Deep beneath my house lurks a dark secret. Box after box weighs down the sagging shelves, packed to the brim with rectangular black plastic envelopes, measuring jugs, clamps and sinister lengths of rubber hose. The stopwatches and red light bulbs give the game away: This must be the house of an extremely fastidious brothel owner, or someone who, in the dim and distant past, printed black and white pictures in a darkroom.
Back before most of us were born, the darkroom was where art and science collided to turn strips of plastic and sheets of paper into the magic of a photographic image. Old-timers such as me become all misty eyed talking about images appearing like ghosts on virgin sheets of paper. How conveniently they forget the hours spent lumbering around in the gloom, inhaling violent chemicals, trying not to destroy the film by exposing it to the tiniest chink of light and finally emerging into daylight squinting like a newborn piglet and stinking from head to toe of toxic gunk.
Tones and zones
The ease with which you can produce great black and white images in the “digital darkroom” has given the art form a new lease of life. Turning a colour photo into a moody monochrome is now a matter of a few clicks: Simply hit the “desaturate” command in your photo editing software and voila!
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However, easy doesn’t necessarily mean great. Many photographers dipping their toes into black and white for the first time are disappointed when the results turn out flat and, well, colourless.
Without bright hues to make the picture leap out and grab the viewer, texture, lines and tones have to become the tools of choice. The choices you make at the time of composition and exposure become critical and to make the right ones involves learning to see the world in tones of grey.
The key to this new language is one that photographers have been using for years: the “zone system” invented by Ansel Adams way back in 1939. This divides the world into 10 zones of brightness, with absolute black at zone zero, middle grey on zone four and absolute white at zone nine. Instead of exhausting my remaining column explaining something you’ll probably grasp in 5 minutes, I highly recommend you get online and seek Kim Balsman’s succinct and jargon-free explanation of the zone system available at hyper-focal.
Once you grasp the theory, you’ll find yourself instinctively composing with tone values in mind, and I guarantee your pictures will be the better for it.
A quick fix in the digital darkroom
However, all is not lost for your existing images. If a simple desaturation doesn’t give you enough punch, you can quickly make more powerful adjustments using the channels palette in Photoshop. Select the red, green or blue channels of your picture individually and you’ll see three strikingly different combinations of brightness and contrast. Choosing red will darken anything in the blue and green channels, making those white fluffy clouds float out from a thunderously black sky.
Instant Ansel? Not quite. But the extra pop in your images should be enough to keep you going while you grapple with the finer points of the language of black and white.
David Stott is a photographer based in Australia.
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