By Alec Johnson
All joking aside, I believe black & white photography is making a resurgence, with the development of better digital files and advanced software. But don’t expect an “Auto Awesome B&W” button in Lightroom or Photoshop any time soon! Color in a photograph is its own subject and the absence of color puts heavy emphasis on composition, moment and ideas, something software doesn’t yet fix. This challenge is what leads so many novice photographers to state, “I can’t see in black & white.” That’s understandable, since our first language is the language of color. For black & white, we need to learn a new language and do the visual translation in the field. That’s the process of learning “to see” in black and white.
“To see in color is a delight for the mind, but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul.” Andri Cauldwell
I see in color and then translate the scene into black & white in my mind’s eye, something we can all learn. You just need to find that emotional and visual connection so many of us have felt when looking at another photographer’s black & white work. If black & white intrigues you… and moves you… then you should experiment with it. And practice it. It’s a craft that stretches the photographic eye and creative spirit.
“No one person has the right to dictate what others should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit” Ansel Adams
Once I was able to make the translation, I went to work on making digital images that had a tonal quality approaching black & white film. I know, a few of you film folks just shuddered and harrumphed! Relax, I said “approaches,” not “equals.” My goal is to develop the beauty of rich blacks and silky, silvery midtones and highlights that film is known to possess.
Most of my work is a result of happy accidents and collaboration with good friends. One happy accident was the discovery of how well the Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer worked for black and white images. What attracted me most, initially, was the filter’s ability to dispense with blue (noise channel) and provide a magenta color cast. The result was more dynamic tonality, with minimal noise. Then, in the past year, I began to work a different color palette with the Gold-N-Blue. A good friend and I were discussing the quality of film’s blacks and midtones and noted how they had appeared in my digital work on occasion. I went back and looked at the images and discovered that there was a strong orange component in those images – and that each was shot using the Gold-N-Blue. This observation caused me to experiment further with the filter and vary my white balance settings. I found that when I shot around 7300K, especially in cloudy conditions, and put a strong gold orientation to the filter, that some magic could happen.
On a recent trip to Yosemite, I shot this iconic scene of El Capitan and the Three Brothers over the Merced River, in mid afternoon soft light, using a Canon 24mm tilt-shift and my Gold-N-Blue polarizer. I experimented with different white balance and filter settings, and found that this orange combination produced the best finished black & white image. The power of orange is that its component colors – red and yellow – create more detail and dynamic contrast in black & white.
Canon 5D MkIII, Canon 24mm tilt shift, f/16, ISO100, Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer.
In another example of this process, I stopped in San Francisco and had a few hours to shoot down on the Embarcadero. As fog settled in over the Bay Bridge, I stacked my Singh-Ray 10-stop Mor Slo solid ND with the Gold-N-Blue for a 92-second mid-afternoon exposure. The color image above was my starting point for the finished black & white image at the start of this post. Again, I set the Gold-N-Blue for the warmest look and my white balance to 7000K to achieve the tones being translated by my mind’s eye. There is no magic or secret in the 7000K number. Given the light conditions, I will vary color balance, but 7000K is a good starting point. I do take care to use an appropriate exposure to protect my red and yellow histogram from losing detail.
“I really don’t have any secrets. I’ve never met a photographer whose work I respected that had a secret…the secret lies within each and every one of us.” John Sexton
Here is one more “before” and “after” from Tunnel View in Yosemite. I used the same approach, but shot three bracketed frames for HDR while shooting a two-panel panorama, then edited in Lightroom and Photoshop for the finished black & white image.
Lastly, I want to briefly share how I choose to edit my black & white images. I am fully aware there are many approaches to the same problem in editing. I’m not advocating my approach, but simply sharing another possible tool for you to put in your arsenal.
After preparing my color images in Adobe Lightroom, I’ll then open them as a 16-bit file in Photoshop. A 16-bit file is essential in black & white work, providing many more shades of grey than an 8-bit file.
My strategy with landscape images is to use multiple black & white adjustment layers and layer masks to control local tone and contrast. In the image from Bandon Beach below, I’ve included my layers panel, illustrating three different black and white adjustment layers with individual masks to control 1) sky and background, 2) middle ground water and 3) foreground sand.
This approach gives me the control I want to tell the story I want to tell. And it came about and evolved through the use of the Gold-N-Blue polarizer. If you have any questions about my process and workflow utilizing the Gold-N-Blue, please feel free to contact me directly through my website.