One of the most classic looks in photography is Black and White. It is very interesting to me how even with our fancy digital cameras and ultra clean image files, we strive for a retro, grainy old school look without color. We will use all kinds of tricks to make our clean image look like the old Tri X or illford or TMAX. We add grain (noise), we unsharpen the image, we do all kinds of things to “ruin” the digital perfection that we as photographers pay dearly for.
And why? Why do we do this thing that we do? Because we have a collective embedded memory that black and white is artistic, it’s clean and pure and it really can make you focus on the image, not the colors. I’m sure there are a lot of other reasons but those are what come to my mind as I’m writing this missive.
I remember learning photography years ago in a community college and being very disgruntled to learn that my first semester would be just black and white. I thought it was going to be a terrible semester, why did we need to learn this old crap when we had Kodachrome and E6 slide film and more. Who even WANTED black and white?
That sure changed by the end of the semester to the point that when I signed up for my second semester, I took a second semester of black and white film studies. I lived in black and white film, I lived in the dark room with it’s chemicals and red light. I pored over catalogs looking at exotic papers to print my B/W images onto. I learned how to make my own developer to tweak the film into a direction I wanted it to go. Only then did I start to explore color.
But technology marches on and B/W became a niche player with color owning the world. Then came digital and really changed things around. Color was everything, saturated was better, grain or noise was the great evil and we strived to get as clean of an image as possible and some of us thought we might have lost a piece of our soul in the process and chase.
So now I see B/W more but I see really bad conversions where the folks end up with a monochromatic middle grey image and call it “Black and White” because that is what the preset says it is. With this thought, I’m going to write up a few entries on my ideas of B/W and how I got to certain pictures that I really like. My first one is a high key look where it’s dark blacks, stark whites and very little grey. It’s also a study in how to salvage an image that otherwise was not much to look at.
So lets start with the original image, no retouching or other processing. It’s got a bit of lens flare since I was shooting a 1.4 50mm wide open against the bright white background.
As you can see, aside from the killer body, technically speaking, the image is not very special or very strong. But lets see what we can do with it. I always start in Lightroom since that is my workflow. The very first thing I do is apply a camera profile preset which brings in the various settings to match my camera, in this case, a Nikon D300. Then I will apply a B/W conversion preset and do some basic adjustments.
The sharpness has been dialed down to let me run the noise clean up, then I reapply the sharpness as needed
color noise +27
Now I bring the image into Photoshop to fine tune it and to clean it up.
I first apply a curves layer with a sweeping curve that starts from the lower left corner and bows to the left and up the right hand corner. This brings out the whiteness of the skin
Now I make a duplicated layer and start to sample the image and paint it using the samples. In this case I evened out a shadow under the chine, I made the eyelashes darker, whites of the eyes brighter and so on.
I then apply a blur to a duplicate of the painted image. But I apply a layer mask which hides the new blur. Then I use my Wacom to paint in the blur at something like a 20% opacity.
Now we have a pretty sweet and dramatic black and white image. It really shows off her eyes and the overall beauty of her face without the distraction of lens flare, color and other attributes. Print this on black and white paper or aluminum and you have killer wall art.