Back in high school when I was the sports editor and shooting primarily sports and yearbook and doing a chunk of the darkroom for the paper black and white was all I did, and Tri-X was my standard film. Unlike a lot of photographers who seem to miss film and spending hours in a dark, smelly, chemical-filled darkroom turning out one or two prints, I do not miss my film days whatsoever. I’m guessing most of the people who are remembering the good old days of film sent their film out to labs to be developed and never lived in a production lab for hours at a time across days in a row… but I digress.
Despite not missing my days developing and printing black and white film fondly, I have felt for a while that I needed to get serious about black and white conversions as a way to continue to push my photography forward. This has been one of my “I know I have to put some time and effort into this — someday” projects has been to dig in and study monochrome conversions of digital images.
So this weekend I sat myself down at the monitor and started grabbing images out of my collection more or less at random and started doing conversions so I could see what came out. I do not remotely pretend to be an expert at this; I do not pretend to even be good at it. That’s the point, actually: I have to invest some hours in the process to learn how to do this well and do it consistently, and this is the starting line. I’m going to try to do a number of images every couple of weeks, and make black and white conversion of at least some images of new shoots a regular part of the project plan.
Here are the first images to come out of the chute. I’m curious what you think of them. Some of them I like, some of them I honestly don’t know what I think about them yet.
Bridalveil falls, Yosemite. This one I knew I wanted a black and white version of, and I really like it. Like it enough I’m probably going to print this to paper and see how it turns out.
This is my second favorite of the bunch. Again, I took a relatively “easy” subject, white birds, but there are some subtle tonalities that it took me a while to get the way I liked, especially around the beak and lores.
A pure experiment (the color version is here). I felt it really needed a heavy tint to it to make the white flock of birds pop. I’m not at all sure this is good, but it sure is striking, and I think this would make a really interesting background for a cover of a book or something similar. I’m just not sure it’s good as a photo. It’s very definitely not like my normal work, which makes it really interesting to me.
Here’s another one I really like (the color version is here) — I ramped up contrast to build drama, and this is all about pushing the eye so it sees Morro Rock and trying to make the rock a focal point of an image that it’s not really prominent in. The color version of this left me wishing I’d shot it with a polarizer; this version takes advantage of the fact that I didn’t to really bring the slough waters to prominence.
Not a huge shift in this image, since the scene had very muted colors in the original (you can see it here). Probably my least favorite of the group, but I felt it was a stretch given my current skills.
And probably the least interesting of the bunch. I think the conversion is successful, but I think moving this image to monochrome took a lot of the life out of it. In the original (here it is) there’s some nice subtle coloring that gets lost in the conversion. I didn’t think this would make a great monochrome image, but that’s one reason why I decided to try it. I think I was right.
One thing that might be obvious to a careful viewer is that all of the images are tinted at least slightly. That was true of a lot of my darkroom personal work back in the day, where I tended to use papers that brought in some tonal shift off pure monochrome. I find most “pure” monochrome conversions feel sterile to me and I much prefer to give them at least a hint of a tone. Honestly, I think that ties back to both my work printing for the school newspaper and yearbook and my dad’s work with the newspaper where so much of it ended up being the fake handshake artificial smile shaking hands talking heads thing that was so common in the local newspapers back when they actually existed. I’ll have to push myself to avoid the tints at some point, but right now, I much prefer the look with at least some of it in the image, and when I do use it, you’ll see I’m using coffee or sepias most o the time. I’m probably creating a bad habit i’ll have to break at some point, but what the heck. There are worse bad habits in the world…