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Thread: What makes a good Black and White Image?

  1. #1
    davidedric's Avatar
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    What makes a good Black and White Image?

    Hi,

    Looking through the forums, I am impressed by the impact that B&W images can have, so I was inspired to try working on a few of my own (colour to B&W, that is). I'm not really impressed by the results so far, and I'm sure that some of it is down to technique (I'm using LR4.1). However, I suspect that a lot is down to the fact that I don't actually know what makes a good B&W image.

    I can look at images that impress me, and try to work it out - but that isn't easy either.

    To get me on the way, can any kind soul offer advice, or point me to a relevant thread or other resource that could help me on the way.

    Thanks,

    Dave

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    DanK's Avatar
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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    Dave,

    What you aim for is a matter of taste. Personally, I aim for high contrast and wide tonal range, but that is just my taste. Elliot Porter did not aim for that in his early work, for example, but did in his later work. However, whatever your preferences, B&W depends on fewer elements, since color is gone. It depends a lot on textures, contrast, and lines.

    LR 4.1 is actually a very powerful conversion tool. The initial B&W conversion in LR is usually pretty blah, but the tools for enhancing it are powerful and easy to use. First, you will often find (check the histogram) that the tonal range is limited. You can easily stretch it out. Contrast will probably need boosting. You can darken or lighten specific color channels easily, either by using the sliders or by using the targeted adjustment tool, which will identify the color channels involved in any point you select.

    Dan

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    davidedric's Avatar
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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    Thanks, Dan. I've got Scott Kelby's book on LR4, so that helps me find the tools. I think what I am finding difficult is to spot an image that will look good when the colour is gone. Perhaps one thing a background that doesn't get in the way when the colour can make the main subject stand out is gone?

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    Moderator GrumpyDiver's Avatar
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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    I did a lot of B&W work in my youth, because that was all I could afford to shoot, and of course, the B&W darkroom was a good place to hone ones skills. It is quite frankly easier to shoot B&W than colour as if automatically fulfills the principle of simplification by removing colour from the equation. Simple put, an image that has too many colours in it can be distracting to look at, and converting to gray scale can result in a very compelling image,

    When have an image I like, one of the first things that I do is to apply a B&W adjustment layer in Photoshop to see how it will look. Often that is sufficient to get me to move in one direction or to stick to colour. I rarely find that an image works equally well in colour or B&W.

    I agree with Dan; if I am working a B&W image, the place that I start is playing with the colour sliders in the conversion process. The default settings are never "good enough", but again one has to be careful to ensure that you don't get something totally garish as an end result. Increasing the blues (or decreasing the yellows) tends to give the skies a bit more "pop" as the clouds stand out a bit more. I will often tweak the predominant background colour a bit, to see if things look better with a slightly lighter or darker background. Playing around with the contrast (I tend to use a curves adjustment layer for this) is another key variable to play around with. Even in the old darkroom black & white darkroom days, photographic paper was sold by contrast grade (or use a variable contrast paper that used filtered light to vary the contrast of the final image) to let the photographer optimize this variable.

    Any subject matter can look good in B&W and personally, I find I am drawn to B&W when photographing either period scenes (old architecture, for instance) and existing light photography. The existing light works for me because I often find that colour in nighttime scenes can look unreal and garish. The human eye sees more monochrome when it is dark out; the B&W rod sensors are much more sensitive than the colour cone sensors. Desaturated or pure B&W shots can look a lot more natural. For period pieces, I will sometimes go for a sepia look on a cream coloured background, rather than pure B&W.

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    Moderator Donald's Avatar
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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    Quote Originally Posted by davidedric View Post
    I've got Scott Kelby's book on LR4, so that helps me find the tools. I think what I am finding difficult is to spot an image that will look good when the colour is gone.
    I've never read Kelby, but from what others have said, I think he is probably the best there is in terms of techniques and the use of tools. But making B & W images is about so, so much more than that.

    If you want to get serious about B & W, then the one thing I would recommend is getting yourself a copy of Michael Freeman's 'The Complete Guide to Black & White Digital Photography', 2009, Ilex .

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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    I too started out many years ago primarily shooting B&W then putting in lots of hours in the darkroom. Putting aside all notions of creativity, artistic license, etc....for me there are two things a good B&W photograph needs. B and W. I like to see strong representations of the fullest gamut possible. I often see attempts at B&W that do not contain the maximum range that could have been presented in the shot. Some too bright and some too dark. They look incomplete, elementary. Is that a lack of knowledge or on purpose? It's hard to tell sometimes but what are to me, unbalanced examples, are really evident in some landscape shots. Those results are certainly fine for the presenter but just not for me. I do think someone just starting out in B&W should get those basics down and understand how to control the maximum available range of tones before exploring other paths. After that, take a look at what are in your opinion the best B&W photographs and go from there. Perhaps you like the the higher key range. There are no rights or wrongs as long as you like what you see.
    Last edited by Andrew1; 9th September 2012 at 05:26 PM.

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    davidedric's Avatar
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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    But making B & W images is about so, so much more than that.
    Thanks, Donald, that's what I think I was trying to say. I can use the Kelby book for software techniques, but as soon as I started I realised that was not the place to start, if that makes sense.

  8. #8

    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    I bought the same book that Donald recommended to me a while back and I find myself going back to it as I try to learn about B & W images. It is hard for me to get one to the point I like it also but still trying. I am glad I bought the book and it is always on my desk. Lots of thought provoking material. Now I just need to get it from the book to my brain.

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    Brownbear's Avatar
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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    Here is a thread on B&W on a question that I asked with very helpful and informative replies.

    Black & White Photography

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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    I accidentally left B/W mode on after visiting a fort and got this B/W of the oak tree in the front "yard" at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in South Carolina about 18 months ago. Why I like it is the oak tree hadn't lost its leaves yet, but the other vegetation had already started putting its leaves. So, what would have been just a massive lightish green lump of stuff with brown leaves (on the live oak) turned out looking pretty good, IMHO. I especially like the limb structure.

    You can find it at: http://4114us.net/photography/Pinckn...4670-50pct.png
    v
    Last edited by drjuice; 9th September 2012 at 08:44 PM.

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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    You ask what makes a good B&W image, simple answer vision, remember "one should not only photography things for what they are-but for what else they are" (Minor White). I usually find that in a B&W image less is more as this draws the eye to what you want others to see. The rest is simply in the processing, and printing, paper plays an important part in this as it is now only black, white, and shades of grey nothing else to rely on. Each image will tell you how dark or light to make the image so play with the image because it is what is inside you that will come out in the final product, and that is half the fun to see where you take yourself. So embrace your Dark Side.

    Cheers:

    Allan

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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    Dave,

    My goof. Not Elliott Porter! I meant Edward Weston. Ansel Adams also played with the Pictorialist style ("painterly," subdued contrast, lots out of focus) before turning Modernist and moving to the other extreme, with great attention to contrast and detail. Weston and Adams started the "f/64 group," a reference to the smallest aperture on their large-format cameras, because of their images in which DOF is extremely wide so that detail is crisp throughout. (This is a bit of an answer to the people who get so hung up on diffraction that they insist that you can't use small apertures, but that is another story.)

    Dan

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    Antonio Correia's Avatar
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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    The more I do B&W the more I like it.
    Thank you all for the written text
    Quite interesting

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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    I'm a complete rank amateur at black and white photography, but tried a free trial of some software last year and became hooked. Stripping away the colour focuses the viewer on the composition and tones but can also convey emotion in a way that a colour photograph cannot in some circumstances.

    Once I started converting photographs to B&W, I revisited old stock which had been archived on an external drive and found photographs that didn't work for me in colour which then just worked. Travel photographs of street scenes suddenly became images that I was happy to post and show. I think that mainly this was because the photographs were of parts of the world which hadn't changed over time and the B&W conversions gave them more of a timeless feel. Also I was able to cover up my mistakes at the time of exposure and convert images to show how the scene felt to me better than in colour.

    So a lack of colour forces you to look out for light, tones, textures, stronger composition or compositional elements. It makes you more considered. It's taken a while, but I'm now starting to see how an image will look in B&W before I press the shutter as I've developed an understanding and style. I still process in colour first and then through to a finished black and white image so I have both copies.

    Sometimes in street scenes you're not in full control of the final image and colour can distract from your intended subject. In this case processing in B&W you can manipulate the colours to reduce the distraction.

    Whichever way you go, it's definitely best to shoot in colour and then process to black and white. You have full control and far more data to play with. If you're not sure that you're 'seeing' in black and white a good option, if you camera has it, is to shoot RAW + black and white jpg. That way the image on your LCD is in a basic form of B&W, while you still have the full colour RAW file to play with and convert later if desired.

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    Moderator Donald's Avatar
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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    Quote Originally Posted by DanK View Post
    I meant Edward Weston. Ansel Adams also played with the Pictorialist style ("painterly," subdued contrast, lots out of focus) before turning Modernist and moving to the other extreme, with great attention to contrast and detail.
    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew1 View Post
    ... for me there are two things a good B&W photograph needs. B and W. I like to see strong representations of the fullest gamut possible. I often see attempts at B&W that do not contain the maximum range that could have been presented in the shot. Some too bright and some too dark. They look incomplete, elementary. Is that a lack of knowledge or on purpose?
    Just picking up on the two quotes above, there is school of thought that suggest that B & W doesn't need to be about high contrast and always having blacks & whites in images.

    I would suggest that the master of working in the range from dark grey to light grey and not producing the strong contrast images that many consider as the 'essential' of B & W photography, was Paul Strand, although two of his most famous, 'Wall Street' and 'White Fence' are untypical in that they are images with very strong contrast.

    As Michael Freeman suggests ('The Complete Guide to Black & White Digital Photography', 2009, Ilex), " ... it helps the effect not to close up the black and white points, and then to lower the contrast. Visually this forces more attention to the midtones." (p146)

    So, in making individual choices and developing one's own personal style, you need to be aware that whilst there are views and opinions and, indeed, dominant schools of thought, there are alternative notions, concepts, ideas and the aspiring B & W photographer needs to explore all of these and then make decisions about what sort of images they wish to create.
    Last edited by Donald; 10th September 2012 at 07:49 AM.

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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    I too spent much time in a darkroom even on colour prints. I don't think there is a straight answer to the question but there are some pointers.

    Composition is important even down to choice of focal length. :-) I still think that's important even now. Old habits die hard but on digital I bear in mind that I can crop. Not so easy on 35mm for 20x16 prints. Easy on digital especially for the web.

    Tonal range / contrast to suit the shot. There were controls for tonal range during film development eg A weak developer for a very long time maybe even with ASA changes as it was then would produce a very wide fine tonal range. Many people who exhibited took no notice of manufacturers speed increases even on colour.

    Dodging and burning just as can be done with digital.

    Choice of paper. Several grades and makes were available all slightly different.

    Really these needed to be chosen/varied to suit the shot. and often finished up with contrasty shots that might or might not loose or accentuate detail. It all depends on the shot.

    John

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    davidedric's Avatar
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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    Thanks very much for all the excellent help.

    I've ordered a copy of the book recommended by Donald, and I'll take it from there.

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    Re: What makes a good Black and White Image?

    Quote Originally Posted by Donald View Post
    B & W doesn't need to be about high contrast and always having blacks & whites in images.
    Anyone who admires your subtle images as much as I do would consider them an example of that.

    I also placed an order for the book just now, so thank you for that!

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