Saturday, December 25, 2010

B&W Thoughts

After the modeling workshop in January I'm going to teach a B&W workshop. It'll probably be a one-day event but I'm just thinking out loud here so bear with me...

The thing with B&W is that no one ever really explains why or how they do their B&Ws. Sure there are all sorts of tutorials on conversions. I've seen everything from RGB, desat, B&W conversion (CS2+), channel mixer, LAB mode, etc. Occasionally I'll come across a nice tutorial that discusses each step while elaborating the thinking behind those steps. But sadly most of the time these tutorials just tell you what to do and not "why to do".

Which leaves us where? Well, it leaves you neither here nor there or maybe it leaves you exactly where you're supposed to be. I've come to two conclusions:

1. The tutorials don't tell you "why to do" because they assume you know the final look that you're trying to accomplish. Therefore, justing telling you "how" is enough.

2. The tutorials are written by people who don't have any desire beyond just converting to B&W and minor adjustments in balance. Typically these tutorials are written by people who have nothing to do with portraiture/models.

There's at least a little truth to each statement above.

Here's the fundamental assumption of B&W processing.
B&W is largely about interpretation. We live in a world full of color. No one sees things in black and white... not even those that are colorblind (because those that are colorblind still see color but they can't differentiate between red/green). So when we turn images into B&W, who's to decide what's right and what's wrong?

No one. There's no right or wrong answer.

But there's intent.

Most people will agree that B&W is about contrast. The more contrast, the more powerful the image. Where you build that contrast is what you have to decide when making the conversion, along with how much contrast to build. In the example of landscape, if you're fortunate enough to have your foreground and background as different colors, you can independently alter the lightness of each, thereby building contrast.

What about with people?

With people the rule of thumb seems to be building big tonal rage in the skin. With the right lighting you can already affect the tonal range of the skin by building contrast in your subject during capture. In the B&W conversion process in post, you can further extrapolate that contrast into bigger tonal range.

How you build that tonal range is something that I want to discuss and demonstrate for the next workshop.

We've been largely influenced by the way we see B&W because of the type of B&W that we've seen in the past. In the past, most B&W were shot on film. The thing with film is that each B&W film has a different tonal response to light. More importantly however, B&W film has a much different tonal response to light when compared with digital sensors. I want to explore the different manipulations of B&W digitally such that we can more closely emulate the traditional B&W images.

Most notably film records highlights into infinity, so the highlight curve tapers off but never abruptly drops off at 255 (8-bit) with digital sensors. Conversely however film's tonal response to shadows is exactly the opposite case with film losing shadows as opposed to the more tapered tonal response from digital sensors. To emulate film correctly, you need to understand these principles and manipulate your curves accordingly.

Anyway, I'm tired of thinking about this now but I'm sure there will be more to discuss later like how to capture the contrast etc. But these are just some of the things we'll be discussing during the B&W workshop :)

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