Black and White portraits wether they are from street photography, studio or environmental portraits, or from such formal events as weddings, can import a powerful reality, a sense of importance, and a validity that we seem to trust more than a modern digital color image. There’s also the gravitas of the B&W medium as ART because of the painstaking “development” of the medium by its Masters in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. I know that my photography only started to mature after several years of B&W print making, in home built darkrooms, beginning in 1970 and progressing well through the 1980’s.
Because of this history I think it’s important that we be very selective about the images we choose to convert to B&W. Too many photographers, it appears today, just pick their failed color images and desaturate them in a last resort attempt to save the image. I often see the results of these attempts at B&W on several online monochrome Monday sites, and too often that’s exactly what the images are…monochrome; No blacks, No whites, just shades of grey. Many appearing to be stuck in Zone V! If an image I pick for B&W conversion does not have something in Zone II, for a good black, and Zone VII, for a nice white, in addition to those supporting greys, then it stays in color.
Without the Blacks and Whites in an image there is no power or impact created by those contrasting values—it’s just monochrome.
Here is an example from some of my street photography…
f5.6 @ 1/500 sec., ISO 800
Taken in the streets, on the Island of Grenada, this image had all the Zones I wanted, but in color it was particularly flawed because the man’s shirt had red and white stripes. In my conversion I used Nick Silver Efex Pro-2 with some additional adjustments for stronger blacks.
How about a wedding image…
f3.5 @ 1/160 sec., ISO 800
Most American weddings I’ve photographed did not have the necessary interest of texture or details to warrant B&W conversion. I’ve found these elements do exist in traditional ethnic weddings; my favorites being East Indian and Japanese.
This image had all the elements I want for any portrait; color or B&W. I placed the bride at an open doorway creating that really nice directional lighting on her while the background had some incandescent lights dimly illuminating those large pots. The color version of this was stunning, but by converting to B&W this portrait was pushed into the past looking like a period portrait since all the elements are authentic traditional Japanese.
Finally a more recent environmental portrait…
f4.5 @ 1/200 sec., ISO 400
Using natural light that had direction because I placed the boy under an outside porch, this portrait needed to be B&W to simplify the composition. The background was a little too colorful even though I really knocked its focus out with the f4.5 aperture and my lens at 200mm. And worse was the red band on the boy’s hat—that had to go. I think this portrait works very well in B&W; You now have nowhere else to look—being compelled by the boy’s eyes.
So, be very selective with what color image you want to convert. Remember the goal is not merely monochrome; Look for the dramatic contrast in colors and/or lighting that will make good Blacks & Whites.
’Til next week…keep practicing and should you have questions don’t hesitate to ask.
Author: Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site: http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site; http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com
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