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Never Buy Black & White Film Again
by Jim McGee

Black & White images have the ability to capture mood better than color images. Just as color itself can be the subject of an image, it can be a distraction from your subject when compared to the continuous tones of a high quality black and white print. By their very lack of color, black and white images can be arresting and powerful.  

This would seem to be a strange opening paragraph for an article titled "Never buy black & white film again."  But while I'm extolling the virtues of black and white, I have also found myself cursing it.  Some images that are incredible in color fall flat in Black & White, and on more then one occasion I found myself with a beautiful color scene before me and only black and white film in my camera and bag.  In those cases I always took the shot anyway - and was always disappointed.  At times these shots were in places that I would not likely get back to anytime soon, if ever.

One solution is to always carry two camera bodies, one loaded with color film and one loaded with black and white.  Years ago photo journalists did exactly this.  They would carry a black body and a chrome body - one loaded with color slide film and one loaded with black and white.  This is an unwieldy solution at best and damned inconvenient at worst.  Sometimes you just want to travel light and carrying multiple bodies is not the way to travel light, not to mention the fact that many photographers don't have the funds to buy two cameras.

Working with images in a digital darkroom rather then a wet darkroom gives you a simple solution to this problem. Take all of your images on color film, scan from the negatives or slides, then grayscale the image to determine if it has more impact in color or Black & White. 

Any good imaging program gives you the ability to convert an image to grayscale, adjust contrast, and dodge and burn just as you would in a traditional darkroom. Output your prints up to 13x19 from your photo printer or even larger prints from any number of services. 

But how hard is this to do?  Actually the process is pretty easy.  Some simple tips will help improve the quality of your images.

The portrait below was shot on Fuji Astia 100.  Color is a dominant theme, and while the deep reds are likely to grab your attention and make your eye stop and look at the image, those same deep reds draw your attention away from the subject.

Here's the same image after some simple steps to convert it to a black and white image.  At this point no additional adjustments have been made to the image.  In this image the details of the wall move to the background and the subject is becomes the center of attention.

The process for getting here was simple.  The image was opened in PhotoShop LE.  I picked Adjust Hue/Saturation, and set the saturation slider to zero.  The process is the same in pretty much any image editing software worth having.  In Paint Shop Pro the Hue/Saturation adjustment is found under the Colors menu.  In PhotoDeluxe it's found under the Quality menu.  You get the picture.

Some of you are probably wondering why I used the saturation slider rather then the grayscale option (offered in all of these packages).  Well, a high quality black and white print has a subtle tonal quality.  Grayscale reduces the color palette to 256 colors, or in this case 256 shades of gray.  This adds a harshness to those smooth transitional areas that is particularly evident in larger prints (8x10 and larger).  It also has the effect of taking a bit of the contrast and snap out of the images.  Achieving a black and white image by reducing the saturation of the image gives you a palette of 16 million shades of gray to work from rather then 256 which yields a much more pleasing image.  (Note: because of the limits of the Web all of the images here are 256 color images which has a noticeable effect on their tonal quality)

What about grain though?  Photographers use a number of techniques to give their black and white images a gritty grainy look.  If I'm starting with a film like Astia I'm not going to get that look am I?

The short answer is no.  But as always in photography there are several ways to get that look in the final image.  The simplest would be to use a higher speed, grainy film to start with.  Another method is to use a noise filter.  Almost every image editing program gives you the ability to use filters to add noise to an image.  Given a choice between random or uniform noise choose uniform as it will most closely resemble film grain.  You'll have to experiment with what level of noise produces the grain effect you're after.  Often the noise added by these filters is in color.  Just open the hue/saturation dialog again and again set the saturation to zero.  This will remove the color from the noise that you've added.

Another common effect for printing black & white images is called toning as shown in this image.

Setting the color tone of a black and white image is again a simple task.  In PhotoShop, PhotoShop LE, or PhotoDeluxe it's done with the Color Balance dialog box.  In Paint Shop Pro it's done with the Colorize dialog box.  Popular colorizing options are sepia toning which is done by adding a reddish brown hue and cyanatone, done by adding a cyan tone.  Cyan has a cool color temperature and the addition of cyan can be used to alter the mood of the image.  Sepia toning gives an antique look to images.

Pay particular attention to the contrast of the image while going through these steps.  Changing the contrast of a black and white image can have a dramatic affect on the final printed image.

The most important thing to keep in mind is to make frequent backups as you work.  While the steps themselves are simple, you'll find that you'll do a lot of experimenting to get to the final image you want and it's those creative decisions that can take an incredible amount of time.

Now getting some printers to print a true black and white image - well lets just say that's a topic for another article.


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Color can be a distraction



...carry two camera bodies, one loaded with color film and one loaded with black and white























Make frequent backups as you work


text and photography copyright 2001 Vivid Light Publishing