Master Class
Use Black And White

Master Class

There must be something to black and white photography. It's been around for years. It's had its heyday, its demise, and now a comeback that's making history. And why not? It's graphic, grand, and gorgeous!

With the advent of color photography many people slipped into a mode of "getting by." It's been sort of easy to create nice color photographs without a true understanding of lighting and how it affects the image. One could get by with even flat lighting--very little differentiation between highlight and shadow areas--because the properties of color, themselves, create a pleasing three-dimensional appearance.

Photos © 2002, Monte Zucker, All Rights Reserved

But when a photograph is limited to black and white and tones of gray, one has to really know the ropes before he can tie someone up in the excitement of the photograph. In reality, however, there can be more tones of gray between black and white than many photographers achieve in their color photographs. A photographer who understands this and knows how to create a complete range of tones between the two extremes of black and white will undoubtedly often come up with a winner.

I thought my black and white days were over when color photography came into existence. I finally freed myself from the darkroom. Today, I'm more excited than ever because I'm creating some very strong black and white images digitally. And they're better than I was ever able to do myself in the lab.

I begin with color files created with my Canon D60. Yes, everything I do starts out in color. Later, when I'm studying what I've got, I look for potential in images that have a great range in tonal values. Although I usually am creating portraits, I don't limit myself to just that. I also sometimes find good black and white subjects in images where the color seems to be almost distracting. In certain instances color sometimes can draw the viewer's attention away from the subject itself.

Pen & Ink
In this photograph of a snow-covered tree in Connecticut, for instance, I felt that the original picture in color lacked the potential drama that I had in mind when I saw the tree. The camera saw the tree and everything else around it. There was just too much to look at. Playing around on my computer in Photoshop, I began experimenting and just about flipped my lid when I went to Image/Adjust/Threshold. Everything but the bare outlines vanished. It was even more than I had expected. Everything became either black or white--no shades of gray. It worked! I had created an equivalent to a pen and ink drawing.

When Color Just Gets In The Way...
In another similar/totally dissimilar case I recently created this portrait in the corner of a covered porch. It was very late in the day. My subject was positioned in direct sunlight that was diffused by a Westcott translucent panel. I could see the potential in this simple portrait, but the overly warm tone of the setting sun was actually taking away from the man's photograph. When I changed the portrait to black and white it popped!

The black and white rendition of this portrait has the complete tonal range that I saw when I created the photograph. Maybe, even more than what I saw from the start, but we won't go into that. With the distracting color gone you look at the man...period! The incredible tonal range of the background was all natural light on the corner post holding up the porch above us.

The change was made in Photoshop by going to Channels. When I do that I bounce back and forth between the red, green, and blue channels. The red is very soft, good for a woman's portrait. The green channel is much more dramatic. It creates a full range of tones in a medium scale. The blue channel is the most dramatic of the three, almost too dynamic for most portraits. Any of these three channels can be adjusted in Levels to your taste.

After selecting one of the channels which I feel best represents what I want to see in my photograph I know that I need to get rid of the color embedded in the image. To accomplish this I go to Image/Mode/Grayscale, dropping out the color that way. I then change the mode back to RGB and finish the image as a black and white even though it is a color file.

The final toning down was done by creating a duplicate layer of the finished black and white version. I then went into Curves, pulling down the right edge of the line to about halfway down. This created a darker layer over the entire picture. I completed the photograph by erasing the darker image 100 percent on the face and 20 percent on the throat area and center of the body.

My Most Powerful Image...Ever!
Perhaps, one of the most dramatic black and white images I have made during the past year was this picture of the focal point of the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, Florida.

I can't begin to tell you of the powerful feelings that are stirred when you walk through the memorial garden there. This picture does, however, give you those same feelings without my even having to utter a single word. The power of speech through photography, in my opinion, shows greater here than in any other photograph that I have created in my lifetime.

The image began with a pretty picture of the hand against a blue sky with sporadic white clouds drifting through. I thought that perhaps the horrible message in the bronze against the peaceful sky would be an interesting contrast. Instead, it was nothing. It didn't give you the feelings that you have when you are there looking up at it.

Having just been to a Photoshop class with instructor Eddie Tapp, I learned how to select the sky with Select/Color Range. With just two clicks of the mouse I was able to select the entire sky on a duplicate layer and delete the sky from that layer. A sky that I photographed toward sunset in the Caribbean a few days later appeared to have something exciting going for it. I took that sky and adjusted it through Levels, turning a peaceful sunset into a disturbing, stormy sky. Then, all I had to do was to take the Move tool and drag the bronze onto the new background. When the resulting image popped up on my computer screen I knew it was right!

What I hadn't thought about until a few moments later was the fact that the new photograph might be even more effective in black and white. A look at the blue channel again confirmed my opinion. The black and white image brought tears to my eyes--the same as when I was actually there. As far as I know, no one associated with the memorial has seen this image. I'm hoping that through Shutterbug someone will bring it to the attention of those who created the memorial and that they may wish to use this image.

Creating Separation Between Black And Black
Ever try photographing black on black, and showing a distinct separation? Sound impossible? Not according to these next two images. In the first picture I did something special with the foreground interest. In the second I worked on the background.

During a recent class I photographed this priest by daylight, you guessed it, under the cover of a porch outside one of the entrances to his church. I knew that the way to get detail in a dark fabric like this was to use a cross light. One of the photographers in class held a Westcott silver/black reflector outside in direct sunshine. The brilliant reflection highlighted the right side of his face dramatically and skimmed over his robe to show each and every fold of the fabric.

Another of the same reflectors (also known as Monte's Illuminator) was positioned where I would normally place a main light. It was turned toward the outside to pick up the light. Then, I carefully inched the back edge of the reflector toward his face, until it beautifully wrapped the light around onto the left side of his face. The background for this portrait is a Westcott fold-out black and white panel that has saved me many times when I was looking for just the right background.

I loved the picture, but wasn't thrilled with what the color was doing to it. I had a mixture of color temperatures from the bright sunshine outside and the cool tones of the ambient light in the shade. Black and white, of course, was the answer. The blue channel again.

I used the same black panel behind this groom model in class. The separation here was created by overexposing the background with a light behind the model. I found that by crossing a light over the background from below I could create many shades of gray just by putting more light on the background than on the subject.

An extra light coming in toward the groom from a 90Þ angle crossed over his tuxedo, too, bringing out all the detail in his black suit. You don't have to imagine it. It's here before your eyes. Black on black and just look at the detail throughout the portrait!

How About More Of A Romantic Look?
A portrait of this engaged couple on the beach just before sunset gave me an opportunity to create a different black and white approach. There was almost no color here. Light clothing against a light sky. All the color was from the warm glow of the setting sun.

What would it be like if we could eliminate the color and concentrate just on the couple themselves? I found out when I chose the red channel for this portrait. The subtleness of this high-key portrait was enhanced even more when it was transformed into its black and white rendition. The red channel gave me the softness that I wanted. The black and white helped to emphasize their faces, standing them out from the background by the only contrast in the photograph, their hair. Any more harsh detail that I could have picked up using one of the other two channels would have been inappropriate.

So, where does this leave us as photographers using color as our main medium? As far as I'm concerned it leaves us another avenue open for speaking our own statements in this language we love called photography.

Remember my philosophy? I don't want to photograph the world as it is. I would rather photograph the world as I would like it to be. Black and white photography is one of the ways in which I can accomplish this goal.

By the way, if you like what you're seeing and reading here, be sure to stop by the web site that I have put together with Gary Bernstein. It's Browse through it all. Take a stroll into each and every area you see in the table of contents on the left side of our homepage. There's a lot of information there for you offered at no charge. There's also live video instruction available there. It's a happening place!