It’s interesting to consider that in the beginning black and white photography was a technological necessity rather than an aesthetic choice. For many years it remained a cheaper way to reproduce images in print. It wasn’t really until the whole digital revolution that the cost was no longer a factor. Using traditional film and processing is still hugely popular amongst both amateur and professional photographers but their choice to shoot in black and white has become a more costly option with film stock now being a comparatively rare commodity. Their choice to shoot in black and white will also be irreversible whereas for us shooting digitally, we can change our minds at any time.
Choosing the method
I stopped shooting on film around 15 years ago – though the 8 filing cabinets full of slides and negatives attest to the fact that I wasn’t unfamiliar with the media! So for this article, I will concentrate on digital only.
The following is an outline of my workflow and regardless of the final result, this process will be the same for both colour and black and white:
- I always shoot in RAW format with the highest quality my camera will produce. As it is RAW, the image will be in colour and this means converting to black and white happens at the very last point (note: shooting in JPEG format is not recommended. Cameras will permanently write JPEG style presets to the file which will be irreversible. It is also a ‘lossy’ file format and reduces in quality each time it is saved)
- I then import into Adobe Lightroom and convert to the generic DNG file format
- Next I do the basic house-keeping; captions, keywording, credits, selection, renaming/numbering – see Starting a Picture Library for more details
- I then process the images and create black and white versions – working with versions or ‘virtual copies’ as Lightroom calls them, allows me to retain the originals – a critical move if I ever want to go back to a previous setting. Multiple versions can then be made to try different settings
Choosing the subject
Photographers or those commissioning photography usually start of with a subject that needs shooting. Sometimes we are presented with a subject that was unplanned – e.g. going out for a walk and coming across a landscape. The process for deciding to go for colour or black and white can already start at this point. There may be elements in the picture that need to be considered that will affect things later on. For instance, a subject’s bright red clothing will look very distinctive in a colour image. However, in black and white the colour red becomes dark grey so the impact is greatly reduced – though this could of course be a preferred outcome. Understanding how colours are affected by conversion to black and white is an important part of the decision process – but only a part of it. Shapes and textures are also very important and controlling the subject at the shooting stage can make a difference to the converted result.
Certain subjects work extremely well in black and white. Portraits are an obvious choice where skin textures and facial features can really be enhanced by removing the distraction of colour. Certain landscapes also really do well and these are more likely to be shot on cloudy days with detail in the sky – flat, grey or clear blue tends to lack texture so is less interesting. There are of course also the natural texture such as wood and stone and man-made objects like architecture and engineering.
Not all image work well as black and white. For some, colour is better.
The final process
Deciding on the final black and white is very much a personal preference. Each photographer and client will have their own ideas of what an image should look like. With the plethora of techniques and tools available, the difficulty will be to make a choice and to be consistent. It may be that every image you create is different; different subject, contrast and tones. This may work but I have found that creating a recognisable style can add to the overall impact of the work.
The main issues to be aware of are to:
- Keep the contrast – up or down, it depends on your style
- Keep the detail in the highlights and shadows – but watch out for solarisation
- Play with the black and white mix – the original image will be made up of colours. Changing the intensity of these colour will affect the greys in the converted image
- Drastic changes to tones and contrast can make the image grainy and noisy
My early experiences in the darkroom have left me with skills that can now be applied to a digital setup. Techniques such as dodging and burning work extremely well – and can also be overused. The additional flexibility available in software makes the possibilities endless. The trick is enough imagination and skill to put the technology to maximum use.
Making a print
One of the biggest rewards of digital black and whites are the ease with which great prints can be achieved. I am lucky to have the fantastic Canon iPF6100 and can produce rich and detailed A1 prints. The choice of papers is phenomenal! My current favourite is Hahnemuhle Photo Rag for its subtle texture and detail. I’ve also used Ilfords Gold Fibre Silk which has really good detail and much more like a the traditional darkroom papers.
Printing does require some knowledge about colour profiling. This has become more simplified in recent years with paper manufacturers making profiles available for combinations of printers and papers.