The question I am most often asked is how I achieve the quality of my black and white images?
Usually, this is quickly followed by the statement that I must use some special black and white software or plugin that gives my photographs “the look”. They are disappointed when I tell them that I don’t use any special software and that my image processing workflow is really quite simple.
In reality, I see in black and white. Not because I have some rare eye disorder that has affected my color vision; rather I have trained myself to visualize the world as though I’m looking through the lens of a camera loaded with black and white film.
This is exactly the opposite of the way we currently photograph with our digital cameras. In the film days, we didn’t have an LCD screen on the back of our camera allowing us to review each exposure. I didn’t get to check my exposure or composition until the darkroom lights were turned on at the end of the film development process. Any technical or aesthetic mistakes were discovered long after I removed myself from the act of photographing. Knowing this made me much more aware during the process of photographing.
To create compelling and personal black and white images, we must photograph with intent, an approach that changes how we see and how we photograph. Ansel Adams referred to this part of the process as previsualization.
When I began using Ansel’s “zone system” of exposure and development of black and white film when I was learning basic photography, I wrongly associated previsualization with the technical component of making film negatives. In reality, that was only half of the process. Ansel also stressed the need to view the scene we were about to photograph and decide how the final print would look before the exposure was ever made.
This second part of the process took me years, if not the first decade of my photographic life, to understand and accomplish.
Previsualization of black and white images was in some ways easier in the film days because we didn’t have an LCD screen allowing us to review each exposure. Photographing the world of color, I knew the only image I was going to capture was going to be represented (days or weeks later) by a black and white film negative. Knowing this made me much more aware and intentional during the process of photographing.
Many would argue that one of the main advantages of digital photography is that you can see these mistakes immediately on the LCD screen. While I agree this technical “advancement” can be useful, I believe that it more often has the opposite effect on many photographer’s efforts to create powerful and dynamic black and white images.
In my workshops and portfolio reviews, the majority of the black and white photographs presented for review have been created because the initial image didn’t work well in color. When you review the typical digital capture process, you can understand why.
Using a DSLR we make an exposure and immediately have a color image on our LCD. Some photographers have the review mode programmed to also include a histogram reflecting both the overall exposure of the image and the exposure broken into the three color channels of red, green and blue. Photographers constantly shift back and forth between the creative process of seeing and the technical process of reviewing images on the LCD that have been processed by the camera.
Throughout the process, each frame is being assessed in color without any previsualization as black and white images.
Based on many conversations with photographers who use digital capture, there appears to be a pattern as to how many of the current day black and white images are created. An image file is imported into the computer, it is reviewed and rated in color. Then using their preferred type of image processing software, the color file is adjusted. A variety of parameters are modified, including exposure, color and contrast. This routine continues until at some point, the photographer decides the image just isn’t working in color.
Then two options seem most popular:
1) Some type of software plugin is selected to alter the image representing any number of “alternative” processes.
2) The decision is made to convert the image to black and white.
Neither of these makes the image better, just different.
My opinion is that the meaning of a photograph isn’t contained in the process used to make it but rather in the feeling and intent the photographer experiences when pressing the shutter in the first place and how well that feeling is conveyed to me as a viewer.
When photographing, the first thing to look for is light. Once found, the photographer can then consider ways to use the light to make a photograph. I look for structure over hue and contrast oversaturation.
I’ve learned to appreciate and use tonal juxtapositions such as light over dark, or dark over light instead of the color of the subject. Most importantly, you then can appreciate color not for its intensity and beauty, but for its ability to alter tonal relationships via filtration or conversion within the resulting image. In other words, when making a black and white image you don’t ignore color but develop the ability to see beyond it.
Post-processing is also one of the most important steps in creating black and white images. It is extremely important to perfect different color and light tones in your image, bringing out your subject and separating it from the background.
One way to practice becoming a better black and white photographer is going out with your digital camera and simply experiment. Set your camera profile to B&W to help you see how it looks. If you have your camera set to capture RAW files you don’t have to worry, the image will still be captured in color, it’s only the jpeg and preview that will be in black and white.
If you really want to become a better black and white photographer, I would recommend getting an old analog SLR film camera and expose some black and white film. You might be amazed at how what you see changes. At KEH Camera we have a wide variety of film cameras. Check them out here: https://www.keh.com/shop/cameras/film-cameras.html
The more I thought about learning to see in black and white, I realized that the process began long before I picked up my first camera. Growing up in the late 1950s through the 1960s, my family didn’t have a color TV in the house until the early 1970s when I was in high school. Everything I watched on TV up to then was in black and white.
The majority of movies produced during the 1940s/50s were originally filmed in black and white. Drama and visual interest in these movies were accomplished by lighting rather than brilliant color and special effects. Watching these on TV, I noticed how shadows, light, and contrast shaped the story. Now, some fifty years later, I can appreciate how that time in front of the TV as a child was actually a master’s class in visualization.
Showing my fifteen-year-old grandson my website, he went through one of my black and white portfolios and made the comment they looked like they were made in the 1940s. When he reads this he will understand why.
In my next two blog posts, I will go through my black and white workflow using Adobe Lightroom.