It’s Not All Black and White

We all have started a simple project; one which we have wanted to tackle for a long time. The concept itself is often pretty basic: “I want to clean up the boxes that have been sitting in the attic and taking up space for what seems like eons. The process seems to be a singular step or maybe two: “I’ll empty them out ‘one by one’, throwing out all the worthless or uninteresting stuff and compact the rest into boxes by category.” Alas however, we all know that any project soon succumbs to the “Topsy Effect”, a phrase I invented to describe the inevitable expansion of an endeavor to never imagined proportions. The Topsy Effect” refers directly to the moment in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic “Uncle Toms Cabin” where the delightful black child Topsy is asked “Topsy, “Do you know who made you?” To which she tacitly replies, “I Jus Growed!”

And so with childlike innocence I decided recently that I wanted to search my Lightroom libraries for good candidates for conversion to black and white. With the exception of a few rolls around 1993, I haven’t shot any specific Black and White since I was 21 years old (around 1965). In the years between 1950 and 1965 I shot and developed many Black and White images both personally and while working for Williams and Meyers Photoprinters with my dad. When I returned to photography after a considerable hiatus, I was entranced by Kodachrome, and shortly thereafter the arrival of Ektachrome E100VS (Vivid Saturation) sealed my fate. I became a color junkie with a specific formula to insure my color high. I set my ISO at 200, additionally underexposed it generally by 1/3 to ½ stop and then had the lab give it a one stop push in processing. (For you techies who are asking “How come not Velvia?”, the initial ISO of 50 was just too slow for my tastes. I needed the additional shutter speed.)

Kicking and screaming in December 2004, I finally joined the digital revolution, purchasing a Canon 20D and putting my EOS3, Elan 7, Mamiya 645’s and assorted other film bodies in a box under the bed. Now the color was inevitable but I didn’t forget my roots so to speak, I was just busy doing something else.

So this month I started examining roughly 40,000 images looking for B&W gold. After wading through so many images, giving most a preliminary conversion (press the letter “V” in Lightroom) to look for potential, I ended up with around 270 candidates, about half of which contained people (mostly from my “street” shooting) , a bunch were architecture, many were “abstracts” and precious few were pure nature images. In the process of doing this I’ve learned a great deal about myself and the photographs I’ve been taking the last 9 years. Here are a few observations…

  • Removing the color from an image I began asking the basic questions “What is this image about?” or “What’s’ the story here?” While it’s not a totally invalid answer to conclude that “Color” is the subject of a given image, if it is not wholly an abstract, at least passing consideration should be given to one other axiom for images ; “Content is king!”. In other words, color may be a thin veneer on an image with no real substance. This exercise alone led me to delete a large number of images which heretofore had seemed worthy of hard drive space.
  • “Why did I think this worked in the first place?” (Also known colloquially as “What was I thinking?”) becomes the natural follow on to the thought process. Midway into earnestly berating myself I had a “Duhhh!” moment. I was editing from earliest (oldest) images to the present and in the process, seeing the changes and growth in my own evaluation and image making skills. Our criteria become more exacting and our choices better as we mature. What’s wrong with that?
  • As I was working on this post, two interesting articles were posted on one of my favorite sites. Click here to see the first one which addresses the “What’s this image about?” question and click here to see the second piece written by renowned photographer Eric Meola, which addresses the issue of contemporary color photography. While Meola’s opening tone is a little dispiriting, the tone his example photographs set is upbeat and promising.
  • Street shooting has a legacy of Black and White execution. It’s assumed there is less to get in the way of the story. Architecture too lends itself to Black and White as the best way to be able to observe shape, line and form without distraction. Also, both of these subjects lend themselves to hard blacks, bright whites and gradations of grey. However landscapes have an initial problem. Blues, Greens and often tend to translate to similar shades of grey. Flowering spring trees and autumnal foliage scenes loose their initial impact while the viewer works to differentiate the translated grey tones to something other than the greys of the rest of the year’s foliage. Now I’m not saying that landscape and nature cannot be successfully imaged minus color. As a subscriber to LensWork, I’ve seen much fine evidence to the contrary, a fine example of which is the work of Michael Kenna. I will however need to work on some interesting interpretive skills in order to learn how to render these colors to interesting black and white renditions. In the old days, colored filters were used to work these wonders. Today’s imaging software has digital equivalents and I’ll need to start poking around there to see what wonders lie there within. (I’m such a Photoshop and Lightroom minimalist that until this year I didn’t even own a full version of Photoshop, preferring to do whatever I needed in Elements. Does that mean I was a dweeb? Or maybe then I wasn’t but now I am? It’s soooo confusing.)
  • It’s well known that some individuals “don’t suffer fools gladly.” Black and White photographs don’t suffer dull cloudless skies gladly. Hence Ansel Adam’s penchant for that deep red filter. (The last two bullets of which, however lead to the following…)
  • I need to remain aware that many images that didn’t translate well on first blush in Lightroom may benefit greatly from more meticulous attention in Photoshop where one can apply selective tools in the same manner that masking, burning, dodging and the like were applied in the “wet” darkroom. In other words, I shouldn’t be too precipitous or repudiative. Validation of this comes in the form of a quote from Brooks Jensen (LensWork No. 50) “It is much harder to make a good black and white photograph than a color one.” And of course I remain well aware of Ansel Adam’s quote that “The negative (read raw file) is the score and the print is the performance.”
  • The monitor isn’t nearly so accurate for black and white rendering as it is would seem to be for color. You cannot judge success until you make a print. Unlike color leaping off the monitor and into your lap literally, the subtleties of a black and white image need to be rendered on and react with the printing substrate. I can see my ink and paper budget ballooning exponentially.
  • It’s evident that I have really exercised my color eye. Given the current popularity of hyper saturated scenes and over-the-top HDR should I eschew my own tendencies because it aligns me with “the crowd”? If I choose to distance myself from the Flikr generation, am I an elitist? There is a large amount of emotionally charged and vitriolic rhetoric and backlash these days about color, HDR and the explosion of photographic output by talented or sometimes merely prolific “enthusiast” photographers. Some of this may be kvetching about the decline of market share for standing professionals to clients willing to settle for “good enough” free or cheaply available photography from the neophytes. But alas, it makes for a period of unrest and suggests that everyone must choose a side, a divisiveness with which I am very uncomfortable.
  • The creator of a striking black and white image may do well to embrace the school of thought “less is more”. Converting a color image to black and white draws attention to those whose information density is a barrier to interpretation; where the eye finds no place in the frame on which to rest.
  • For me it seems that most bird photography lacks some primal element when devoid of color; at least at first blush. My first pass through the library selected less than half a dozen bird photographs that might do well as a black & white. Two of those happen to be red-tail hawks whose overall coloring is somewhat monochromatic anyway. This again may be something that I need to work on as a personal project and strengthen my vision from another perspective.
  • Sometimes Flora on the other hand, has some distinct charms. Green foliage has an advantage inasmuch as the green channel in RGB contains much more information than the other two, thus a wide range of a grey values, dark to light may be available. Yellow and white flowers often lend themselves well to so called “high key” scenes. As I mentioned above, red can be problematic as without post processing assistance it tends to render a flat and uninspiring 18% grey. Orange goes to light grey and dark purple surprisingly renders lighter than expected. All of this is of course without the help of post processing adjustments. One of my favorite shrub/trees, the smoke tree may be particularly disappointing as a black and white since all the subtle color shades blend into one monotone grey. Once again to paraphrase, content drives decisions.
  • In prescreening so many shots it seems that some frames that appear sharp in color may seem to loose some apparent sharpness when the color is removed. Something about color seems to help define edge acutance under certain circumstances. Conversely, with the exception of “street photography”, many black and white landscape, nature and especially architectural photographs almost scream for super sharpness. Decisions, decisions.
  • Interestingly, in the pre digital age, if you were shooting black and white film, the first time the image was visible to you was when the negative was developed. The image was always realized as a black and white. Today, unless one opts to shoot .jpg’s with some camera style set to render black and white to the cameras monitor and subsequently to the computer, the photographer may see the color image on the camera back and certainly will first see it on their computer as a color image that subsequently will be converted to another form. This is a curious dynamic that must have an impact on perception. “I think therefore I am” “converting” something to a black and white. On the other hand, looking through the viewfinder you are seeing the colorful real world. Aren’t you then converting in your head? I’m getting a headache.

This is all “first pass” thinking and I’m sure a lot more smoke is going to pour out of my ears before it’s all done. It is however good thinking and I’m sure that in the end I’ll grow a bit both in perception and a number of techniques. The nice thing about being involved in the arts is that I know every day when I wake up, there is something new to learn. I hope I never loose that feeling.

PS. The images I’ve posted bypass the “street” stuff because the non people shots illustrate more of the above challenges in my estimation. As soon as a person is in the frame they tend to self define as main subject and detract from all else. Perhaps I’ll post some street work later, after first delving deeper into subtler issues.

1 Response to “It’s Not All Black and White”

  1. June 17, 2014 at 4:47 am

    Helpful info. Fortunate me I found your site unintentionally,
    and I’m stunned why this coincidence didn’t happened earlier!
    I bookmarked it.

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January 2013

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All Photographic Images ©Arni Cheatham, Segami Images and Eyes and Ears, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of photographs without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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