In digital photography all images are captured in colour. I think every digital camera offers a black & white or sepia conversion feature in-camera. This post is intended to convince you never to use it. The images were kindly provided by Passerine
Black and white photography is a vast and demanding subject. It’s not one I feel qualified to talk about authoritatively, but I can offer some ideas. They are mostly lifted from Leslie Alsheimer’s book, “B&W in Photoshop CS3” and from Michael Freeman’s seminal “The Complete Guide to Black & White Digital Photography”, both of which I heartily recommend. I’m hoping other, more skilful practitioners of black and white digital photography (hello, Peter et al.) can contribute.
Subject matter and approach
You don’t need a high-end camera, but it really helps if you shoot in RAW. JPGs lose detail when edited. The conversion to B&W should be done in post-processing, never in-camera, but I’ve found I have to be a B&W mindset to capture the image. Colour photography can feature two shades of green (or red, etc.) that complement each other. In B&W, they just disappear. It helps to expose for the shadows in B&W and for the highlights in colour – two very different approaches. In B&W, texture, shape, profiles, lighting and patterns emerge far more prominently when there is no colour to ‘distract’ you. Andri Hery said: “To see in colour is a delight for the eye, but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul”. Trite, but true.
Grappling with black and white
This is an example of what a compact can do in-camera as a black and white conversion.
I think a more effective approach is to shoot in colour and post-process. Unfortunately, this image is not available in colour, but Katarina was kind enough to provide a similar image in colour. I would like to use ACR or Lightroom to post-process this, but the interface may be unfamiliar to some of you. I’ve decided to use tools available in Photoshop CS5 (equivalents must be available in your image editor), but I strongly recommend using ACR or LR for black-and-white post-processing.
To begin with, the camera has produced a rather dark image.
Use the brightness / contrast (bad), levels (better) or curves adjustment layer (best) to add punch and then a hue / saturation AL to add colour. Don’t worry about how it looks in colour; it’s the B&W result we want. The advantage of using adjustment layers is that you can, ahem, adjust them later.
An easy approach when using the levels AL is align the tabs on the horizontal axis left-hand side (shadows) and right-hand side (highlights) under the main part of the histogram “bell curve”. Be careful with the levels AL. It is not a subtle tool. I think of it as trying to mend a watch with a hammer. In the above example, it’s introduced chroma noise and further softened the image.
Now it’s worth trying a black-and-white conversion. In Photoshop CS3 had a rather clunky mono converter, but the point is to adjust the colour channels to achieve an effect you find pleasing.
This is where my B&W skills are clearly lacking. The image is softer and a lot of noise has been introduced. I am going to use a noise reduction technique explained here
, which involves using the despeckle filter on each colour channel. This further softens the image, but we might be able to recover the image later. If this has taught me one thing, it’s the usefulness of shooting in RAW.
Below is the final sharpened image using a rather drastic technique: first merge all visible layers. Then copy the single background layer and change its blend mode from “normal” to “overlay” or “hard light” (your choice). Then Filter > Other > High Pass at as high a pixel count as you feel comfortable with. When working on images I set it at 10-15. Here, I went up to 30.
This is the final image:
I am fully aware that this is a very subjective matter. In fact, I think I prefer the soft and rather gentle original. My point is that you should get to make these choices, not your camera. Post-processing is, after all, what allows us to add our own view.
Please feel free to improve on this thread!