The Art of Black and White

My journey with black and white photography began around 1979-80. I was experimenting with all sorts of film back in those days, trying out new looks. In the analog film era, film, exposure, filters and processing were about the only way to achieve different look or style. Almost everything in color was done in camera. Home color processing was difficult because of how sensitive the film was to temperature and processing times, and color paper was just as sensitive, if not more so. Just like film, enlarging and developing the paper required total darkness. The paper also required short times under the enlarger, so manipulation was difficult. So most of us used a lab to develop our film, and gave our negatives to the lab to make enlargements. The end result depended almost entirely on how the image was exposed in camera. When I first started experimenting with black and white, I used this same approach. I tried many types of film trying to achieve the look I was after. The closest I came to finding a film that was as contrasty as I wanted in camera, was Kodak Technical Pan, which was a film made for scientific applications, but when processed normally produced a nice contrast with almost no grain when exposed at ISO 25. While doing this experimenting, I came across an image in Popular Photography magazine that was exactly what I was after. It was the first time I had seen an image by Ansel Adams. In those days without the internet, research was difficult and time consuming, but I tried to find as many photos and articles on this guy “Ansel Adams” as I could. I became convinced he had a secret. He must be using some film I was not aware of, or some processing chemical I did not know about. One day I came across a small reader add in our local newspaper. John Sexton, Ansel Adams long time assistant, and an accomplished photographer in his own right, was putting on a week long workshop in our town. I took a week off work, and attended the workshop. For someone who was into photography as much as I was, it was a life changing experience. During this week, in John’s workshop I did learn the “secret”. It was not film or chemicals, the secret was exposure and development times using the zone system, and processing, i.e. dodging and burning in the dark room. There was no magic bullet, but by using the Adams method amazing results could be achieved.

After that week I purchased a 4×5 Wista camera and used the rest of my vacation time traveling the southwest making 4×5 black and white negatives. For the next five years I shot nothing but black and white.

Ten years passed and along came the computer. I started shooting color again as well as black and white and began having my negatives drum scanned so I could work with them on the computer. I was using a program called “Photo Paint” by Corel. It was ok, but I was looking for something more. I had heard of a program called Photoshop, and was curious about it. A three-day class was being given on Photoshop at the local college, and I signed up. It turned out to be another major breakthrough for me. Photoshop 5 was almost exactly like working in a darkroom. There was a concept called layers, that allowed manipulation of selected parts of an image, the same way I could dodge and burn in a darkroom. I purchased Photoshop 5 and the rest as they say is history. I have purchased every upgrade to photoshop since then, and even became an Adobe Certified Expert (ACE) in Photoshop CS3 in the 80’s.

Today my workflow is much like it was at the beginning of this journey, in that the process starts with the camera. I work mostly in digital, although I also work with traditional film negatives, and use Leica, Fujifilm and Nikon cameras, My main camera gear as I write this today in 2019, is Leica and Fuji. I use the a Leica M240 for digital and an M6 TTL for film and The digital Fujifilm X100f as a lightweight carry camera. My choice of body and or lens depends on what I’m shooting, I prefer a 50mm on my Leica’s and the X100f is fixed at about 35mm in traditional speak. I set both digital cameras on default as a starting point. The M6? – Well that’s manual all the way baby. I shoot in both RAW and Jpeg with digital. For the Jpeg I have the film simulation set to ACROS. Since the sensor is virtually the same in both cameras I get an identical look no matter which camera I use. One great thing about Fuji is the viewfinder. For most situations I use the EVF and this allows me to see what I’m going to end up with. In other words I’m seeing black and white in the viewfinder, which is extremely helpful.

I import the files to a MacBook Pro. I have a large screen iMac in my office but prefer sitting in my large overstuffed recliner in the living room from which I can see out the large double doors overlooking the Thai jungle and pathway that is my front yard, and also my living room is 25 feet closer to the coffee pot. When I import I use two identical 2TB small “my passport” drives. One is a work drive one is strictly backup. I import using a program called Photo Mechanic. Lightroom would work fine for import, except I like the way Photo Mechanic handles file naming and imports my metadata, plus I was using it before I started with Lightroom – and old habits are comfortable habits.

Next I open Lightroom and import the files from my working drive. Now I am ready to process the files.

I talk about Fuji files in this post, but nearly identical results can be achieved with a Leica or any camera that shoots black and white files.

In Lightroom my workflow is different for color and black and white. In this post I will only be talking about my black and white workflow. I do very little in Lightroom with the Fuji ACROS Jpegs, mostly watching the highlights. If I need to convert from color that is a different story, but for most of my Fuji ACROS work (or scanned negatives) I slightly adjust exposure bring down the highlights as needed. I don’t use any Lightroom presets, I want the image as it is, somewhat flat, and usually slightly underexposed.

Next I bring the image into Photoshop and edit with Silver Efex Pro. Silver Efex is a wonderful program for black and white. (update June 2019… Silver Efex Pro was purchased by DXO and is again available) I use it to do any major dodging and burning an image needs. I’m careful to keep my highlights soft, and contrast low, the next step is why.
(BTW if you cannot use Silver Efex Pro you can do it all in Tonality by adding an adjustment layer to dodge and burn – I just find Silver Efex quicker and more user friendly)

Next in Photoshop I duplicate the layer that Silver Efex created and open

Skylum, Tonality Pro. does not create a new layer when saving back to Photoshop is the reason for the duplicate layer. In Tonality Pro I usually use a preset called “crosswalk” with some adjustments. This preset is rather punchy, and considerably lightens the highlights (which is why I leave the image slightly underexposed before opening) Tonality also darkens the edges, and adds a tone to the image. In Tonality I adjust the highlights with the slider if necessary and save the image back to Photoshop.

I now have 3 image layers in Photoshop. I add a layer mask on the Tonality image layer and again adjust the highlights by painting out the Tonality parts of the image if any are blown out. (Beware the image is now toned, so be careful when painting out parts of this layer).

Now I finish the image by adding a levels and or curves adjustment layer(s) in photoshop. Also, I have an action I made for dodging and burning which creates an adjustment layer in overlay blending mode and fill it with grey, then I paint with the opacity set at 9% on my brush. This is much like a traditional darkroom in the way it works.

At this point any final adjustments can be made in Photoshop, and save the image for my Flickr website via an action I have made. After saving, I duplicate the image and  I run an action I made to create a mat and size the image for use in Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. My mat action duplicates the image so I don’t work with my “master” when making the mat. At the time of this writing my action sizes the image to 3000 pixels, also my action makes sure the image is 8 bit, sRGB color space. I also sharpen the resized images with “smart sharpen” set at 35% Radius 1.0, Reduce Noise 11%.  For Instagram I usually let it’s own “Lux” adjustment do some work, and I do play with the “Lux” slider to get the look I want. You may have noticed I use a lot of photoshop actions. That is one reason I prefer Photoshop to work with images, actions are a powerful tool.

The B&W file sharpened and mat applied, ready for Instagram.

I know this process sounds like a lot of work, especially for those who have never worked in a traditional darkroom. But for those of us that “grew up” in a traditional darkroom it’s not that much work to produce an image you are proud of. And it is permanent. Once the file is done you can print a zillion copies. In a traditional darkroom back in the film days each print was starting from scratch, each one had to be dodged and burned, developed with smelly chemicals, washed, dried and mounted. Although there is nothing like the excitement of seeing a print come alive in the developer, today I’m just as happy with my digital darkroom, and can’t wait to see the developments future technology will bring.

A quick word on Photoshop vs Lightroom. As you can see I use both. There are those who prefer doing everything in Lightroom. I’m sure this is possible with a few work-arounds Lightroom is powerful, not as powerful as photoshop, but for image making it is a darn good program. I use Photoshop for many things that could probably be done in Lightroom, and that is because I have used Photoshop for so many years, and I’m comfortable with it and because of all the practice I’m fast with the program … so whatever floats your boat, the object is to find or create a workflow that works for you.

More of my work can be seen on Flickr


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