Let's talk about black and white in the age of digital. It's no big deal to do.

A reader complimented the black and white images I posted yesterday. Another reader asked about my black and white technique. I've always liked black and white photographs very much and spent about 25 years going in and out of my own darkroom, making black and white prints of all the personal work I was making. In one way it was easier to make good black and white work in the "paper" darkroom because so much of the aesthetic heavy lifting was done by the variety and different "looks" of the photo print papers available at the time. And the wonderful and varied tonal renderings of films like Tri-X or Agfapan APX 25. Before the web got popular it seemed, at least to me, easy to lose myself and lose track of time working on a series of nice, double-weight prints. I'd work on images I loved for hours and sometimes would look down at my watch to see that it was 2 in the morning and I had been printing since just after dinner...

I find that it's harder for me to go out now with a camera that's set for shooting raw files, and shooting them in color, and actually visualize how they'll look at black and white images that I'd want to share. My brain really prefers it when I go out with the intention that the final result of my effort will be in black and white. With that in mind, and knowing I have a limited imagination when it comes to previsualilzing things like monochrome results or after-shot cropping, I decide at the outset that I'm going to work in black and white. 

I set the camera to shoot Jpegs and then I adjust the very few controls on my Leica cameras that allow me to shoot the files in black and white. On the camera I used yesterday; a Leica SL, I go into the Jpeg Settings menu and, under saturation, I choose: "monochrome." Then I turn up the contrast. There are only really three settings for contrast in that camera which interest me. There is the null point; the neutral position. There is "medium high" (which is the setting I choose for normal daylight work -- direct sun, etc.) and there is one more step: "high" which I only use on very cloudy and overcast days.

There is also a sharpness setting with the same course choices: Medium, Medium High and High. Again, I default to Medium High almost always.

Now, I understand that most pundits on the web advise photographers and videographers to use low contrast settings and even lower sharpness settings with the idea that all will be fixed and optimized on post processing but I'd rather see it in my camera while I'm making the images. It seems more efficient and, for want of a better explanation, braver to me to try to get close to what you want to see in the viewfinder. 

There is no option to set color filters in the Leicas that I shoot with. That option does exist in the Lumix S1 series cameras and in my (wonderful) Sigma fp but they never seem to have much effect, or more importantly, the effect I want to see when I use them.

I generally import the files into Lightroom Classic to get them into my system and to archive them. To my eye all the images benefit from an increase in "clarity".  I'm liberal with the slider and dial in between 15 and 40 points of clarity for most street scenes and landscapes. I am usually more prudent with portraits. 

I don't have the option to use the HSL settings as I've made my stand to monochrome in the camera. I could only make color channel adjustments with a color file. I can use the color temperature sliders to make the final image warmer or cooler, greener or more magenta. But those are options that are not too useful for the way I like to see my photographs in final form. Though I did play with color temperature on several images in yesterday's batch.

Portraits benefit from a bit more contrast and the addition of some fabricated grain. 

This image was taken several years ago when the big "Sail" buildings was just getting started. This is infrastructure below ground level. I have photos from the inception; from the digging of the enormous pit to the final fitting of door knobs and hand rails on the newly unveiled entrance doors. 
This image has some "clarity" added but is otherwise as it came from the camera. 

The image just above had some contrast added and the exposure was increased from 
the original setting in post production.

Gloomy and rainy days beg for more contrast and clarity. But it's important not to go overboard with contrast to the point where the darker tones block up. A judicious use of the clarity slider and the shadow recovery slider, in tandem, is sometimes called for....

I'm a simple photographer so I try not to make more, and more complicated, work for myself in post production. I also prefer to roam the streets looking for interesting stuff than to spend too 
much time micro-processing every square centimeter of an image. If you didn't get it 
mostly right in camera chances of making radical improvements in the "digital darkroom" are negligible. 
See first. Fix as a last resort. 

Hope this is helpful. 

Happy Father's Day. 


Ross Nolly said...

I feel that having the viewfinder set to B&W makes the learning curve so much faster than the "old days" when you had to visualise the final image when taking the shot. One thing I do find is that the "I think I'll convert that pic to BW" after you've taken it and looking at it in whatever editing software you use, doesn't really work that well. I reckon you need to have a dedicated BW or colour mindset when you are actually shooting.

I use Exposure as a BW editor (used to be called Alien Skin). Shoot in RAW with quite flat contrast and do the heavy lifting etc in Exposure. As an aside; if you want a "HP5+ or Tri X look", and who doesn't? ;-) The old Nikon V1's were beautiful BW cameras that seemed to naturally give you that look. Cheers :-)

Edward Richards said...

Interesting thought using black and white JPG to visualize. At least on Nikons you can do that while also saving a raw file. Now that I am several years from routinely shooting black and white film, and thus have lost a lot of my "black and white eye", I will give that a try.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Edward, It works the same on Fuji and Panasonic cameras as well. It's a great way to have visual confirmation of how you are approaching B&W. And if you decide you'd rather have color it's right there in the raw file.

Gato said...

I, too, often shoot B&W JPEG plus raw. Most of the time I use the the JPEG with minor tweaks, but if I want really fine control I can do a B&W from the raw. I almost never convert something to color after I shot it thinking in B&W, and only rarely convert a photo to B&W if I was thinking color when I shot it.

And I can go just as crazy in Photoshop as I used to in the darkroom, especially if I'm printing B&W. I can be hours on a single print.