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Black and White, We Can Learn From the Old Days


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Black and White, We Can Learn From the Old Days

13 Jul 2022 10:11AM   Views : 437 Unique : 232

It's simple to produce a monochrome image these days. Creating a good one and realising your vision is another matter.

Black and white images can be intensely powerful, muh more so than colour. Just think of some of the iconic images from the 20th Century. While colour film wasn't available in many instances or impractical because of its more complex processing, for example in war photography, let's just imagine that we did have a choioce. Would the colour image be as strong, would it make as big an impression on the viewer?

There's no right or wrong, and indeed each situation is different. However, some documentary photographers prefer black and white because it's more powerful at telling the story. It's also the traditional home for that type of photography but that shouldn't be the main reason for choosing it. For other genres it can portray mood more effectively. In advertising it's a conscious choice if it makes the message stronger and so the desire to buy.

You've chosen black and white. You know it works. Now the hard work starts. Not every subject works in mono, and ha's no always due to he fact tha colour may be he more natural option (for example trees in autumn). Mono excels with shapes, lines and textures and tonal contrast. That last point is so important and why you should avoid greyscale conversion. I have seen examples where mono images have been produced by just going grey. Yes it's a different portrayal of he scene but it's lacklustre and not something to interest the viewer or hold their attention.


For tonal contrast, film photographers used colour filters at the taking stage. When doing a digital conversion use the colour response sliders to achieve the same effects. Different technical process but the same thought process.
You now have the basis of a good mono image. Even so, it may still look less than exciting. Indeed, a black and white negative printed onto standard photographic paper may look much the same. The darkroom worker had access to different grades of printing paper hard (for increased contrast) and soft (to help with detail by producing less contrast, useful for photos taken in harsh sunlight for example). You have te same choice, using he Contrast slider or hen Curves control. Different technical process but the same thought process.

Then there are local adjustments for exposure and contrast. The darkroom worker would dodge (ive less exposure) or burn in (increase exposure) to adjust tonality and detail. Remember, those processes work opposite to what you may think because you're working with negatives, so burning in with more exposure darkens that area. Great for skies. The darkroom wrker would use their hands or pieces of card, moving them around o get a soft edge to the transition. In software, you'd use a feathered selection for that smooth transition. The name of the Dodge and Burn tools in software comes from hose techniques. Local contrast adjustments were possible with multigrade papers. Different technical process but the same thought process.

Then there's toning. I've written about that before, so suffice to say it's another choice. Different technical process but the same thought process.


All that I've described have their equal in software or traditional methods. Software has more flexibility and control, and of course consistency and repeatability you can run off innumerable copies digially and they'll all be the same, but the darkroom prints will all have slight differences (as would any hand crafted item). The darkroom takes longer and is not as comfortable or as easy as sitting in a chair in the light and manipulating on screen. More fulfilling possibly as you have o concentrate and be fully committed.

And therein lies an issue. Quickness and easiness can lead you into a false sense that that's all you need to do. You owe it to your creativity to do that. Rarely will one click do a decent job. What makes those images so appealing, even if they are 30, 60, a 100 or more years old. Learn what to do and how to do it to get good results.

Different technical processes but the same thought processes.

All text and images Keith Rowley 2022

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Black and White, We Can Learn From the Old Days

It's simple to produce a monochrome image these days. Creating a good one and realising your vision is another matter. Black and white images can be intensely powerful, muh more so than colour. Just think of some of the iconic images from the 20th C...

Posted: 13 Jul 2022 10:11AM


karlablo Avatar
karlablo Plus
5 46 29
13 Jul 2022 12:01PM
Keith, I can fully support your words - there is this parallel world of monochromes... with film forcing you more into the seeing and working out... And in addition there are a lot of photographers committed to film (only) because of the technical advantages (at least subjectively)... not to mention the intensity of the PROCESS when photographing on film.
Optical filtering is an aspect I would like to mention and add to digital photography - especially when photographing with "full spectrum" digicams. When striving for the intended grey tones I found it very useful to use optical filters from 550nm (VIS) to 780nm (NIR) for sooc images...
Kind regards, KARL A
dark_lord Avatar
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
13 Jul 2022 2:21PM
Thanks for your comment Karl. IR is something I must explore, as I do have such a filter, somewhere.
Robert51 Avatar
Robert51 14 12 147 United Kingdom
18 Jul 2022 11:22AM
Fist may I say a big thank you for the reminder of those red light days spent in a small broom cupboard size room, that had that wonderful name of "my darkroom". Today's software has changed all of that, but you did forget a mug of coffee in your working set up.
Yes the way we do it has changed but all the ideas are still the same. I often talk about strong and powerful black and whites, which are crisp sharp with deep blacks and controlled whites. There are still the softer flatter images for portraits that need to control the light and shadows.
No black and white is not just a case of removing the colour, but a journey in itself. I also love the trend of allowing the shadows just to go off into deep blacks. There are a few on the site that have really master the art. A good black and white is a thing of joy but rarely seen...
dark_lord Avatar
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
19 Jul 2022 11:45AM
Black and white is harder than it looks, yes.

As for the coffee, that'll be welcome when this current heat has gone.

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