I have always loved black and white photography, and when I’ve time on my hands I like going back over my library and looking for pictures that I shot for mono but haven’t converted yet. I feel monochrome captures emotions better and just makes the viewing experience so much more focused. I’m hoping the play of shadows in this first shot, for example, helps convey my sympathy for this little kid, left to sleep on an unfinished mat while his mother had to keep weaving.
But. I have a confession to make. I don’t shoot with film anymore. All my monos are shot digital, and very often in color. I was a darkroom monkey back in college, but worsening asthma has barred me from the darkroom for good. I’ve yet to meet a non-mildewy darkroom, so for now my black and whites are all done on the computer or in-camera. As I was processing these photos of the Manobos, I realized I was now processing my photos a lot more in ACDSee Pro instead of Photoshop and getting much closer to the results I would’ve wanted had I been using chemicals. So allow me to share a few tips on digital black and white:
1. Extremes of exposure work pretty well in black and white. A monochrome image is just a play on shades of gray, and a photo with large swathes of white or black work better in mono than in color. This one was deliberately overexposed by about a stop, and shot using the Green filter setting on my Canon EOS 7D. One of the neat features in many digital cameras nowadays is the ability to customize how your camera renders a color capture into monochrome by simulating colored filters. I chose Green for this shot because it would render the leafy background less distracting, and keep the tones of the clothes, which were a very bright red, quite dark. The tones were then tweaked using the Lighting Equalizer tool in ACDSee. (Why ACDSee? Because it’s easier on my third-world pocket than Lightroom, I like knowing exactly where my pictures are, and because I’m used to it.)
2. When I shoot in color, as I did with this photo, I tune my mono conversion according to the predominant colors in the scene. When you digitally convert a color image to monochrome, you are mapping the various shades and hues and combinations of the digital primary colors – Red, Green, Blue – to shades of gray. By favoring one channel over another (using Channel Mixer in PS, or the similar Convert to Black and White in ACDSee), you render areas of that color lighter. This Tagabawa elder (of the Bagobo culture, related to the Manobos) was wearing a bright fuchsia jacket and red headcloth with blue tassels, with trees in the background; thus, I again converted by making sure the reds would map to darker tones. The greens and blues were kept near-even, so the background wouldn’t go too bright nor the tassels too dark – which would’ve happened if I’d favored Green alone. The lines on the face were emphasized using the Clarity tool. The textures on the face and headdress come out so much better in mono.
3. I’ve shown the color version of this photo before, but now here’s the mono version which I like even better. This was converted by favoring the Green and Blue channels, again becaus e of a very bright red dress (red has a profound cultural significance for many of our indigenous peoples). Blue is favored slightly more this time, because the background highlights have a greenish tinge – they’re reflections from a grassy field in front of the subject. Tones were adjusted using Curves and the Light Equalizer, and Clarity again hoicked up to bring out the details more in face and hands. I really like this portrait for its impact, and the fact that I shot this Ata Manobo lady against a starkly bare concrete backdrop for me helps bring out the problems now faced by these people: they belong in the pristine mountains, but they’re getting increasingly lost in a sea of concrete as development smashes down the old barriers of remoteness.
4. Monochrome is fantastic for showing moments. In color, this photo is a riot of primaries – the mat weaver’s blouse is bright red, the background is green and over-exposed, with the net result that attention is not as concentrated on her eyes, smile and hands as I wanted it to be. Presenting it in mono brings, for me, the focus back on the person rather than the cultural trappings.
It’s too bad there’s not much of a market for black and white portraits anymore, or I’d do a lot more of my work in mono. But for the personal stuff, when I get to shoot what I really like for no one’s satisfaction but mine, I find monochromes have a quieter, deeper feel that puts them in a different stream from the deluge of digital images social media feeds us now. But ever so often I seen an Adams or Steichen or Avedon that just leaves me speechless, and in my mind I smell again the Dektol fumes from the Camera Club darkroom in college …