Who needs colors anyway?

Posted on Friday, July 30th, 2010 at 11:57 am

No surprise here, I love black and white. When I was a kid we had a small black and white TV in the kitchen and I hated when my father was bumping us down to that TV set so he could watch football in colors in the living room. Cartoons were never improved in black and white, not like photography. Not all photography gets better in black and white, I agree. A black and white sunset would not have the same impact without the rich warm tones of fire touching down on the planet. Sometimes though, colors gets distracting and don’t bring impact to the image. If I need to filter out the colors to get to the essence of the image then the image is a candidate for black and white.

So, how do you push an image in black and white? Well first, you can use a BW film. That is assuming you have a film camera. If you are stuck in digital well.. you aren’t really stuck. There are as many ways to convert a color image to BW than there are ways to make a grilled cheese sandwich. You can simply desaturate your image but that would be the equivalent of throwing a slice of processed American cheese between 2 slices of bread and microwave it, or you can used all the tools available to you in post and make a 3 cheeses, pepper, onion, Dijon, parsley sandwich (with a browned cheese crust on the exterior – now I need to get cheese for lunch, damnit!).

A good BW image has to be processed as a BW image. Too many people expect that a nice color image will be a nice BW as-is. This is not true and let me show you.

Melissa original

Meet Melissa. A nice young woman not afraid to walk into unknown vegetation, wearing short shorts and pink ballerina slippers to get to the dirtiest abandoned shipping dock in Montreal (well, the dirtiest I came across so far). I though the pink Ed Hardy tattoo T-shirt against the huge Dare Funk graffiti would make a nice contrast but once in post, the different colors were competing with each other’s making Melissa look like a casualty.

Melissa desaturated
Original image with only desaturation applied.

Go Go BW! In Lightroom, the 1st step to a BW conversion is to desaturate. The desaturation is done by using the “black and white” setting in the basic module. It turns all the colors in gray tones equivalent. Too many people stop there. Such conversion lacks contrast, tonal range and punch. This is where you need to toss all the “You can’t do that!” you learned in colors and embrace the “Sure you can!” of black and white.

white balance

camera calibration

In colors, you set your white balance and camera color calibration in ways that skin tones are respected, image is not to warm or not to cold, color casts are removed. Once this is achieve, you don’t dare touching it anymore. In BW, white balance and camera color calibration are just additional sliders to deliver the punch. How many time would you turn a nice summer day stone cold at 2000k and deliberately cast colors camera manufacturers worked so hard to make sure they would not be there?

Melissa full BW conversion reverted to color
Final BW image flipped back to color. Other local adjustments were made to the image in post.

A black and white image has to be seen as a color image stripped of its colors. Once this is well sunk into your BW post processing mentality, you see all these color tweaking tools as the BW conversion powerhouse. How many time have we seen images with that dreadful magenta cast some manufacturers struggle so much to get rid of? In a color image, you would tweak the image so the color cast gets away but in BW, such color cast can add to certain contrast zones to a point you will want to push it even more further.

Melissa Roussel
Final BW image.

How do I know I have a good BW image? If it looks like crap once flipped back to color, my job is done.

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