Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The "New" Black and White

Open Sky Candid; Smena Symbol, Kodak Color Plus 200, GIMP B&W Conversion
I know I've talked about this before, but I'll say it again - there are many new ways to create a Black and White Photo, and it all has to do with the Digital Workflow. Many still prefer the Darkroom, and my hat sincerely gets tipped to them - these are the real photographers, truly. The rest of us are faking it. I'm not being sarcastic here.

But I've never learned the Darkroom - never been near one. To bring some truth to the matter, those of us who've cut our teeth in the Digital Photography World might think we have the upper hand, but we really don't, especially if we're trying to get our photos into galleries. "He who lives by the sword must die by the sword", and we who live by digital will surely die by digital.

What am I getting at here? Simply this - in Digital Photography, unless you own a Leica Monochrom, we're only seeing the world in colour - we have the so-called advantage of taking nothing but colour photos, and then using our digital workflows to turn them into anything we want, and that includes B&W. Notice the picture above? It's really not a bad B&W, shot with a vintage Lomo-Style film camera - but take note - I did it on colour film. I did not intend to make this a B&W picture when I took it. But somebody with a B&W darkroom, using strictly monochrome film has to see the world strictly as his film sees it - in black and white. If we cannot do that, then we are not B&W shooters. I am not a B&W shooter. Just being able to turn a digital photo into B&W with one click of the mouse (err.. I mean one tap on the touchpad.... geeez!) does not make me a B&W photographer - so I was told by a local Gallery I was trying to get into, and I had to agree.

So now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about the pictures. Yes - the above is a good B&W, with some pure black  and some pure white, and a good range of tonalities in between. That's important. It's rich and "round", with the tones contributing nicely to shapes, and separation between objects, and it recedes nicely into the background, both in terms of focus and contrast.

But did I have to use a film camera to make this all happen? Let's see.

Panasonic DMC-LX5, GIMP B&W Conversion
(Above^) This too has some total black and total white, and lot's of in-between tones. But looking with a critical eye, aside from the fact that it's much less interesting than my opening photo, it fails at everything else, I think. There's not enough contrast to make the picture elements separate and recede correctly. The land doesn't quite lay flat. This fails in B&W, even though it is pristinely digital.

Panasonic DMC-LX5, GIMP B&W Conversion, GIMP Fake Lomo Effect
(Above^) This is the same photo with one added digital enhancement - in GIMP I clicked on "Filters > Light and Shadow > Lomo..." and clicked on the default settings Now suddenly it works a lot better. Look especially at the fences way back near the barn, and how they stand out more. Look at how everything in the middle ground is now more separated from the background. And finally, notice how the ground lays nice and flat. The truly amazing thing is that I brought about all these "enhancements" by "degrading" the picture with three different kinds of blur, lens distortion, and heavy vignetting!

Some final comments - the opening picture at the top succeeds on it's own... all I had to do was scan the colour film, and then use GIMP's single click "BW Film Simulation". The fact that it is a Lomo style camera using a very inferior grade of colour film put all the inherent richness in the photo from the beginning. As for the barn picture, I got lucky. The GIMP "Lomo faker" took a sterile digital picture and put some life into it. Who-ever wrote the computer code for this one really knows what he or she is doing. So what's really going on here? I'll tell you --- "human vision is far from perfect, but digital cameras are very perfect". Do you find yourself getting bored with your digital photos? That's why - they're too pristine. It's not the way we see. Our human vision likes distortions. Our peripheral vision is darker (vignetted) and blurrier compared with our central vision. Also, in combination with our sense of balance, our three-dimensional human vision perceives the flat ground we're walking on. If digital sampling fails to sort this out, then it has failed to create a scene that we can truly respond to emotionally. "Nice picture", but something isn't there. Often it is colour that helps a digital camera sort this out, but a B&W conversion might take it away. Just for the sake of interest, here's the barn picture in colour -

Panasonic DMC-LX5
Now we can see how the colour itself re-orientates our eyesight to provide plenty of space throughout the picture. Clearly, a simple B&W conversion on it's own is not good for this particular photo. It's truly amazing how all this works! This strongly suggests to me that those of us who are stuck in the digital workflow, even if we're shooting with film cameras, need to stop with all the talk around sharpness and "pixel-peeping" and instead consider more about how human vision actually sees things to create photos that we humanly respond to.

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