Smooth Black and White
The previous post, Extreme Black and White, looked at B&W photography using just black and white with no or very few gray tones. In this article we will look at “smooth” black and white, using all or most of the tones available to digital B&W imaging. The images in this post are presented as JPG images with 256 shades of gray. That is enough to make well processed images appear gorgeously smooth and complete. Let’s start with a couple of examples.
What the two photos above have in common is smoothly painted surfaces, fine detail, and sharp focus. Than can make very nice B&W photographs.
Fine detail and texture can make photos come alive in B&W as the the next two examples show.
Architecture has always been a favorite subject for black and white photographers. Image manipulation can be especially effective with such buildings and their environment.
Click on any of the images to see then larger.
Landscapes also can be very effective in well-processed black and white, bringing out dramatic skies is a popular effect.
Indeed, black and white can be “smooth” and “gorgeous” with any subject that has a wide range of tones. The trick is “filling the histogram”, making sure that there are rich blacks and soft, subtle whites, and a full range of tones in between.
Even flowers, normally a subject strictly for color photography, can look great in B&W.
A smooth b&W photo can make you forget that the color is missing.
Fine portraiture can be specially effective in black and white.
Full tonal range, fine contrast, rich blacks, clean highlights, put those things into a photo and you have a fine image. If you have a compelling subject and draw the viewer into the picture, and you carefully attend to light and exposure, black and white can be smooth and satisfying.
© 2015 Ludwig Keck
Extreme Black and White
When we talk about black and white photography we really understand it as covering the full range of shades of gray from totally black to fully white. The monitor screen on which you are most likely to read this shows just 256 distinct shades. For this article I am presenting some extremes that cover a much more limited range.
The absolute extreme, of just black and white, is normally called “silhouettes”, showing a form totally black or white against an opposite background. My “Bird on a Fence” here is an example of that.
Another genre is “low key”, photos that are predominantly black. My “Two Glasses” is of that type. In fact, this is a color photo.
There is much that can be done with “extreme black and white” that fits into and outside these categories. Here are some examples.
As you can see, many of my images here are strongly manipulated to take the image to the “extreme”.
And now just a little help here to get you started making silhouettes and similar “extreme black and white” images. Start with a photo that has strong shapes and contrast. The example here uses leaves against the sky. I will use my favorite tool, Photo Gallery, here. Of course, more powerful editing software will allow you much more creative control.
An ideal photo will have a lot off light areas and a lot of dark areas and few middle tones. You can see this in the histogram that shows the tonal values from black to white. There is a “hole” in the middle of the data showing the scarcity of mid-tone values.
The first step is turning the image into a B&W. Photo Gallery has tools for that in the Effects area of the Edit ribbon.
The slider under the histogram can be used to turn this into an “extreme black and white” image. Move the white slider, on the right under the histogram, to the left until all parts of the image that are light in color are now fully white.
Then bring the black slider up to turn what remains black, or mostly so.
If you put the black slider right up and over the white slider you will have a pretty good silhouette. If you stopped short, you have a pretty extreme black and white image.
Some photos lend themselves to being turned into such graphic black and white images, but it is best if you have that idea in mind when taking the picture so you can make sure you have the contrast and strong figures to start with.
© 2015 Ludwig Keck
Contrast – Color vs. Black-and-White
When it comes to contrast, black-and-white photography has a decided edge. A B&W image can be much more easily manipulated without loosing the “photo-reality”. In color photography contrast is much harder to manage. Possibly the toughest color for contrast control is yellow. In part that is because of the way the human vision system works. The highest visual contrast is yellow on black. Seeing contrast within a yellow object, on the other hand, is “delicate” at best.
Let me illustrate with a photo of a buttercup flower. These little blossoms are an intense yellow with a shiny surface almost like glass. Here is a photo as it came right out of the camera (except for cropping):
A pretty enough photo, but it lacks “spark”, contrast, in the delicate structures. In fact, it seems quite washed out. The photo shows little of the delicate tiny parts or the structure in the petals.
Working with several tools my most satisfactory image is this (the cropping is a bit tighter also):
This looked better to me, but already there are processing artifacts that will disturb discerning viewers.
Going for a black-and-white image opens the doors of more aggressive manipulation. Here is my version of this little flower in black and white:
Now the emphasis is on the fine detail. The flower, set against the darker background, still feels luminous and bright. A very different presentation altogether. To me, the B&W photo is more the “wall-hanger” than is the color version. What do you think? The image links to a OneDrive folder which also contains a less aggressively processed version – you can compare the two by clicking the back-and-forward arrows.
Leanne does a marvelous job with these weekly collections of black and white photographs by a large group of contributing photographers. Be sure to check this out!
© 2015 Ludwig Keck