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Monday, January 7, 2008

Aesthetics Of Black And White

Digital technology and equipment give you more control and the ability to make the finest black-and-white images ever, but there's an art to coaxing the best print from your image files

aesthetics of black and whiteBlack-and-white used to be the core of the photographer's darkroom. Now, ironically, as companies concentrate heavily on moving the darkroom onto the desktop, black-and-white photography has been slowly relegated to the sidelines of fine art and portraiture. New advances in technology, however, have given black-and-white printing a little more, pardon the pun, exposure.

While the methods of capturing black-and-white images have changed dramatically, the aesthetics have remained the same—sharp detail, smooth transitions, highlights that aren't blown out, rich blacks and shadows with full detail. A good black-and-white print, like any art, is subjective, but these are the characteristics of a good print whether in black-and-white or color.

“There are optimum black-and-white workflows and tried-and-true techniques for digital black-and-white printing,” says master fine-art photographer and DPP columnist John Paul Caponigro. “Knowing these helps you get the very best results. Ultimately, though, workflow is dynamic; it's something you customize appropriately for a given situation and set of needs.

It's generally accepted in digital photography that you always want to capture in color. While default capture modes are a good way to preview your image, you essentially throw away vital information by shooting directly in black-and-white, sepia or whatever conversion your camera flaunts.

“If the final output is going to be a black-and-white print, and the file comes to me as a color image, I usually optimize the image as a color image,” says R. Mac Holbert, cofounder of specialty printmakers Nash Editions. “From there, you can either tone or print through something like Epson's printer driver, the Advanced Black-and-White mode. You can hang that piece up and you'll always get that one client who will say, ‘I really like that in black-and-white, but do you have it in color?' I'll say, ‘Yeah, I have color.' Turn off that adjustment layer and you also have a nice color image, one that already has been properly optimized, and it's ready to print.

“I try to leave as many options open in everything I do—a nondestructive workflow,” continues Holbert, “so that when you get down to that final process in terms of output, you have as many options to go in and tweak and move little things back, and have all of your adjustments available to you without affecting the actual pixels in the image itself.”

Developing an understanding of color management and how an image will convert also will help you to visualize in black-and-white while you're shooting. Test this in the digital darkroom by varying techniques while converting specific colors to black-and-white, noting how each translates through each individual process.

There really are too many ways to convert to black-and-white, and many, including LAB-color, Photoshop's Channel Mixer and new Black and White mode, are covered frequently in DPP, and Caponigro's “(R)evolution” column is an excellent source of information. At the most basic, though, the more complex the method of conversion, the more sophisticated the level of control you're likely to have. A simple Photoshop grayscale conversion (Image > Mode > Grayscale), on the other hand, offers simplicity at the cost of image information and flexibility.


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