Back in the days of film photography, creating strong black-and-white photographs was an entirely different process than it is today. One important difference is that when shooting film, each of your decisions was virtually chiseled in stone as you went along. First, you had film choice. If you wanted black-and-white as your final image, it generally was assumed that you would start by choosing a black-and-white film. The decision to shoot black-and-white film sealed the deal, and there was no turning back to color after that. Next came your choice of film type, film speed and processing technique, each of which played a distinct role in further defining the final look that you hoped to create. Then, if you had the desire to manipulate the scene’s color contrast, you might use a red, yellow or green filter during exposure. Once in the darkroom, you could finesse the print in terms of brightness and contrast, but by then, the basic photograph had already been, well, sculpted.
This process was one of step-by-step refinement, where each step further defined what the end result would be. And the nature of those steps was such that any given step couldn’t be undone at a later stage. This meant that if you wanted a specific look, you had to know how you were going to produce it, step-by-step, from the very beginning, hence, Ansel Adams’ famous teaching that good black-and-white photography required previsualization. Successful previsualization required taking into account every aspect of the process, from film choice to exposure and processing technique, all the way through to the darkroom, including printing papers, developers and toners.
Fortunately, today’s digital processes are infinitely more flexible. Not only do we have the complete freedom to choose black-and-white rendering at anytime, but now we also have very precise control over color contrast after the fact. This is a relatively recent development, even relative to the digital revolution. Because the digital process gives us such great control over every aspect of our tones and textures (can you say, grain?), there has been an explosion of new tools specifically built to help us create any sort of look that our heart desires. But I believe that, after you have the basics of good tonal correction under your belt, it’s managing color contrast that will separate merely average black-and-white photographs from truly great interpretations. And so, color contrast in the black-and-white process is where we focus our discussion for this article.
In the early days of Photoshop, creating strong color contrast started with the technique that you chose because each process assumed different brightness values for the colors in your photograph. Without the sophisticated raw processing tools that we have today, photographers were limited to just a small handful of processes for creating digital black-and-whites. Some of these processes were better at creating contrast than others.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at how radically different this gradient of pure colors is rendered when using two different processes. This gradient was created using the built-in Photoshop gradient preset Spectrum, which creates transitions from the six primary colors, each defined at 100% saturation.
Figure 1: The Gradient Editor and Color Picker over the gradient.
Figure 2: The results of a standard conversion into grayscale, where the cyans, greens and yellows are rendered the lightest tones and the reds and blues are rendered much darker.