Why Black And White? In A Word—DRAMA!
Monte Zucker
• Posted Feb 1, 2006

There's something about a good black and white image that makes it jump off the page. It should be simple, direct, and hit you right between the eyes. It stands on its own. It doesn't even need color to make it stand out. It has a full range of tones from a true, deep black all the way to a clear white...with detail throughout.

What kind of photographs best lend themselves to black and white? Almost anything. There seems to be no special subject matter that really works in black and white better than in color. To illustrate that point I've selected a variety of my images--all shot in color and then changed to black and white.

The Black And White Portrait
Portraits can be very effective in color. I always liked the color rendition of this young tennis player, but I have to admit that it translated into black and white just as good (if not better) than it did in its original form.

There are many ways in digital to change color to black and white. Eddie Tapp, my Photoshop guru, has taught me several of them. For this particular portrait I didn't want to risk losing the young man's freckles, so I opened Photoshop's Channels window and looked individually at the red, blue, and green channels. I couldn't believe how different his face appeared in each of the channels.

In the red channel his freckles became the strongest feature of his face. They were too distracting. I finally ended up using the blue channel, because I thought that it provided me with the best start. After selecting that channel I did some fine adjusting in Levels. I then went to Image/Mode/ Grayscale. I eliminated the color channels and flattened the picture to just the black and white image that was represented in the blue channel. I then converted the picture back to RGB.

Almost every one of my final images goes through a consistent production process. I begin each image in Photoshop by making a duplicate layer and going to Image/Adjust/Auto Levels. This often is too great a change from the original, so I usually end up changing the Opacity of that layer to around 50 percent. Then, I open up the darker areas by going Image/Adjust/Shadow & Highlight. I keep the default for the shadows at 13, bringing up the slider on the highlight area only when I feel that it would help bring a little more detail into the brightest areas of the picture. In this instance I did need help in the highlights.

The final touch is usually done with an adjustment layer (the little round circle--half dark/half light--at the bottom of the Layers window), going to Curves and bringing the highlighted end down to between the middle and the bottom of the window. This appears to cover the image with black. Then, it's a simple matter of painting the picture with black to remove the darkened areas and with white when I want to put some of it back. It's necessary, of course, to use a soft brush, so that the top, darkened layer blends into the original image. What a beautiful way to darken the corners of a portrait. I do that on almost all of my images.

When Color Gets In The Way
Sometimes color takes away from the subject in a portrait. Such was the case when I photographed my great-granddaughter, Katie, in her highchair. The color of the highchair and the color of the clothes that she was wearing were not really a great addition to the picture. As a matter of fact they were actually distracting from what otherwise was an incredibly cute picture of her. When I got rid of the color in the picture, I was able to more fully enjoy the look on her face.
The picture came as a great surprise to me. I wasn't thinking of taking pictures when I first saw her seated there. The highchair was completely backlit, putting Katie's face in complete shade. I noticed, however, that when her mother approached her the white T-shirt that she was wearing reflected a beautiful highlight onto the right side of Katie's face. At a second glance I felt as if I couldn't pass up what appeared to be a great opportunity for a really natural picture.

I brought the ISO of my Canon EOS 5D up to 640 and did a test. When shooting with available light I almost always use Aperture-Priority. This allows me to think about what kind of depth I want in the picture and choose my aperture accordingly.

To get rid of the color in this picture I opened up the Channels window and chose the most flattering channel, made slight adjustments in Levels, and ended up with this fun black and white picture of her.

Hollywood Glamour
Color got in the way again when I made this "1940s" portrait. I wanted to recreate the vintage black and white look of Hollywood's glamour era.
Her white kid gloves and the oversized pearls are both props that Clay Blackmore gave to me for the picture. The portrait was created with Photogenic's Portamaster lighting that I've been using for years. I wrapped a (Shutterbug) magazine around the bare bulb of the main light to create the spotlight on her face. Exposure was for the main light. A fill light, two f/stops less than the main light, kept the shadows from going too dark.

I converted this portrait to black and white, because it screamed for it. So many of the great publicity shots of that era were black and white. I don't remember any of them being in color.

Strong Lighting
This profile of a famous composer of music also needed black and white. Certainly, strong lighting like this window-lit portrait provides me with enough contrast to create an exciting black and white image. If you take away the color from flatly-lit pictures, the remaining black and white images are usually terrible.
In this case the colored veins and marks on his face were a distraction. Do you retouch them out or do you change the picture to black and white, leaving in all the character of his face? This was a no-brainer. In Channels I looked at all three layers of the portrait. The green channel gave me more of what I wanted than the other two channels. A few adjustments in Levels, going to Grayscale to eliminate the color layers and then reverting again to RGB. Evoking Another Era
A Victorian-style living room and a traditional wedding gown both called for the removal of color in this portrait. For sure, color photography wasn't available in this era of time. Either black and white or sepia are much more in-tune with the theme of this bridal portrait, don't you think?
Fill Flash & Black And White
Sometimes black and white fools me. Occasionally, pictures that I meant to be in color turned out just as good in black and white.
I had always loved this portrait in color. Now I like it just as much without the color.

The sky in the original went a real dark blue, a golden yellow close to his body. The contrast of the white pants made it beautiful. The sun was setting behind him. I exposed for bright sunshine, 1/125 sec at f/16. His face and body would have been in silhouette had I not used a Quantum flash at almost right angles, bringing the exposure on him up to the f/16, too. You can see the angle from which the light came by the definition of his body and the shadows on his face.

I tried the red channel, but I got a lot of noise in the sky. The blue channel seemed to give me more of what I wanted when I worked with it in Levels.

Infrared--The Only Way To Go Is Black And White!
Although an infrared effect can be created in color, I much prefer the black and white tones that are created with digital cameras that have been converted (see www.irdigital.net for info on camera conversion). Skin tones in infrared digital are superb with just a little tweaking in Levels. Direct early-morning sun on their faces gave me the contrast I needed to make this portrait jump in black and white. Again, I toned the busy background down slightly with Tapp's "cookie-cutter" lighting. That is an adjustment layer in Curves that's been painted out in the center to diminish the possible distraction of the background.
Black And White For Newspapers
This past summer I got a call to do some publicity shots for a musical show, News in Review. I wasn't quite sure how I was going to do it when I went on location. It seemed to me that the only way to do it was to use the stage lights. I did a custom white balance and everything appeared to be working just fine. They wanted a whole series of pictures covering the various acts in the show. While doing a run-through the director paused them at strategic moments for photographs.

The color shots were great, but they really wanted black and white glossies for newspaper reproduction. Either that, or just the files on a CD. I was able to do black and whites okay, but a new method that Tapp taught me in our recent class together seemed to work better than anything that I had previously done to convert color to black and white.
What I learned was to pull up the file on my computer and change the Mode to Lab Color. Then, when looking at the Channels in that mode there is always a Lightness channel. It's all in black and white. If I want to lighten or darken anything I can work in that Lightness channel and then bring it back to full color by clicking on Lab again. I can do wonders in that channel. Then, when it's all over the colors aren't affected at all. It's fantastic.

So, that's where I went with this picture of the performers. Since the lighting was by the stage lights, some of their arms were too bright, while others were too dark. Very little detail in their black clothing. I selected several areas to make lighter or darker and did it there in the Lightness channel. I also went Image/Adjust/Shadow and Highlight to bring out detail in their black clothing.

When I finished working in the Lightness channel, I liked what it looked like so much I never took it back to the full Lab mode to get the color back into the picture. Instead, I changed it to Grayscale, getting rid of all the color layers and then finally brought it back to RGB. The detail throughout the image is incredible! I've never had such wonderful detail all the way down into their black clothing!

What a great way to create black and white images from color! Black and white glossies for newspaper reproductions will never be the same if photographers do what I did.