Black and White Photography in the Digital Age

© Article and photography by William Manning

Photography has not always been looked at as art by many critics but as black and white techniques progressed through the early years and photographers developed their unique styles critics slowly warmed to the idea that photography was indeed an art. When we look at many of the most recognized photographs throughout history, most are black and white. When I think of famous photographers they all had one thing in common, they were black and white photographers, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine, Jay Patel, Sally Mann, Mitch Dobrowner and Clyde Butcher to name a few. Color photography for years was used to document an event or used as a means of selling a product or service, although in recent history it has found its way into the fine art market. I know there are differences amongst photographers on what dictates art, but I think most of us would agree there is something special and unique about a well crafted black and white image.

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 - Very simple conversion using the Overexposed preset and played with the structure slider

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 – Very simple conversion using the Overexposed preset and played with the structure slider

Color is all around us and it plays a role in how we perceive the world around us and color is part of the thought process when we compose our photographs. Black and white photography on the other hand is different, light and shapes take on an even more important role in the photograph. Although we don’t shoot our original image in black and white as we once did, we still have to find the right elements for a black and white photograph. To test this idea, simply go through your library of images and randomly select several photographs and convert them to black and white. What you more than likely will find is they all don’t work as black and white. The photos you selected may be a compelling image in color but not as black and white.

I have always had a love affair with black and white but never really pursued it simply because in the early years of my career I looked at photography as a business and not an art. This attitude has now changed and the time I put into creating an image today is more about the artistic merit than the monetary rewards.

Technology, Good or Bad?

With the move from analog to digital, very few photographers today are using film with the exception of some fine art photographers, and I would venture to guess most of these are black and white photographers. Many changes have come with the ever growing digital age and most of that change in the beginning was in the development of digital cameras, everyone was racing to the top of the pixel ladder, but now that has slowed and the changes we see are more in the post production process. Software has become the king of photographic art, and has traded places with the photo lab and the dark room. Although, I believe strongly on creating the best possible image in camera, many photographers are bypassing this step with the idea they will fix it in the computer. I suggest creating the most compelling, story telling, moving, artful image you can in camera and let the software you use in post production be an extension to your creative expression and not a band-aid to a poorly created image.

Converting Color to Black and White

Converting color photographs to black and white is easy with the help of several excellent programs. The challenge is to know which photographs to convert and having the discipline and the eye for working an imagine in a digital darkroom. The great masters of black and white spent hours in the dark room working one image, to master a digital black and white print requires the same discipline.

Perfect Photo BW1 has many great presets. This photo was creating using the 100 Ilford Delta preset adding a glow from the slider controls. I recommend thinking of presets as starting points to your work. Refine each image using the control sliders and develop a style that is yours.

Perfect Photo BW1 has many great presets. This photo was creating using the 100 Ilford Delta preset adding a glow from the slider controls. I recommend thinking of presets as starting points to your work. Refine each image using the control sliders and develop a style that is yours.

I am going to introduce you to three black and white programs I use and find each to be excellent tools for black and white conversion, but much of the education is going to be up to each photographer to explore and experiment, after all this is what art is all about. If you have little or no experience with black and white the first tip I am going to suggest is to visit a local art museum and look over their photo collection and study the photography they have on display. Ask yourself questions about the work and compare the work from one artist to another. I think you will discover your path into the world and black and white photography with a brief look into the works of these masters.

Three Awesome Programs

Nik Silver Efex Pro

Nik Silver Efex Pro was one of the first programs I used outside of Adobe Photoshop to convert my photography to black and white. Silver Efex comes with 38 presets and a whole lot of control over the image from global adjustments, selective adjustments, grain control and control over each individual color. These controls will make a lot more sense once you start playing with the easy to use sliders. I typically  start with a preset as my starting point and move over to the individual adjustments to make changes to my liking and give each photo its own unique look. Nik has done a pretty good job creating their presets but I don’t think they intended the photographer to simply use these as their final image, therefore, explore and experiment with all the adjustments. If you mess up simply cancel and start over.

Perfect Photo Suite 7

On One’s Perfect Photo Suite 7’s Perfect BW1 has the most unique presets of all and a lot of them to choose from. The options you have for exploring beyond the presets are equally impressive and powerful. This program has all the options as Nik Silver Efex but a couple extras I really like, glow control is one such example. Using the glow control on all your photos would get old but knowing you have this option is pretty cool. The filter presets are a bit different than Nik but both are powerful and open a up a lot of options for exploring. I spend a lot of time working with the filter sliders because these controls can help defining shapes, bring out detail and help define subtle differences in tonalities in important areas. The only problem I find in this programs is it seems a bit slower for effects to appear.

Topaz Black and White Effects

Topaz Black and White Effects offers probably the most creative presets of the three. If you like something edgy and a little different than the typical BW, give this program a try. I choose my prest from the Platinum Collection. I played with the Color Sensitivity in the Conversion pull down menu and used Simplify under Creative Effects. I have always felt the film grain in black and white is what gave it that artsy look therefore I use film grain a whole lot in my Black and White work as you can see here.

Topaz Black and White Effects offers probably the most creative presets of the three. If you like something edgy and a little different than the typical BW, give this program a try. I choose my prest from the Platinum Collection. I played with the Color Sensitivity in the Conversion pull down menu and used Simplify under Creative Effects. I have always felt the film grain in black and white is what gave it that artsy look therefore I use film grain a whole lot in my Black and White work as you can see here.

If you’re looking for something very different then give Topaz Black and White Effects a try. Topaz has created a bundle of presets that are edgy, clever, different and a lot of fun to explore. The Topaz controls are my least favorite of the three programs but never-the-less, they are very easy to use. The controls come in four pull down menus, conversion, creative effects, local adjustments, and finishing touches. Under each pull down menu you have multiple adjustments in each. Depending on the preset you choose you will notice a check by each adjustment used in that preset and you have the option of making more adjustments with and/or expanding your creative exploration by activating another adjustment and play around.

I have given you three programs that I work with and enjoy. There are differences and many similarities, and its the similarities that make all of them a worthy purchase because the finished product is pretty awesome from all. The differences is why I recommend you own all three if you really enjoy black and white photography.  In a future article I will write a detailed “How To” on my workflow and creative steps in creating a great black and white work of art.

© Article and photography by William Manning