Unicorn Photo Academy: When it's All Black and White
With the technology we have available today, it’s crazy to think that once upon a time a blurry, colorless image on a piece of paper seemed like sorcery. There was a time when people truly were specialized in this and we had to pay a professional for every image we wanted. Now, it seems like new photographers sprout up and start their businesses every day.
Where did this all begin? Well, photography was a technology that many civilizations were trying to figure out for decades, if not hundreds of years. An ancient Chinese philosopher named Mo Di was the first we know of to discover the scientifics of optics. But it was in the Renaissance era that people really began utilizing the camera obscura (or pinhole): a natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole in that screen as a reversed and inverted image on a surface opposite to the opening, which is basically how our eyes work. These artists would use the projection as an aid for their drawings and paintings. But how could we project this image and preserve it in a permanent, physical manner?
In the 1800’s, a British Inventor named Thomas Wedgewood began experimenting with various chemicals in the hope that he could find a light-sensitive substance in which to capture images. He initially used silver nitrate on paper or white leather, but the images eventually darkened over. A french inventor named Nicéphore Niépce is believed to be the first person to master a permanent photoetching in the 1820’s. He made the View from the Window at Le Gras, which is the longest-surviving photograph from nature, taken with a camera obscura. Most of Niépce’s exposures took over 8 hours, so he partnered with Louis Daguerre to try and perfect the process, but they did so secretively.
Niépce died in 1833, but Daguerre kept working. He developed a process that we know as Daguerrotypes by using a silver-plated surface sensitized by iodine vapors, developed by mercury vapor (probably not the best choice), and “fixed” with hot salt water. Daguerre’s process became the prototype for further experimentation and eventually the commercialization of photography. Once Daguerre announced his process in 1839, it became a sensation, and the first-known portrait was taken by American Robert Cornelius that same year. However, there are arguments that American inventor Samuel Morse (as in Morse Code) took the first portrait.
It was a widespread phenomenon. Other inventors, chemists, and enthusiasts across the globe learned Daguerre’s process and worked to improve it. British chemist Henry Fox Talbot announced his calotype process in 1840, which involved creating a translucent negative to produce positive images, unlike Daguerre’s process. Another British chemist named John Herschel invented the cyanotype or “blueprint” process--and like Talbot, it involved a process of using negatives to create positives. This cut down on the exposure time and allowed for multiple copies of the image to be printed.
In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer published his wet plate collodion process. His process resulted in creating Ambrotypes (positive image on glass), Tintypes (positive image on metal), and the glass negative used for creating positive prints on paper. This process was the most commonly used until the 1870’s when it was replaced by the dry plate process, and eventually by Kodak film in the early 1900’s. Photographic history is rich, and had many individuals involved. If you are interested in continuing learning check out The Photo History podcast and a book I’ve been reading called The Apparitionists by Peter Manseau. The Apparitionists talks a lot about photo history and how it relates to some ghostly images captured by Spiritualist photographer William Mumler (also check out this episode of the Lore Podcast for more on Mumler).
Before we got color film and digital imaging, captured memories were monochromatic. Sure, we see our world in color and that is the most accurate way to capture a memory as realistically as possible, but as a photographer, I have an appreciation for black and white images (although my husband doesn’t get it). When I first learned how to work in the dark room, I exclusively worked with black and white film. It helped me understand and learn values within an exposure to have the most dynamic images. I definitely process most of my images in color, but occasionally I like to process images in black and white as an artistic choice.
I learned Photoshop before Lightroom, so today’s small tutorial on processing black and white images that “pop” will be in Photoshop, although the principles and tools are more or less the same program to program. I, of course, bring my desired image into photoshop, and then go to my menu, select Layer> Adjustment Layer > Black and White. This will create a layer on top of my background which I can turn on and off and go back to color if need be. More often than not, once dropped in black and white, I find my images look very flat. When I expose a well-balanced image, the medium tones often translate to the same grey value. I need more contrast in my value in order to make this image more dynamic.
I then go back to the Layer menu, and create a “Levels” adjustment layer. This shows up on my layer panel and the histogram showing the range of light, medium, and dark will pop up. You will notice a slider along the bottom of the histogram for these values. What I want to do is ensure there are areas of pure black, and areas of pure white. I hold down ALT and move either the white or black slider. In holding down alt, your image will show nothing but primary values and tones. I move either slider until I know I have a pop of white and a pop of black which as a result makes my image more contrasted. I never move the middle grey slider.
I try not to go overboard with too much white or too much black because I still want an even exposure. I don’t want to blow out my image or make it dark and muddy. I want to see as much detail as possible while ensuring all values are well balanced. Every photograph is different so the amount of white and black can vary per image, and I trust my eye to tell me what looks best. Other tools that work similarly are Brightness/Contrast and Curves. This was the first way I learned to add slight contrast to my images without changing the exposure too much.
I tend to make extremely emotive images black and white to focus on the emotions being expressed in the image. I prefer my monochromatic work to be very contrasted as an artistic preference. While the quick, above technique is the first way I learned how to edit black and white, I now use VSCO Film Presets in Lightroom to make my images look like the Ilford film I used to photograph with while learning black and white film chemistry. I can make the same adjustments in lightroom as I did with Photoshop, and you can do this in any photo editing program or app you might have access to. Play around a little, and I’m sure you’ll find your own technique and style that you could share.
Be sure to share your black and white edits with the hashtag #UnicornPhotoAcademy! If you have any questions or editing techniques you like to share, please comment on this post!
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