The next point is to give time to B&W to the exclusion of colour. Get into the zone and stop toggling between colour and B&W. Make sure that you have to make good B&W images by refusing to finish any images in colour. This was not a problem in film days, but it is a huge problem now.
Last but not least, here is a set of dead simple ‘tips’ to apply and discard as you see fit:
- If in doubt, go darker not lighter. An overly dense image appears dark. An overly light print appears insubstantial and transparent relative to the paper or screen. Additionally, you can always add more light to a dense print, but can rarely remove it from one that’s too light!
- Dark tones/blacks set the print. Drill these down deep and you can have a lot more density in the highlights and have them still look like highlights. Density allows tonal variations to show. See point one. If you print too light, detailed highlights will result in a flat looking print overall, so you lighten the highlights and no the entire thing looks wishy washy.
- Understand how lighting affects the appearance of an image. This holds true to the screen brightness you use as much as it does for the amount of light hitting a physical print.
- You don’t have to have blacks in your prints, or whites, but ensure you can produce both of these when you need them.
- Use paper edges to gauge your highlight density in prints. Overlay another print on the same paper (or blank paper for inkjet) over you highlights to see how much density is really there compared to your paper base. Now put it under different lighting intensities and see what happens….
- You don’t always need or want ‘shadow detail’. Sometimes slabs of black are desirable.
- Spend a lot of time getting the overall image balanced before you dodge and burn. Sounds obvious, but….
There are a couple of approaches to B&W that I feel make it much harder for people to succeed, because things go wrong at the very beginning in my opinion:
“If my image does not work in colour I will convert it to B&W”. This means B&W was an afterthought after being selected and shot on the basis of colour decisions. I refer to this as wearing a colour head and you can’t wear two. It means that you are not in a B&W visual zone, so there cannot possibly be harmony in the vision applied. There are very few photographers who are or were accomplished at both. There are even fewer whose careers excelled in both. There is not one single photographer in my library of 150 books whose work does not appear in only one form in the books I own. Some did both during their careers, but ‘the other’ pales in comparison. The ugly part of this is that it implies that you have to choose one or the other. While this is not true if you want to become good, total dedication reaps dividends by ensuring that your B&W head is always sharp through constantly being used. Leave it on the shelf for a few months and it will take time to get going again.
“Colour channels are very important to successful B&W imaging. Master this and you can master B&W tones”. IMHO this is not at all the case. I use colour channels with a small minority of files and, if I do, adjustments are usually very small and for very specific reasons. Once I am used to processing a certain cameras files, it is the same as shooting a given B&W film with no filter on the lens (or the same yellow) and printing it on the same enlarger and on the same paper. If you keep bending the colour channels around, it’s like trying to control 1000 films: you’re going to get lost and lose all consistency in the images. They’re all going to look like they came from a different planet. The vast majority of the work is done in basic terms, just as it was in the darkroom. An analogy that may help is this: if you keep pushing the colour balance around hard, images will feel like they have different origins. This would be like reading literature where the ‘voice’ kept changing. It would be awful. There would be no internal resonance, no flow… no harmony between images, created by one mind’s eye.
That’s a lot of text from me, so I am now going to drink some tea. I am then going to drink some whisky and consider the state of the universe from my faux Afghan leather couch. Then I am going to go to bed.
In the coming week I will aim to write something more specifically about what I do and do not do with the digital files after capture, but trust me, if you are struggling with your B&W and do not really work on the ‘destination B’ part, it won’t help much. Put the time in, work backwards from what a great B&W print looks like and it will slowly come together. Very few people approach it this way, or really have much visual sensitivity to the B&W tonal cocktail that if you get on top here, you will be one of a small and exclusive minority. Really.
Oh, before I close off, please do not confuse deconstructing great B&W images with consciously constructing great B&W captures. The two are different. The former will permeate your visual subconscious and provide a connection between the world you see and the prints you know are possible. This will free you up to shoot without thought, without thinking of ‘oh, once I have shot this I will need to do X, Y and Z.’ You will know you can make great prints from things that can be seen. This frees you up to do just that: see.