Like sorting through different grades of chocolate, finding the perfect level of black can be challenging.
Almost everyone loves a good black-and-white image. Some even go so far as to say the monochrome look is superior to color. While the color vs. black-and-white argument is largely a matter of personal preference (how much reality do you really want?) when it comes to actually creating a black-and-white image the process has become more challenging and, at times, unnerving than it ever was with film.
With film, the tone of a black-and-white image was largely a matter of two factors. The first was one’s choice of film. Every film type processed differently even in the exact same chemicals. So, if one was using Kodak T-Max, which was always a popular film, one would get a different result than if using Agfa APX or Ilford Delta. Personally, my favorite, though tough to find, was always Fomapan. I like the rich tones it produces and the deep black of the shadows.
The second was one’s choice of chemicals used in the processing and it’s there that LAB processing makes a lot of difference as to how one handles the image can produce a tonal range from sepia to deep chocolate. One needed to be precise, watch timers carefully, and for Pete’s sake don’t smoke in the darkroom (you’d think that’d be a given)! If one wasn’t precise, every image would have a slightly different tonal quality to it.
This is one of the problems that digital imagery and processing allegedly solve. In theory, one uses the exact same process on every image and the tone turns out exactly the same. In practice, however, we still have to factor the amount of light, the temperature of the light source, and the depth of the shadows. The only way to be sure one is producing exact tonal duplicates is to shoot every image in exactly the same environment every time.
The challenge is almost always with the tone of the blacks. White isn’t as much an issue because it’s either white or it’s a shade of something else. Not really any middle ground there. But comparing blacks is very much like choosing a grade of chocolate. There are the warmer tones of soft milk chocolate, the deep, dark blacks of 90% cacao, and every possible grade between. Which one chooses is a matter of taste and appropriateness. No one method works equally in every recipe.
Such was the issue when I began processing these outdoor portraits of Steffanie Tuttle. The wind was brisk, the late-afternoon sun was moving quickly, and every time she changed much of anything, from her pose to her clothes, the dynamics of the image changed as well. I knew I wanted something more low key with deep, rich shadows, but there was a need to keep facial features recognizable as well. As a result, we used four different processing methods on four different looks and got four different results.
I won’t claim to have a favorite. We did have more fun with the snow pictures, perhaps, but I have a feeling over time my preferences will be for the set of more traditional portraits with tighter frames. Your preferences may be very different.
As always, click on any of the thumbnails below to view the image full screen on your device. Our thanks to Steffanie for coming out in the cold and being patient with the lag in processing time. Enjoy!