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Thursday, March 1, 2007

B&W In The Digital Age

Talented artists are always eager to embrace new technology if it has the potential to enrich their art and bring forth their vision. If he had access to today's tools, what would Ansel Adams do?

b&w in the digital ageWith digital imaging, you can adjust brightness and darkness, overall contrast and local contrast, in precise and repeatable increments, and even apply colored-filter effects and see the results on screen in real time—no waiting, no wasted paper, no smelly chemicals (Adams, the environmentalist, would appreciate that) and no dark required.


Along with his celebrated technical expertise, Adams was renowned for his creative eye. No matter what camera or medium you use, you need good subjects in good light, interestingly composed.

b&w in the digital ageAdams imagined what each print would look like before he exposed his film. He exposed, processed and printed his negatives to present to the viewer what he saw and felt that made him take the shot in the first place. This is one key to understanding Adams’ work visualizatio—seeing the image in his mind’s eye before he made the shot.

Okay, you saw something that moved you to make a photograph.

How do you turn the image on your memory card into what Adams termed an expressive print that shows the viewer what you saw and felt when you shot it? Let’s look at how you can apply a little Ansel to your digital photography.

Adams shot mainly in black-and-white because that’s how he "saw" images and because black-and-white offered him more control over his images than color. Today, digital imaging offers the advantage of tremendous control over both black-and-white and color images.

Getting Black-And-White

You can get black-and-white digital images by shooting them that way in-camera or by converting color images to monochrome in the computer via your image-editing software.

Shooting in monochrome mode, you’re working in black-and-white from the start, and the images you see on the camera’s LCD monitor will be in black-and-white, making it easier to think in black-and-white. This can be a useful way of learning to see black-and-white images.

heron red channel heron green channel
Clicking on the Red channel gives a result similar to shooting the original image through a red filter—still not quite right. Clicking the Green channel in the Channels palette results in a decent but still gray image.
heron channel mixer heron levels
Using the Channel Mixer, you can adjust the lightness and darkness of the red, green and blue tones individually. Here, moving the Red slider to +66%, the Green slider to +20% and the Blue slider to +28% resulted in a better black-and-white image. Moving the top-left Levels slider to the right produced a better black tone. The top-right slider was left where it was to avoid blowing out the highlights.
heron curves heron hsb
Moving the middle of the curve up slightly brightened the midtones and moving the bottom portion down slightly produced richer dark tones. Converting the image to black-and-white by moving the Saturation slider all the way to the left results in a grayish rendition of this image.


If you shoot RAW images rather than JPEGs, you’ll have more and better material to work with in the computer, including richer tonality in highlights and dark tones. You can double-process a RAW image, once for the highlights and once for the dark areas, then combine the two perfectly registered images in Photoshop to get a greater range of detail. And RAW images can be processed to color or black-and-white—you’re not locked in to one or the other. Adams would have shot RAW.

Calibrating Your System

If you want your prints to look like what you see on your screen, make sure your monitor and printer are properly calibrated in terms of color rendition and contrast. This is easily done with a color-calibrating device such as Datacolor ColorVision Spyder2 Suite, Pantone Huey or X-Rite Eye-One. Follow the easy instructions that accompany the device and calibrate regularly every few months.

If you choose to shoot your black-and-white digital images in color, there are some advantages. You can use different
color-to-monochrome conversion techniques to achieve different results and even do multiple conversions. You also can apply infinite color filtration after the fact (see the Filters sidebar).

If you’re shooting in the RAW format and using the camera manufacturer’s RAW converter, simply select Monochrome in the conversion software. Doing so is effectively the same as shooting images in monochrome mode in-camera. If you’re using a third-party RAW converter, the color-to-monochrome conversion process is more complicated, but often gives you more control. I prefer to do the color-to-monochrome conversion in Photoshop, after converting the RAW image to TIFF format in the RAW converter.

In Photoshop, the simplest conversion methods are changing the mode to Grayscale (Image > Mode > Grayscale) or moving the saturation slider all the way to the left (Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation). These methods offer very little flexibility and are rarely the best ways to convert color images.




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