I recently saw a response to my Iceland portfolios, which made me think. It said ‘wow, those must have been very heavy in post-processing’, but this could not be further from the truth. Sure, producing the images took effort and some images were more difficult than others, but the difficult part had nothing to do with complex processing and everything to do with ‘the tonal balancing act’. This is the secret to good B&W; not presets, not ‘the best digital camera for B&W’ and there are no magic bullets, however, there is good news, which I will get to after first asking a question: how much B&W today is harsh, blown out, over-worked, or all three? I think it is a lot and I have already alluded to the reason why. However, if you really understand black and white, you will have what it takes to produce fantastic images using a variety of cameras, under different circumstances, using different post-processing platforms, different printers… wherever, whenever. That’s what you want, right? You want to reliably get from A to B! So lets start with B – a great print/image – so we know what our destination is. We need to calibrate our eyes to this if we ever want to get there….
*warning: I am very opinionated and I the below really does reflect what I think, but its just that: an opinion. I suspect it will hold sway for most people and, even if you only take a few things from it, I really do hope it helps. Its a genuinely massive topic, which I intended to only touch upon with a few pointer. Oops. now it looks like this will be the fist of perhaps three or four articles….*
Firstly, there is no such thing as a catchall definition. We have an infinite variety of ‘looks’ that we may wish to achieve, but it helps to nail the middle ground… the typically rich average B&W print, with a full range of tones. Forget Daido Moriyama and Ralph Gibson for now (both of whose work I love) for now and think Edward Weston, Don McCullin, Salgado, or Ansel Adams. Typically, a ‘classic’ B&W image will possess the following characteristics:
- Deep blacks.
- Detailed highlights.
- Separation in the shadows.
- Rich, juicy mid tones.
- No/few harsh transitions unless deliberate and meaningful.
- It will appear substantial and solid on the paper/screen. It will have meat and depth to it.
The first thing I recommend you do is view, in the flesh, top-quality B&W prints as frequently as you can. Go to a lot of exhibitions and spend as much time as humanly possible looking at the best prints you can lay your eyes upon. Deconstruct them and ask yourself what is going on with the tones. Relate these to what you think the original scene may have been and you may find some surprises about where the printer has taken the image and why this was desirable. It is not easy or desirable to do this on the first lap of the exhibition. Once I have enjoyed the work itself, I will often go back and look to see what I can learn from the prints. A completely different part of my brain engages. Things to consider include:
- How deep are the blacks?
- How bright are the whites and what range of highlights are visible? How do they compare to paper base white?
- Are there large expanses of solid black with no details visible? If so, does this work, if so why?
- How separated out are the mid tones. Think grass, concrete, skin tones, clothes…
- Can you see where there has been dodging and burning? If so, is this a bad thing, or does it actually help make the image work, somehow? If there is obvious dodging and burning, but you still love the print, how has the printer managed to pull this off (hint: by not hiding it in the first place, so your brain does not object to a hidden trick)?
- Is there a tone to the paper base or to the image area? If so, how does this impact the feel of the print?
- If framed, what is the mount board hue and how does this mesh with the print paper base/image hue?
- Are there areas of pure paper base within the image? If so, where are they on the tonal scale and do they bother you? What would have happened had they been printed down – would some brilliance have been lost or would the print be improved?
- Is there grain in the image? How does this affect the presentation or hiding of detail and to what end?
- If there is grain, how does this affect the sparkle or perceived acutance of the image?
- How has the print been lit relative to the room?
Alright, it’s a long list, but every point in there is worth thinking about in my opinion. This is the beginning of the process of really getting inside B&W and letting B&W inside you! It’s almost all in the tones. The rest is icing on top, but start this process now and you will start to see the magic revealed. Understand it and you can create it, with a little practice, but this understanding is the crucial step. Without it, you can only flounder around trying tandong things in the hope that they result in an image you are impressed by. This is the world of digital presets, which can be useful, but can also act as a crutch that will never allow you to become strong enough to make great B&W. The problem with presets is that they have no idea what the starting image is and so will take you to a completely different destination depending on where you start!
Maybe try wet printing, if you have no already done so. The reason is simple: you have to look and think harder before each step. It takes time and money to make each print and you have far fewer tools available to you to adjust what you see (exposure time, contrast and agitation). Variations in chemicals pale next to digital processing, although different papers have different curves (as do films), which is where things get more difficult. What it will also help you to discover is how a great B&W image can literally glow and show a profound richness. Yes, this is partly a function of the silver halide paper, but it is also a function of how the tonal range ‘works’. Here, wet prints set the bar highest.
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