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   Black & White Photography!


Last Updated 12th August 2013

I just love the tonality of monochrome, especially those old black and white films and it is incredible that way back in the 1920s/30s the cameras could produce images and movies with such resolution and quality which hold up, even today!

Monochrome is coming back into vogue again, along with the clothes styles and the dancing of the earlier part of the 20th Century, especially the silent era of movies and the Roaring 20s. It's gathering strength and more and more photographers and videographers are expressing their art in black and white!

Fred Astaire was good but Eleanor Powell was magnificent -

Thanks to films like The Artist we are experiencing a renaissance in black and white film and digital format. The lighting and the glow of the images all play a part and the desire to use modern lenses that emulate those 'classical' days is strong with Voigtlander, Leica and Zeiss featuring very well for today's photography and of course video. It is not by accident that Leica have introduced video into their new M digital rangefinder with its electronic viewfinder.

"To be a photographer or a digital artist" that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to 'authentically' photograph the scene and risk suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism and misfortune or to take up extensive post processing to avoid a sea of troubles and so alter the image to one's perception".

However, there's the rub, many photographers do have their own perception of the scene and often their final image on the web or print on the wall invariably deviates from the reality. When you read the internet reviews or articles on black and white conversions, many photographers will state that the viewers are only interested in the final result they see. There is some truth in this and with digital photography when you shoot colour and then convert to black and white, it is obvious that some post processing will have to be administered to make the conversion. However, it could be argued that the extensive manipulation of light by 'dodging and burning' and 'layering' in post processing could be regarded as fraudulent to your talent as a photographer but a credit to your talents as a digital artist. Mind you 'digital artist' on your business card might not sway it with a guy looking to employ you as a photographer!

Here are a few of my black and white attempts which have been converted from 'RAW' colour files - there is no extensive post processing, other than adjustments to sharpness, brightness and contrast. The image shot at Lake Garda has been softened and the highlights slightly lifted.


A video of some of the black and white work of Rui Palha.

Those who spend a great deal of their time in post processing very often miss the fact that a true black and white 'masterpiece' is usually judged by the content, composition and appears natural. In fact some of the best black and white images are straight out of the camera as jpegs or digitally scanned negatives produced by 'film' cameras. After all - photography it is all about light in the first place and if the light is correct and the image is captured properly then there should be hardly any requirement for extensive post processing.

The location, subject  material and the correct light conditions are important but so is the camera, lens and even the filters. A photographer is  working with all of those elements together and seeking the optimum image quality in the composition. The ability of the equipment to resolve the finer detail at distance and especially with landscapes is crucial for black and white images. The 'draw' of the lens is another factor to be considered and how it works with the filters to marry that fine detail to create the proper effect.
Some lenses were made for black and white photography, not literally but turn out as such. These kind of lenses deliver a 'classical look' to your images and are often used to produce 'Fine Art' black and white pictures which display incredible luminosity. They have a natural ability to soften and retain a 'high yield' of sharpness that is very visible and yet it is not seen as harsh within the softness of the overall picture - the effect can be quite stunning.

This video is taken from the silent movies of the 1920s and it is about the wonderful Clara Bow, it captures the essence of the 'classical lens look' and Clara, who was the original IT Girl long before the rise of feminism, dressed beautifully and literally 'popped' from the scene.

I have embedded the video code but it may have to be viewed on Youtube - click to start -

this video clip of the movie It (1927), Clara starred as a shop girl who was asked out by her boss. A great deal of academic tripe has been written about this film but for me I like the way they dress, the way they have fun and especially Clara who epitomised the true innocence of feminism (love the final end scene) -

These days it is becoming more difficult to source a second hand 'classical' lens that delivers that beautiful look to portraits and subjects that require to be drawn out from the overall scene, especially in a monochrome setting! As soon as a lens appears with a known reputation for the 'classical look' it is snapped up and usually the cost is greater than the modern version of the same lens.

The 'classical look' can be engineered in software post processing and the most popular software packages for creating black and white conversions with extensive editing tools are Adobe CS6 and Nik Silver Efex Pro. The majority of photographers, especially those who regard their photography as a hobby, revert to a software post processing solution to draw the eyes to the centre of an image with gentle vignetting, especially if the highlights are also lifted and the borders are gently softened with a nice out of focus bokeh effect! The ideal software available for visual effect changes to a monochrome image is NIK Silver Efex Pro and it is available for a free trial download from NIK.

I use Adobe Lightroom to convert my colour 'RAW' images into black and white, most often a sepia or an antique grayscale conversion. I don't possess any soft lenses so I tend to soften some of my images using the software. It does a reasonable job but I refuse to be 'completely' seduced by post processing and to date I constantly strive to keep PP at a minimum. It is a very hard route to take - to properly develop your photographic skills with a camera and lens, a few filters and a tripod but I submit it brings greater satisfaction that 'dodging, burning and layering/merging an image in a computer darkroom for hours on end - unless of course you want to get into digital art.

For those of you photographers who seriously want to get into 'Digital Art' and extensive post processing or HDR, then
Twisted Tree
is certainly a site that you can learn from. It is simply breathtaking and the monochrome images will blow your mind! The site takes you through standard colour photography to monochrome HDR and into the realms of impressionist art..............worth checking out for any photographer who aspires to make a start in photographic art!

Associated articles -

The hard part regarding black and white photography could be considered the finding of locations and subjects but a large part is also the dedication required in preparation - judging the right light conditions, the setting up of the gear and taking the shot. Sure a lucky subject might just pop up and in that 'decisive moment' the shot is taken but in the main, it is dedication and hard work that delivers the images!

My apologies to William Shakespeare!





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Richard Lawrence
United Kingdom


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