Black and White... The Chicken, or the Egg?

Black and white photography can often lead to "chicken or the egg" type discussions. While I like black and white, there are those that have no appreciation or feel for it whatsoever. And, in fairness to them, you have to ask yourself, how would black and white photography be perceived had photography been invented in color? Not an unreasonable question.

But, we're not here rewriting history... so, I'd like to share what I like about black and white and how you can use it to expand your own view of what and how you shoot.

First, let's dispel with the notion that everything or anything looks good in black and white. For me, some things just don't look right. Specifically, when it comes to racing images, I don't think the modern cars look right. I don't know if it's because our mental muscles are too familiar with seeing today's cars in bright bleeding retina colors or what... but for me, they rarely work... not well anyway.

The things that I've done and enjoyed in black and white are driver shots, some pit stops, vintage and historic cars, and scene setting photos. And, I have to tell you, the garages in Mid-Ohio's paddock area are awesome for black and white when it comes to old-time atmosphere.

I've posted examples to support my thoughts.

To get a sense of where we are going, take a look at some of the great black and white motorsports images from Louis Klementaski, or Nigel Snowdon... and a few guys that are still hanging around, Jesse Alexander,,Tom Burnside and Pete Lyons. Of course, these images have that advantage of "emotional collateral" ... that content that makes us long for the "good old days," but there is a lot to be learned by deconstructing their photos.

Camaro tops the hill in Madness at Mid-Ohio ~ circa 2008

With these images, you'll notice that they're not burdened with all the technical hang ups that we carry around in the digital realm. There's a purity to their work... camera, lens, light, composition and subject. There's not image stabilization, pixel flare, autofocus.... or auto anything, for that matter. They're not dealing with unsharpen mask, or focal sensor points, or dirty sensors and they're not doing it with 500mm lenses. That's not to say they didn't have challenges. But analogue challenges could be worked to a more pleasing result than the stark sanitary disappointment of digital. If you think I'm wrong, show me a single manufacture who's building camera's trying to capture that "true digital" look. No, they're all promoting how much they can create a sensor and colors that result in a film-like look. I rest my case.

Obviously, our predecessors faced a different set of challenges. Glass wasn't as fast, ISO (or ASA0 speeds pretty much max'd out at 400 unless you got real tricky and "pushed" your film to 800 or 1200 ASA. The glass was a bit softer, especially at the corners and a natural vignette was pretty much a given. Of course, now.. all those characteristics are described as "charming." :)

So, how can we replicate or get close to a similar look? More importantly, how can we do it with minimal editing and without overreaching by applying too much Photoshop wizardry to reach the desired result.

Mid-Ohio's garages have an amazing amount of character.

I want to try and work through a couple of images here... and show progressive steps and let you decide where you want to stop. Everyone as their own interpretation of "too much" Photoshop, so I want to let you decide for yourself. Also, I want to stress... this is simply how I go about reaching a desired result. Others may have different processes they like better. And even more people may think this should only be done with film. To each is own. I just want to share a starting point that will allow you to go off on your own.

Mid-Ohio garage from the overhead viewing areaOne of things you'll want to do is try shooting "mentally" in black and white. You can try and convert some of your existing images. But for me, the fun lies in shooting with a black and white mindset. I think you end up with a much better result. Some camera's have black and white shooting modes built in. This is a big advantage, but I'm not convinced you get the real old-time look. My Leica Digilux 3 has several black and white "film" modes, but they're still not where I want to be. Keep in mind, these will still bear the signature of a manufacturer's idea of what the finished picture should look like, so take it with a grain of salt, but see how you do on your own.

Let's work with a driver/head shot.

At the top of this article is the original in color. Note, I have done all my normal post processing to this image first since it was originally a color image. EVERYTHING I'm going to show here maintains an RGB color space. These are not grayscale images. Converting to grayscale can give you a starting point if you want to try that, but flip back to RGB after you've discarded the color. You need the RGB color channels.

Aperture - Converted to Monochrome - no filterThe first black and white sample was done in Aperture by simply clicking on the normal monochrome adjustment without any filters at all. The next image was converted in CS3 by simply checking Black and White in the Adjustments menu. The next one was done the same way except with a red filter applied.

Now this last sample, will use an Aperture Plug-in filter set from Tiffen. The same set is available as a plug-in for CS33. The first step here was to apply a red filter. I think the flesh tones and blacks stay pretty nice. You really need to be careful with flesh tones, as they can tend to get very metallic and unnatural looking the may seem alright at first, but adjustment sliders are a lot like an equalizer on your stereo... it sounds good for awhile.. then you realize you've boosted too much this and too little that and your right back at. Go slow.

Photoshop CS3 Conversion - Black & White from Adjustments menu

In the Tiffen filter set we added the red filter but pulled down the brightness just a touch and also took out a bit of contrast. It's easy to get wrapped up in making a black and white really contrasty and pushing the black to really black. The thing to remember is that black and white really isn't... it's gray. So, pulling out the contrast lowers the black values and keeps them separated nicely. A gamma adjustment was also made... this added some depth to the dark grays without making them darker or blacker.

Next I added what is called Pro Mist. This gives the a softness to the highlights but protects the mid-tones and darker shades. It's a little bit like a gaussian blur, but selective and much more subtle.

Photoshop CS3 Conversion - Black & White as above with Red filter applied.Nest step is to introduce some film grain.... I'm going to go extra here and push it to 800ASA. Again, I'll apply this using the Tiffen filter set. To finish up and to add just a little more antique feel, I've added a soft touch of vignette using Tiffen's filers. This is more than just darkening the corners as it also gives you the ability to put a little blur on them as well. Even better you can control the fall off of the blur and the opacity.

So here's our finished image. Don't be afraid to play around and find a look that suits your taste. And whether your using CS3, Aperture or venture into a filter set like Tiffen's, try things. Push those sliders from one extreme to the other to get a feel for exactly what it is they are changing.

Results using Tiffen DFX Filter Plug-in for Aperture

Have fun!