Monday, November 1, 2010

Classic Black and White in the Digital Age

If you are interested in creating classic black and white photographic art with your digital camera you might be interested in this.

Classic Black and White Photography in the
Digital Age

My primary means of artistic expression is black and white photography. Over the years I have worked equal parts black and white as well as color. However with the advent of the digital age I have migrated more and more the direction of black and white as a means of personal expression, since black and white is more often assumed to be hand printed than color. All of my black and white photographs are hand printed. Lately I have been contemplating the state of black and white photography, since I teach workshops and many of the participants now use digital cameras, and wondering what the best method of producing black and white is when the original exposure is digitally produced rather than the more conventional black and white original; film.

There are several ways to produce black and white images from digital files. In my experience all of them have strengths and weaknesses. Without question, the easiest to do is to make a color photograph and then, with the magic of Photoshop turn the file to gray scale, click “save as”, and voila! a black and white photograph has been made. Another methodology that has come to pass in the last few years came to pass with the introduction, by Adobe in their Photoshop program, of the ability to convert to black and white with filters that are built into the program. Before the introduction of CS3 I would separate each of the channels and make my adjustment in them then put them back together and flatten the image if I needed to make a black and white image from a digital file and the output quality was more critical than normal usage such a black and white of an executive portrait for publication. (Bear in mind that my usual practice was to use an additional role of black and white film, as well as the normal color, if the agency told be ahead of time that they would need both black and white and color.) Undoubtedly there are other methodologies that involve using “levels”, “curves” and other Photoshop tools to produce what may be very respectable images. Also, there are several “plug-ins” that purport to do a good job as well. All of these methods work, and are acceptable under certain circumstances. However, my experience with digital files that were converted from color to black and white is that as the image size increased the image quality fell off, sometimes at an alarming rate. While I could easily produce a 30x40 from an original digital file, I began seeing “static” at 16x20 in B&W, especially when the red filter in Photoshop is used. If I have a file, or a negative, and it won’t produce at least a 16x20 that is virtually grain free, that image is pretty much useless to me. I am aware that some folks say they have solved that problem however my strong suspicion is that while the image does look good on the monitor it won’t produce a 16x20, or larger print with an acceptable grain pattern. I only can report what my results have been.

I began wondering if there might be a better method of producing gallery quality black and whites using a digital camera. My next thought was, if I were using black and white film, in a 35 mm camera how would I tonal range contrast? The obvious answer was to use normal filters designed for use in black and white photography. Accordingly I gathered up my black and white filters, a #25 red, #21 Dark orange, #58 green and a #8 light yellow. These are my most commonly used filters when I am using black and white film. The natural question in my mind was, “would the digital sensor respond to the use of these filters approximately the same way as black and white film does? How would the camera’s sensor respond to the very strong color balance of the filters? To my knowledge no one had done this experiment before. In the test, all of the photographs were exposed at an ASA of 100 at 12 mega-pixels in camera RAW. The photographs were imported into Light Room and adjustments were made on each image to bring the mid tone values as close to each other as possible. The images were then opened in Photoshop where the photographs were converted to grayscale and final adjustments made to bring crisp detail in the highlights and have open, luminous shadows.

What I was interested in seeing was how the tones of the image, which are in color, would respond to the introduction of strong color filtration. The photographs are of a locust tree that I drive past everyday. Bear in mind that my concern here wasn’t to produce a salon quality black and white photograph of the tree but to gather information on the effectiveness of black and white filters in digital photography.

As you will note there are differences between the results that were produced using the different filters. Some are very subtle, some are more apparent. As you look at the images pay careful attention to the leaves that are yellow in the color image, and their relationship to the green leaves that haven’t yet changed.

Now to the big advantage. As I looked at the images produced using filters, on my monitor, there was no apparent increase in granularity as the photographs increased in size from any of the filters. When I used Photoshop to convert the color image in the test there was a huge increase in granularity as the size of the photograph increased, particularly when using the red Photoshop filter. Additionally, when using the red Photoshop filter, I saw a noticeable break down in the gradation of tones in areas of smooth tonality such as the sky.

My conclusion is this. If your intent is to make gallery quality black and white photographs in black and white, using a digital camera, the best method for you may be to get out the old black and white filters and use them just as we did before there was digital.