I love black and white. If I had to choose only one mode of expression going forward in terms of color or black and white I without hesitation would choose to shoot black and white. Thank goodness we don't really have to choose one or the other but if we did I would be a black and white photographer all the way. In many ways I am a traditionalist when it comes to photographs. My own feelings are that there is so much space to explore with just the basic controls of point of view, perspective, framing, exposure, etc I don't really need to muddy the water with effect.
With that said, one of the reasons I love black and white is that it lends itself to massive amounts of interpretation without being effect-y. Color on the other hand tends to be a bit more of a harsh task master. Veer a little too much outside normal color and you are in surreal land where the effect completely overpowers the subject. At least in my photographic desires. I thought I would share a bit about Aperture 3's basic black and white conversions today spurred on by a few conversations I've had on the topic of "what do you use for black and white".
For the most part I use Aperture 3's basic black and white adjustment brick. Deceptively simple, infinitely variable in terms of effect, and just about everything you need – ever. I will use Nik Silver EFEX Pro2 for some images but that's only when I really really want a grain effect or I envision complicated local adjustments. Highly recommended if you are a black and white enthusiast.
Let's talk about Aperture 3's toolset when it comes to black and white and how it works for those of you that aren't from the days of old where channel mixer in photoshop was the way to go…
Let's assume for a moment that you don't have to fix your image in terms of exposure or dynamic range. All you want is black and white. Easy… two adjustment bricks in Aperture 3 will give you just about every film type, paper grade, film developer, development process, and gaggles of filters. Seriously, the basic black and white adjustment block and the curves tool will replace every on camera filter, every different black and white film ever made, and a darkroom full of chemicals, papers, etc. That's it, two controls. Let's consider the shot at the top – a reject from my Mirror-Mirror project – basic workman-like color starting point. Here's a version with just the default black and white control added…
Perfect, well let's say typical and actually just about perfect if you just want a generic conversion that matches up with what a full range normal contrast index print, with a typical un-filtered, average black and white film, developed pretty much developed normally. On the other hand when I shot black and white film I tended to overexpose it a little and give it a tiny bit more development than normal for some mid-tone pop. I already have a tiny little S-curve curves control on the basic color version. May as well use that for what is more my go to personal norm. I'll just take the curves control point in the shadows and drag it down a bit while leaving the other one alone.
Nothing extreme. A perfect proof-print look from my film and darkroom days. I didn't touch the default black and white adjustment brick just a tiny tweak of that one curves control. My typical use of black and white film didn't involve using color filters to exaggerate color/contrast relationships. Part of that was I really didn't want the speed robbing that on-lens black and white filters gave you. Part was aesthetic. I kind of liked what black and white film did without a strong color filter skewing color relationships. For special effects I sometimes used a dark orange or red filter and the effect was extreme. Other times I used a green filter and the effect was also extreme but different. Aperture 3 has presets for those that are perfectly fine and do exactly what an on-lens filter would have done without the speed robbing effect. Let's try them out without changing the curves or anything out.
Here's a red filter…
Wow, the skin goes white. Actually anything near red or warm goes much lighter. Everything else that's not near read will go darker. Let's try the other filter that I used a lot, a green filter…
Interesting and completely different. Skin and everything near warm gets darker and richer along with a heck of a lot of separation in those tones. Try it yourself. Find the default Aperture 3 black and white presets under the effects dropdown menu in the adjustment inspector. Take a look what's going on when you choose one of these really strong/dark filter types. Back in the film days those red #25 filters and the green filters were really dark. Sometimes even impossible to focus through. These are too, the pretty much cut those mysterious red, green, blue sliders in the black and white adjustment brick to zero for colors other than the filter color. The red goes 100% red, and zero/zero for blue and green. The green goes 100% on the green and zero/zero on the blue and red. These are extreme. The blue preset will do the same thing just with blue. The other filters that represent lighter and more in-between colors like yellow and orange are just various mixes of these controls.
Apple gives the same guidelines as the countless photoshop channel mixer black and white tutorials. Generally make sure that the numbers for all three channels adds up to 100%. They don't have to but have a good reason if they don't. You may be better off using an exposure correction or a curves adjustment rather than trying to get that effect your after with color mixes. I tend to use the color mixes to fine tune color relationships rather than overall contrast or density adjustments. You can see they do a hell of a lot. I like to think of the black and white color channel controls as on-camera filter substitutes or film-type variations and the curves control as film development and/or paper type.
When talking about on-camera filters like a red, or green, or orange filter they are all very strong. Just like real black and white film those filters pretty much overwhelmed and differences in various film brands and types in terms of color response. In a lot of cases since 80% or more of my use was without filters I tended to like a particular film for its variation in color response as a primary characteristic as well as it's curve shape. Let's take a look at something a bit more subtle. If we say that the default color channel mix is about average, let's just call it TRI-X, about as average as you get and lighting variations will account for various differences as much as nits will. In the same scene if I chose say TMAX 100 instead of TRI-X I would expect a response a bit closer to TRI-X but with a very weak yellow filter. Let's see what that might look like.
I added 5% to the red default and 5% to the green default, removing 10% from blue. Remember our remedial color math? It's pretty subtle but that's true of various panchromatic films as well. There's way more variation in contrast curve let alone development/printing processes. For me that's what curves are for. They can simulate any film response, development, or printing treatment you could ever imagine. Let's do something a bit more extreme but not quite a dark blue filter. Let's simulate orthochromatic film.
The above is 10% red, 20% green, 70% blue. Here's another theoretical orthochromatic film of a different brand or era…
Let's go back to the normal default by clicking on the reset thing at the top of the black and white adjustment. Now we'll simulate more aggressive development using curves.
You really don't need lots of fancy looking knobs. Only a few of the right knobs to get pretty much anywhere you could ever have imagined. Myself, I prefer fewer but very effective knobs rather than dozens of them that do similar things. Are there other ways to do this in other tools? Sure, they get you to the same place. More knobs is not equivalent to more functional. I like simple. I didn't even get into local adjustments but a couple of additional curves controls and some brushes just about replaces everything anyone normal would ever want to do in a real darkroom. Let's not count those ruby-lith mask weirdos. Nice trick but those people pictures are not really the icons held up as black and white masterpieces.