Black and White Blues

Back when I shot film, I had evolved to shooting almost 100% black and white. There were various reasons for this, but ultimately it was just because I liked the look and I liked printing. One place I especially liked shooting black and white was Paris. I have hundreds of pictures in my files from there that I will hopefully get back to printing later in my life.

With the switch to digital, I hardly make any black and white pictures. “But wait”, you will protest, “desaturate in Photoshop puts you just one button away from black and white.” While technically this is true, it just doesn’t work for me. I think that the reason for this has to do with how you interact with the picture after you push the button. Here is how the flow goes in black and white film:

1. Stare at the scene, imagine how it might look in black and white. I personally don’t take this notion of “pre-visualization” too seriously. Really I just try to pay more attention to light, shadow and form than color.

2. Set the exposure to make sure the dark parts of the picture won’t be completely black.

3. Develop the film, stare at the negatives. Good negatives have an encouraging psychological effect on you. You look at the picture all reversed and in your mind, you see the latent image that you had in mind when you shot it and you start to formulate how you will make the print bring out the strong aspects of the picture.

4. Next you make contact sheets and proof prints. This is where you see the latent image made “real” for the first time. I find it’s good to keep proofs around for a while and stare at them before deciding which ones to print.

5. Finally, you make the “fine” prints. This is where the negative you originally shot turns into the picture that you “saw” in your head. Actually, it turns into the picture you thought you saw in your head while you are printing.

Contrast this with shooting digital:

1. Stare at the scene and compose the picture.

2. Set the exposure so the bright parts of the picture do not go white.

3. Look at what you shot in the back of the camera (e.g. do some chimping).

4. Download pictures into your computer.

5. Stare at them in Photoshop, pick one or two to desaturate and manipulate into a “final print”.

Aside from the technical issues around composition and exposure, I think the key aspect of black and white shooting is that from film to print, you are always evaluating the image in monochrome, and the key aspect of digital is that you must deal with the picture in color until you take the color away in Photoshop. I’m not sure why, but in the majority of circumstances, looking at a photograph in color makes it hard to interact with the image in black and white later. You have to have a really strong idea of the picture as a black and white image to fight through the color representation. Since this only happens rarely, you end up with a large collection of color pictures, with a few black and white sprinkled in. Making black and white pictures with a digital camera is like shooting shooting color slide film and using that as a basis to create black and white pictures. There is no technical reason why you can’t work that way, but it’s not ideal.

I think it would be “easy” for digital camera makers to fix this problem for me. Most digital SLR cameras capture a JPEG proof image along with their CCD RAW file. This image is used for previewing in the camera and initial proofing in Photoshop or other image browsers. My humble request is to have a setting that captures these JPEG files as black and white images, so that the initial proofing steps in my digital workflow could be done in black and white. Apparently, the Canon EOS-20d does this, as does one very nice niche camera. Most point and shoots give you the choice of capturing only a black and white JPEG. Sadly, my D70 only allows for color preview.

Of course, none of this deals with the real problem in digital black and white, which is that the images don’t look like 35mm Tri-X and are therefore inherently inferior. Oh well.