Black & White ( the zone system vs color)

I was looking for a subject to write about on this months blog when a friend and fellow photographer complimented my Black & White work on Google+, so I thought I’d pass on some tips and tricks that work for me. I’ll break this into two categories: photographing and processing.
I generally prefer to view art, photographs and films in Black & White. This is partially because my eyes don’t process light very well and colors tend to appear extremely flat or overly saturated (though this has been a blessing for low light and night vision.)
This deficiancy in my vision I find to be one of the initial and most useful tricks I use in Black and White photography.

Photogaphic Tips:

As I mentioned above, my primary technique is to view my subject as black and white. It’s not that my eyes don’t see the color, they just don’t emphazise it. I have heard that we think in black and white. I try to let my eyes register the image to this part of my brain, to see the final in my thoughts before I shoot.

Next I look for the tone variations in the image. Rather than seeing the “blue” in the door, I look for the variations of light and dark – highlight to shadow.

Then I look for details in shape and texture that will distinguish the subject(s) within the image. When color is absent shape, size, shape, texture and detail become even more important to giving the subject identity. Also concerning texture and detail, if it’s not in the negative it won’t be in the final print.

Finally, I define what I want the image to portray – shallow or deep depth of field, selective focus, etc. and adjust focus, aperture, speed accordingly.

Processing tips: I start in PS and finish in LR.
Since the image was originally pursued in thought as black and white, I start by converting the negative to greyscale before making other adjustments.

I then make any exposure and level adjustments. I do this through the adjustment menu rather than layers so the adjustment is fixed into the whole image. Whe used to study what was known as the zone system, with the zones ranging from 0-7. Zero is pure white with no detail – 1 is white with some detail, 7 is pure black with no detail – 6 is black with some detail. A supposedly ideal black and white print had no zone 0, minimal and somewhat equal amounts of zone 1 & 7 and the rest of the image falling between zones 2 through 6 depending on the mood intended by the photographer. I use the exposure and levels adjustments to set the basis of zones 1 & 7.

Now I will go into layers and adjust curves to bring out the details and exposure for the parts of the image I want to fall into zones 2 through 6. I find if I start in greyscale rather than Black and White presets I retain more of the detail in each of the zones. If I do choose to add any gradient mapping, I will do it near the end of the PS adjustments and then still finalize with a Shadow/Highlight adjustment to keep my detail.

Here I’ll switch to Lightroom, fine tune highlights, whites and shadows, make clarity, luminence and sharpening adjustments and add any filter effect I might employ. I find I’m still conservative on filters and lean to the traditional yellow or orange.

I know some photographers who do all processing in LR and others who do all PS adjustments in layers. However you chose to process if you initially shoot with the black and white image in your vision and then remember the zone system as you process, you will probable create a final image you are happy with.

I’m scheduled to attend a black and white workshop at Shooting the West this next March, so will write more on the subject next spring.

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