Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Black and White Transformation

There are a ton of articles posted on various websites on how to convert color files into black and white after the picture has been taken. But what about deciding upon the black and white image before the picture is taken ? I believe the success of a really good black and white image starts before the camera shutter button is even pressed, some call this pre-visualization. Picking out good black and white images in a world filled with color, sometimes spectacular color is not always easy and like any thing as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect.

I began my photography career by shooting black and white film for newspapers, it was the sink or swim approach to making good images in black and white photographs, but on my time off I loved nothing more than to load up my Nikons F2's with Kodachrome color slide film and go out and see what I could find in the natural world around me. Over the years my work transformed the opposite way, I now shoot everything in color ( digital of course ) and now on my time off I love to load up my 4 x 5 Tachihara view camera with Kodak Tri-X black and white sheet film and go out and see what I can find in the natural world around me.

When I first started shooting landscapes in black and white on a more serious level I found the visualization was not so easy, I read the Ansel Adams series of books on the Zone System, which I still feel has relevance in today's digital world, and one photographic tool which I found extremely useful ( although a little expensive ) is the Pentax Digital one degree spot meter, I memorized the scale of tonal values from zero to ten, then attached the corresponding numbers with a piece of tape onto the outside of the barrel of the light meter, by reading different tonal values in my scene before me while out in the field I was better able to better understand where those values fell on the black to white tonal scale, after a few months and eventually years of using the light meter and the zone scale or system I am able to have a very good idea of what images will work as a good black and white before I even have to set the camera up.

I conclusion there is no easy way to making decent black and white images, just think black and white and go out and shoot, shoot and shoot and above all have fun.

The image posted is from some early work that I thought was long lost, which I joyfully rediscovered recently. This was from my first trip as a photographer to Canada's Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island in 1981. The technical details I believe are Nikon F2 Camera and Nikkor 24mm lens, Kodachrome slide film, I scanned the slide and enhanced the image in Photoshop to illustrate the color to black and white principal.


chuck kimmerle said...

Gary and I have similar backgrounds in that we both came from newspaper work and in our personal shooting focus primarily on b/w landscapes. So, I can verify all that he said as true, with a couple of additions.

First, the b/w tonal scales among and between colors is not set in stone. Photogs shooting film use color filters to alter those relationships, while those of us who have gone digital can achieve that same effect post-processing (with greater control, in fact). That means a photographer not only needs to assess the existing tonal relationships, but be able to predict what those relationships will be in the final, post-processed print.

Second, it's never a sure thing that an image will actually work well in black and white. I have numerous images that looked great when they were shot, but from which I was unable to make a b/w image that was as strong as the color original. It's never an easy decision to give up on an image for which there was such high hopes, but it is a great learning experience.

Gary Nylander said...


Thanks for your additional thoughts and posting them on my blog, what you say is also true. One the great things about a blog is to start a post and have others add constructive additional ideas.

BTW, Chuck's work is featured in the 2007 B & W special issue, congrats for some well deserved fine black and white photography.

Vancouver Island Daryl said...

Thats a beautiful transformation from colour to black and white. Great use of Photoshop!