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Black and white digital photography

An interview with Keith Cooper

Keith was recently interviewed for a magazine feature [2007], all about black and white digital photography, particularly some of the examples in the Gallery.

We've taken many of the notes from the interview and put them onto this article.

Keith has added some additional pictures and information to expand on some of his replies.

Digital Black and White

Thanks to Josie Reavely of Digital Photographer magazine for asking the questions in the first place to make me think hard about different aspects of my work!

The article aimed at people who may be familiar with colour digital photography, but have not really tried black and white before. Hopefully some of it will also be of interest to those coming to digital black and white, but with an existing knowledge of B/W film techniques.

This first article covers black and white digital photography in general, the second article covers aspects of digital black and white printing.

Note, the opinions in the interview represent the personal views of Keith Cooper and not Northlight Images

digital B/WFYI: I've set up a LinkedIn group (~6100 members) for people interested in all aspects of Digital Black and White photography: Digital Black and White

Keith Cooper with printsAbout Keith Cooper (more detailed bio)

Keith is a commercial photographer (i.e. no weddings or baby photos!)

He specialises in work for corporate advertising and promotion, ranging from detailed product photography through to interiors, architecture, corporate events and his fine art black and white landscape work.

He produces all his own large fine art works, recently supplying black and white landscape prints over nine feet long for an interior design project.

Keith also lectures on aspects of digital and commercial photography, and teaches commercial aspects of photography to companies, including such areas as product photography and teaching estate agents to take better house photos.

It's often said that removing colour from a photo can add something to it – revealing detail that you wouldn't otherwise have noticed.

Would you agree with this? / Do you have any examples where this is the case?

stone carvingColour sometimes obscures the texture and form of subjects, it draws our attention the way flowers attract insects and birds, and ripe fruit catches your eye on a tree.

Sometimes that's what I want, but to me black and white can emphasise the structure of a scene.

The stone carving is over the doorway of a local church. The use of black and white emphasises the texture of the worn stone.

This image was taken when I was testing a new camera, and works really well as an A3 size print, where the combination of detail and rich black shadows make it almost 3D.

In the colour version you would notice green lichen and damaged bits of stonework much more readily.

Ricoh GX100 1/250, f/6.3, 15.3mm, ISO 322 (auto)

The variety of ways that different colours convert to different greys means that you can have quite fine control over just what parts of your picture will be light and dark, in addition to lighting levels.

The original sax picture has lots of orange coloured lighting in the background, there is also the polished brass of the sax.

The black and white version emphasised just the shape of the instrument, while the reflections add to its texture

jazz sax

Canon 1Ds ISO 1000, 1/50. f/2.8, 70-200 IS 2.8L @ 200mm hand-held

I've heard lighting is particularly important in black and white photography, why is this?

When I'm thinking of black and white images, the absence of light can be as important as the highlights. Good deep shadows can give a depth and solidity to an image.

If you look at old black and white movies you can see a completely different way of lighting sets.

The lighting directors knew how different colours and lighting would show up on film, and made use of the knowledge.

An appreciation of lighting from my black and white photography can give me a different way of looking at lighting when I'm lighting a commercial (colour) job.

It allows me to separate out the effects of colour and luminosity to a degree. Black and white photography allows me to use colour more effectively (if that's what the client wants... :-)

What sort of lighting conditions should I be looking out for?

In my landscape work I'm always looking for 'active' skies – my worst conditions are clear blue cloudless skies, or featureless grey as they become in a black and white print.

However, even apparently featureless grey overcast skies can sometimes have subtle texture that can be brought out in a black and white print.

The colour picture of Hood Canal was deliberately slightly overexposed so as to get the brightest parts of the sky almost burnt out.

Canon 1Ds ISO 100, 1/320, f/3.5,  70-200 IS 2.8L @ 200mm hand-held

 morning at Hood canal - washington

It was actually quite a dull morning, but the colour shot makes it look quite bright.

The colour image above has been converted from the raw file to give this 'bright' look. Don't be too tempted to do -all- the adjustments in the raw conversion (although the latest versions of Lightroom and Photoshop now have excellent tools for colour ->B/W conversion)

The important part about exposure is 'almost burnt out', since once you clip highlights (in any channel of the image), the information in a digital image is lost forever. Use your camera histogram carefully to get a feel for this. 

Digital images contain a lot more levels of brightness in the highlights than the noisy shadows. If you have two colour source images taken at different exposures, then the one that looks slightly over exposed (but without unduly clipping highlights) will often yield a better black and white image to work on.

 Hood canal - washington

The black and white version has had a masked adjustment curve applied to increase the range from light to dark in the whole picture (I never use contrast or brightness controls in Photoshop – curves give so much more control)  Working at 16 bit means that there is far less chance of introducing posterisation when applying such curves. A second curve was selectively applied to get the right range of tones I'm looking for in the tree areas. The image was edited with the final print in mind. With practice you get to know how a print will differ from what you see on the screen.

I also edit out extraneous stuff that gets in the way – in this case a small mooring buoy that distracts from the way the eye flows round the image as you look at it.  I'm quite happy to remove the odd electricity pylon or clip a tree if it makes the difference in creating an image that works for me. Personally, I'm happy with altering an existing sky but would never add in the sky from another picture. I suppose I've just looked at too many skies and can spot when it's not right.

Clipping of highlights is not an automatic fault in your camera images – think of specular reflection on water. Here the trade off is between how much to push the rest of the exposure into the shadows against how much reflection is lost. For pictures like this, the choice of raw converter does make a difference, and the handling of blown out highlights was one of my original reasons to try DxO Optics Pro for specific images.

I also like black and white at night where our vision is much more aware of light sources and deep shadow. Black and white can give a distinct atmosphere of its own such as the shot of a local Jazz bar from outside.

Canon 1Ds ISO 1000, 1/20, f/2.8, Canon 70-200 IS 2.8L @73mm (hand-held)

What sort of lighting conditions should I be avoiding?

I read once in an old (1950's) photography book, where colour was still a 'new thing' that colour photos were best with the sun behind you, and black and white the worst with the sun behind you.

In black and white, shadows become a more important feature of your composition and having the sun behind you (or an on-camera flash) makes it much harder to bring out the higher contrast you are often looking for in a black and white image.

Do you use any special equipment to control / direct the light when you photograph in black and white? (e.g. reflectors / diffusers / flash etc.)

I have a strong preference for natural lighting for subjects – For interiors, I'd often prefer to take multiple images at different exposures and composite them, than set up artificial lighting. 

Of course for some subjects you need additional lighting. The choice depends on what aspects of the subject I want to show. 

An excellent experiment is to take some fairly close up pictures of an orange or similar textured object – the sharpness of lighting creates a whole different feel for the surface. An orange is also very different in black and white, losing its key defining visual feature.

I have a strong aversion to using tripods unless absolutely necessary – I regularly exhibit prints at ~27”x16” from my 1Ds and very few of my landscape works were taken on a tripod.  If I had to set up shots and all the other procedures of using large format cameras, I would get bored terribly quickly.

There are those who say that being forced to slow down and think about composition and the technical aspects of photography is "a good thing". For me, landscape is a dynamic active subject. My images aim to capture some of how I felt at that moment. Many of my best shots (such as the Hood Canal image) come from being in an area, looking round and just thinking (and feeling) "that will work".   Of course, I get a lot of shots that are not terribly special (or just plain bad) – you don't see those ones as big prints...

What, in your opinion, makes a good black and white subject?

For landscapes I want 'active' skies that give a strong sense of mood to the image.

The burnt tree was taken at the top of Mesa Verde in Colorado, and with the snow and coming storm, gives a strong feeling of the isolation and bleakness I felt on top of this expansive outcrop of rock, which was deserted over five hundred years ago.

Canon 1Ds ISO 100 1/320, f/9, Canon 16-35 2.8L @ 16mm

Commercially I'm (unfortunately) not so often asked to shoot in black and white. This is changing with better printers and cameras with a black and white mode, since more people are comfortable with the creative possibilities of good black and white, but there is still an attitude of why have black and white when you can have colour? 

In many ways shooting only colour can make you lazy and not pay as much attention to the shot as you could. My love of black and white makes my colour work better too.

I've heard that, to be a successful black and white photographer, you need to learn to 'see' in black and white when looking for potential shots – how do I master this technique?

As ever, take more photos... If your camera has a black and white setting then by all means experiment with that, but remember that you lose the flexibility of choosing the best colour to black and white conversion technique.

Look at the work of earlier black and white photographers – see how the different approaches to lighting and subject produce different 'looks'.

Remember that just because someone is famous, you don't have to like their style of work but you can always get useful ideas for your own. Try to visualise what some of the black and white pictures would have looked like if you were there at the time – how would the picture have looked in colour? 

What should I be looking for / working towards in terms of composition?

All the basic rules are there to look at and then use as (and if) you see fit.

Since you are often emphasising more of the geometric structure of a scene, consider lines that lead the eye into the picture, curves that suggest a 'flow' and last but not least, the good old rule of thirds. 

Look at collections of other people's work, go for the pictures that -instantly- appeal. If you have to think about an image to like it, then that's not what you are looking for here. This is not meant as an intellectual exercise.

Look at aspects of the image that are important to the composition. Mask off bits of the image, see what effect it has. With practice you will get a much better feel for what will work and what won't.

One of the hardest parts (for myself) of putting together an exhibition is often the need for some kind of artist's statement, expressing what I was trying to say in my work. I'm instantly suspicious of most 'artists statements' I read - even more so if I suspect the photographer believes it themselves.

Having to justify the composition of an image where you looked at a scene for a few seconds and just thought 'wow' and pressed the shutter, can easily become an exercise in academic pretentiousness... That's not to say I don't sometimes deliberately try and evoke a certain feeling in an image, but the reality of the tree photo above, was that I had left my coat in the car and after walking a few hundred yards, felt absolutely freezing ;-) It's probably worth mentioning that that 'wow' feeling gets 'refined' with practice...

One of the reasons that I studiously avoid competitions (and competition judges ;-) is that you need to experiment with what works for you, and that may not fit in with what is perceived as 'correct'.

Several years ago some of my work was criticised by a noted photographic 'expert' – apart from a fleeting desire to push him out of a nearby window, it actually convinced me even more to experiment and decide what it was that –I- liked doing. I take my success as a professional photographer as enough comment on his 'expertise'

Do you use any special filters to enhance your B&W photography?

Filters are an important part of black and white film photography.

I often used to use a light orange filter with black and white film to enhance clouds.

The Olympus OM2 I used to use for film B/W photography, and the Canon 1Ds that I've used for the last few years (due to be replaced by a 1Ds Mark 3 late in 2007)

The big UV filter in front of the 1Ds is as much to protect the lens in my day to day work as it is to provide any filtration. I often remove it for taking my landscape shots (it does work if you are at any appreciable altitude though)

The Shingle Street photograph was taken on film with a Light Orange filter.

OM2, ISO 400 Tri-X, 24mm f/2.8 Zuiko
--As to exposure and f ratio who knows?
There's no EXIF data with film and I'm hopeless at keeping notes when shooting :-)

The orange filter cuts back on the amount of blue light from the sky, making it look darker.

For a more extreme version of this, see the Wyoming picture below.

In digital black and white, I might occasionally use a polarising filter to control reflections on water or glass, or to darken the sky, but I want the camera to record as full a range of colours as possible – I'm going to be applying the filters to my colour images –after- they have been processed from the raw camera files.

In many ways, the choice of colour to black and white conversion method is like choosing your film and filtering – just you get many more options and you can change your mind after the shot.

Move your mouse over the image to see the original colour view

 examples of colour to black and white conversion

The Wyoming landscape shows how bight colours come out differently if you use different conversion techniques. In this case they are

1) Convert to Lab and discard the colour part of the image

2) Simple 'convert to greyscale' (as in Photoshop)

3,4,5) Converting the individual channels (R,G or B) to greyscale

Canon 1Ds ISO 100 1/320, f/9, Canon 16-35 2.8L @ 28mm

The example above is from an article on digital black and white I wrote for Canon a while ago.

The full black and white conversion of the Wyoming shot shows the effect of doing a bit more dodging and burning and application of some masked adjustment curves (the colour file was converted using the PS channel mixer with a strong contribution from the red channel) I've exaggerated the changes for effect, but you can see how much the feel of the image can be altered.

 Wyoming landscape

I rarely use graduated filters  – I generally dislike their use, they are one of the things that if you can see it's been used then it looks awful. There are sometimes technical reasons to use them, but usually much less common than the person with a box of them likes to think. If you've got a box of hammers, then every problem is a nail... :-)

I look at a lot of skies and I want much more subtle control of brightness and contrast. Yes – obvious graduated filters are a pet hate of mine :-)

Which computer programs do you use to edit your photos?

Photoshop CS2 (and 3) for just about any image editing, but as to getting the images to edit... 

I shoot all my work in raw format, so as to benefit from doing all my conversion work later.

For raw conversion I tend to use either Adobe camera raw in Photoshop, or DxO Optics Pro

The California panoramic shot was stitched together from 10 Canon 1Ds images. The images were converted using DxO Optics Pro, since it was not that bright, and I wanted to bring out some of the texture and structure in the cliffs and grassy areas. The images were stitched together using RealViz Stitcher.

Canon 1Ds 24-70 2.8L lens at ~35mm - hand-held (10 portrait orientation images stitched together)

black and white Panoramic view of the north californian coast

The colour version has deliberately been produced with rich colours in the darker areas, since this gives me more variation when I'm doing the conversion to black and white. I've also produced the colour images at 16 bit and in the large ProPhoto colour space, so as to maximise the amount of detail I can extract when I convert to 16 bit greyscale.

 Panoramic view of the north californian coast

Coastline, just north of Ft.Bragg, California

The image was converted to black and white using the simple channel mixer technique, with a bit more emphasis given to the red channel, so as to bring out a bit more detail in the sky.

There has been a bit of dodging and burning to bring out detail in the sky and emphasise some of the patterns in the way the grass is growing. These patterns can be used to add in subtle curves and lines which direct the eye and enhance the 'feel' of the image. It's a bit difficult to show the effect on a web page, when I've created the image to be printed at some 8 feet wide.

What are the typical adjustments that you need to make when processing B&W photos?

Most of my adjustments have direct darkroom analogies, although I know that it would have taken a –lot- of experimenting to achieve the same results in the darkroom (my old darkroom now contains a 44 inch wide format printer and three Mac servers)

Basic settings are to ensure that the image has a good range of levels from black to white, then I look at parts of the image that need to be darker or lighter (dodging and burning)

I tend to do this with masked curve adjustment layers rather than the dodge and burn tools, since you have a lot more control, and can change your mind later. 

In the panoramic shot I've used a curves layer to increase the contrast range in the sky – the tricky part is to apply the curve (using a layer mask) so that the border between the adjusted part and the rest of the image doesn't show. The last thing I want is for it to look like I've used a graduated filter.

A very effective way of increasing local contrast that can sometimes work well on black and white images is HiRaLoAm sharpening (High Radius, Low Amount) Try a basic unsharp mask tool with the radius set to several hundred and the amount set from 4-13%. Do it on a duplicated layer of the image and you can then use masking to selectively apply the effect (I used it selectively as part of my treatment of the sky in the B/W panoramic shot above)

I never forget that the foremost aim is to produce a great print, not image on the screen. This needs an appreciation of how you are going to print, and what effect you want. (Note, printing is addressed in the second part of this article)

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Which subjects should I avoid?

None at all – try whatever you would take in colour (and more), in black and white. Lots of pictures of things that don't look very good in black and white will help you decide what looks better in black and white.

It also has the beneficial side effect of making you think about colour much more when you use it.

My black and white photography has really benefited from the switch to digital. I take more pictures, I experiment more and –many- more of my images get printed.

If you could give someone just 5 tips on learning to 'see' the world in black and white, what would they be?

 Apart from 'Take more photos' ;-)

  1. Take a load of your existing colour photos (not just the 'good' ones) and simply convert them to black and white – How do they look different? Do any look better?
  2. Have a 'black and white day'.  Go out round your local neighbourhood and take pictures of anything you see – forget about what you've been told is common or clichéd - just take lots of pictures – see what they look like in black and white 
  3. Visit a second hand book shop and look for old photography books, with lots of black and white photography in them. Decide on some effects or examples you like and go and produce your own versions.
  4. Take a few varied colour photos that you think may look good in black and white and try some different techniques for converting to black and white. Look carefully at how different colours turn to different greys. You can turn pleasant summer clouds into and 'end of the world' look quite easily. I've collected lots of different techniques I've found on a specific page on my web site. Try also some of the colour test images I've collected to see how different colours convert
  5. Look more closely at colour, start to see how it is used around you. As you see colour more distinctly, you can also spot the aspects of a scene that are going to figure more in a black and white image.

All the links to more articles and reviews on this site from this article

The Second part of this article covers aspects of printing black and white photos

The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
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