developed image effortlessly in minutes, but I'll almost always choose to add one more step- edit in Nik Silver Efex. It's totally worth the time to export out of Lightroom and work within that program as the luminance algorithms or whatever it is they do in the conversion is leaps and bounds beyond simply desaturating or even working with the B/W mode in Lightroom or Photoshop.

So that's the trick- luminance. A great black and white image has a magical luminous glow that gives it dimension beyond what you would ordinarily feel with a two dimensional picture. And pretty soon after working with mono imagery you develop and process with luminance in mind. Dodging and burning become as important as the gas and brake in your car. Gradients become like the bread to a sandwich- you can have a sandwich but you can't have a sandwich without the bread.? I must be hungry, let me get back to you-...


"Immersion" another one of my favys from the last couple months.

Right, what I mean to get to here is that after you've worked enough images in black and white you begin to appreciate the possibilities that your interaction with the image really can have on your work. You may begin to transcend the difference in imagery between representation and art.? Back to my earlier point about simply making a picture a black and white picture does not necessarily make it right. And I'm not here to necessarily be the governor of grays or the embassador of blacks, anybody who knows me ought to tell you that I'll happily defer to their expertise, but don't get me wrong (expression), after finding black and white I feel more confident in my imagery then ever before and I feel that when I work on color I have a more holistic sensibility about developing then I used to before black and white. 

Here's another thing. I print. I print to show and hopefully occasionally sell and when you put a couple prints next to each other they become a group and then it becomes obvious that you need continuity in images so that they will look good together. I still shoot images that I know will be color but they are maybe 1 in 10 to 3 in 10 depending on the time of year and the occurances etc but it has become much more important to me then ever before to have bodies of work that will show well together. 

Fog Tide Slips

"Fog Tide Slips" 5/22/2012

Technical stuff: my general approach to the workflow of making a b/w image is this:

1. I'll make general adjustments to the image in Lightroom 4 focussing on getting the exposure perfect and paying particular attention to the histogram- I especially don't want any blown highlights. I'll often add either a touch or a liberal dose of clarity depending on the scene and I'll either do that globally or (depending on the scene) locally with the adjustment brush. The clarity slider can really have a big impact coupled with the black and white conversion, and it can add a lot of depth and dimension, but on the other hand it can become garish if you go too far- just like too much of anything. I'll sharpen some globally and sharpen more locally with the adjustment brush and depending on the scene I will also employ the masking slider in the sharpening dialog used with holding down the alt option key on Mac it will show you the size of the mask in order to keep the sharpening out of clear areas. I'll also do a couple other things like use Highlight recovery (which works exponentially better than the Fill Light tool did in Lr3) and get some deep blacks with the Blacks slider and make some global contrast adjustments, but at this point I want to go right to the black and white version before making any other big changes to let the b/w scene speak to me.

2. Dust spot removal. You want to do this now, not after the conversion to black and white because the texture and grain of the conversion is going to make spot removal a lot more difficult then. So zoom in at 100 percent loupe and scroll around the sky especially but everywhere else because those little dust buggers are in there somewhere, they always are! One trick here is if you crank the contrast and clarity sliders all the way up then the dust will come right to the surface, make your fixes and bring the sliders back to where they were and you're good to go.

3. Crop. I love using virtual copies in Lightroom and will often end up with a dozen or so slightly different versions of the same image that I can compare to find my favorite. Also I'll compare my favorites of the batch by using the C key after selecting two images to compare- this will bring them up side by side or however you set it up and you can dim the lights by hitting the L key and maximize the workspace by hitting the Shift plus Tab keys. And I'm cropping here because I'm choosing the finished look of the crop now to let the b/w conversion "speak to me" like I said before.

4. Edit in Nik Silver Efex Pro or Silver Efex Pro 2. I am still using version 1 and I know that version 2 is better for the micro contrast controls and the other refinements and I will eventually get the SEP2 so you might as well start with that one. Now this is not the time to teach you how to use Nik Silver Efex but on the Nik website there are great tutorials, so go there. I love the feature of the control points and depending on the scene will use the points to bring out certain areas and make selective contrast and structure and brightness adjustments. I also love the color filters presets and will often go with the red filter or green filter for global contrast effects. Save this and it'll pop up in Lightroom next to your original.

5. Gradients and Dodging and Burning. This is where you can really start to have a lot of fun with the image. By now you've undoubtably or that is to say hopefully found the direction you want to take the image in, and here you can put the finishing touches on the highlights and shadows and use the areas of dark and light to help guide the eye around the image. I'll often add a gradient to the sky by using the graduated neutral density filter in Lightroom and I may do that a couple times laying on over the other with different widths to really control subtle darkening of the sky. A good trick here is to watch the thumbnail image as that little picture can help show abrupt unnatural transitions, I'll often use the thumbnail actually for much of the development process for that very reason. Also I'll often edit the image in Photoshop at this point and make a duplicate layer and use the gradient tool that Ps has as the control of that particular gradient tool has a lot more options and makes some sweet results. I know that a lot of my friends like to use masks in layers to control gradients and selective luminance adjustments but I more reserve that for the rare architectural for the time being although that route offers advanced control and selectivity.

6. Sit on it. When you think you're done close your work and relax. Go to sleep and look at it the next day, when we work on an image we kind of become "colorblind" of sorts, (pardon me for using that insensitive term?) But when you work on an image for hours on end you lose your objectivity and impartiality, you think what you're working on is the bee's knees, you think that it be the next 4.3 million dollar Gursky blockbuster- but then you look at it the next day and think: what was I thinking!? So this is an important step.

7. Print it, upload it to Faceplace, and G+, and Flickerer, and move on to the next one. And tell 'em I sent ya! And have a nice day- Nate.

For more reading:

John Paul Caponigro "Black and White Mastery -B&W pallet"

Joel Tjintelaar

















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