Ontario Journalist, Writer, Photography & Filmmaker

Seeing in Black & White Pt II

This is a follow up to the article from last week on seeing in black and white for those who might struggle a bit with creating black and white imagery in a colour world.

In that article, we looked at some of the basics of colour conversion to greyscale and some of the difficulties in creating the desired separation of grey tones and contrast.  We also started to look at some of the ways in which we need to manipulate one colour (e.g., yellow) to affect another (e.g., green).

This time, we’re going to explore some additional aspects that are, in my view, more important in b&w photography than colour (although they’re not at all unimportant in colour photography) and look further at how colour in our images is affected in grey tones.

We talked about yellow being an important colour in nature/landscape photography because of the impact it has on aspects of our scenes that are green.  But yellow also plays an important role in portrait photography as well insofar as rendering skin tones in greyscale.  We think of the caucasian skin as being ‘pink’ and while there is a good deal of red in caucasian skin tone, there’s also a lot of yellow and that yellow can be vital in getting the proper or desired greyscale tone in a portrait that’s being converted from colour to black and white.

Below is a straight grey conversion of a model I worked with a few years ago in Czech Republic.  The skin tones are pretty dark because I’ve made no adjustments from the default conversion which was done with a Black & White Adjustment Layer in Photoshop.

Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
Simple B&W Conversion (click for larger version)

The next couple of adjustments are purposely exaggerated to show the impact.  First, I take Red from the default value of 40 and move it higher.  The skin definitely gets lighter but so do the lips and we start to see some unattractive effects in the skin and hair.

Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
Red Colour Adjustment (click for larger version)

The next leaves the red slider at the default value and moves just the yellow slider up from the default of 60.  What do we see?  A lightening of the skin but in a less severe way than with the red adjustment, the lips maintain the darker tone and maintain contrast and the effects on the hair are much less as well. Even with an exaggerated change, the result is more pleasing than with the Red adjustment.

Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
Yellow Colour Adjustment (click for larger vesion)

The impact of yellow on African American skin tones is similar.  Below are two examples of a model I worked with several years ago, the first with the Red increased to exaggerate, the second with the Yellow increased to exaggerate.

Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
Red Adjustment (click for larger version)
Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
Yellow Adjustment (click for larger version)

Once gain, the yellow is more subtle and more tonal contrast remains. So, as with landscape/nature images, even in portrait photos, yellow plays an important part in getting a good black and white conversion.

Another colour that’s important in considering b&w photography is cyan (sort of a turquoise, greeny-blue colour).  Cyan can play a big part with the grey tonality of skies in b&w photography.  We think of the sky as blue but there actually can be a lot of cyan in it as well depending on the light.  In Lightroom, Cyan is called Aqua.  When you’re converting images with skies to black and white, you’ll probably want to work with both the blue and cyan sliders to get the final tonality you’re looking for.

Something that often gets overlooked in colour photography is the effect of shadow/highlight contrast.  Because we have colour for visual interest, the interplay of shadows and highlights in creating contrast – which adds visual interest – gets overlooked or forgotten entirely.  In black and white imagery; however, because we don’t have the colour information to use as a crutch, the impact of shadows and highlights becomes very important.  Contrast through separation of grey tones is important, but contrast through separation of highlights and shadows is important as well.

When shooting with black and white in mind, it’s a good idea to look for opportunties to take advantage of light and dark, shadow and highlight.

In the image below, because of the time of day I shot it, early morning, there was strong directional sunlight that gave me a good deal of shadow/highlight contrast naturally.  When I first converted this to black and white, I didn’t have to do much in the way of burning in the shadow areas because the natural, directional light had already created the most of the contrast for me.  I felt, when I shot this, that it could make a decent conversion to black and white.

Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
Burleigh Falls, Peterborough, ON (click for larger version)

The next image, on the other hand, I had to do quite a bit with.  Given the nature of the light in this grotto, there was a lot of shadow and not a lot of highlight, except for the light area in the water which is caused by light shining on the water outside the cave and shining through an underwater tunnel in the rock wall.  Knowing that with a single exposure I’d overexpose that area in order to get good detail in the rest of the cave, I used HDR.  One of the downsides of HDR can be (not always) a flattening of shadow/highlight contrast and a flattening of midtone contrast.  You’ll see in the colour version that there is some shadow/highlight contrast but not a great deal.  I purposely relied on the varied colours of the rock to give me the visual interest in combination with the ethereal light in the water.

Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
The Grotto, Bruce Pen NP, Tobermory, ON (click for larger version)

A straight conversion to black and white was pretty flat.  I had to do a fair bit of both dodging and burning to give me the contrast I wanted and the tonal separation I wanted in the shadow and highlight areas.

Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
The Grotto B&W (click for larger version)

You can read more about the processing of this particular image, for which all of the dodging and burning was done in Lightroom in an another article that was posted recently.

The last aspect of black and white photography that we’ll examine in this article is texture.  Texture can play a key roll in creating visual interest in black and white photography.  Again, because we don’t have the colour to give us visual interest, we need other things to keep a viewer interested in the images.  Texture can do that.  Because with texture, you’ll also get, in many cases, intricate shadow/highlight contrast.

The image below is processed two different ways.  When I saw this tree, I knew I wanted to concentrate on the roots, the texture of the bark and the rock it was growing on.  I also knew I wanted to take it to black and white rather than leave it in colour and I knew that I wanted to have the roots lighter in tone against the darker rock.  The first version, while retaining the intricate knotting of the roots, loses all the other texture.  It looks more than a little fake.  The second, and (for now) final version also has the lighter toned roots but retains much more the texture in the bark and in the rocks.  For me, this second image is basically what I envisioned when I saw this tree on the trail.

Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
Tree Roots (click for larger version)
Seeing in Black & White Pt II, RF-Photography
Tree Roots (click for larger version)

Texture as a form of visual interest can be very important to a successful black and white image.  Whether others think it’s a successful image is a different matter.  Let me know what you think, positive and negative.  I’m actually thinking about going back and working on this image again from scratch to see if I can come up with something better, haven’t decided 100% yet.

Those are a few more thoughts on seeing in black and white and some things to keep in mind when shooting with the intent of creating a black and white image from the start or doing a conversion after the fact.

Always happy to read any feedback you’d be willing to provide.  How do you approach your own black and white photography?