Let’s talk about black & white photographs for a bit, shall we? It always has been and continues to be my favorite style. It’s classic and timeless and easy to match any decor. Personally, I think there’s a lot of misconception and a lot of misuse of this classic style.
Most people know that using color can evoke emotion and mood. Similarly, using light, contrast, clarity, shadows, tonality & edge treatment can completely change the look and feel of a black & white picture. Take a look at the top and next few pictures to see what I’m talking about.
All of them are clearly black and white. But the mood is completely different. The wedding photo is dark, elegant and moody. Those two sweet boys with sparkling eyes are full of fun and mischief. Our lovely beach babe skirts the line in between the other two with a sepia tint. This is not something you can accomplish by just clicking the black and white button in Photoshop or iPhoto. I use a combination of regular photo editing techniques along with some free and paid for Photoshop actions. I’m going to take you through a few ways to play around with black and white effects yourself or just be able to explain to a professional exactly what you’re looking for. If I edited the two brothers in the same style as the wedding it would look something like this:
You can clearly see the differences between styles and thus how the picture makes you feel. Here’s a color photo. It’s a beautiful color photo and looks fabulous just the way it is. But let’s say you want to frame it in a room full of muted grays and blues and the green just doesn’t feel right. Or maybe your grandmother has all the children framed on a wall in black and white. Whatever your reasoning, let’s take a look at some of the options all on the same picture.
Here’s my photo in basic black and white. Certainly not bad at all. It depends on what your personal taste is and what you’re looking for.
Here it is after I adjusted the levels (CTRL+L) Curves, (CTRL+M) and Contrast (Image-Adjustments-Brightness/Contrast) in Photoshop.
Here I’ve applied an edge burn and then reduced the opacity of the burn so it looks more
realistic. My favorite edge burn is a free action from The Pioneer Woman called Quick Edge
Burn. We use this ALL THE TIME. Download it now!
If you don’t know how to use Photoshop Actions, here are some great resources
Now we’re making some significant progress. But let’s go back a few steps and see if I like what some of the actions that I have better.
Pioneer Woman’s Black & White Beauty:
Another great resource for Photoshop actions is Paint The Moon. Love, love, love her stuff. It’s a little more expensive but definitely worth it.
PTM Luminosity Audrey BW:
PTM Luminosity Audrey BW plus PW Quick Edge Burn:
PTM Luminosity Full of Soul BW:
So clearly that gives you more of a sepia tone. This tends to be my go-to black & white action and if it’s too warm for you, you simply click the drop-down arrow on the layer ‘Full Of Soul BW’ that the action has created for you, and reduce the opacity of the layers ‘soul warm pop’ or ‘add some warmth’.
PTM Luminosity Full of Soul BW (with warmth reduced) plus Quick Edge Burn:
PTM Luminosity Gossamer BW:
PTM Luminosity Lavish BW:
So as you can see we have a ton of different options. They’re subtle, yet can make a big impact.
All these black and white differences apply to old photographs and restorations as well. Most of our restorations come in and they are tinged yellow/warm. This is different from a sepia photograph. Sepia ‘refers to a brownish tone imparted to a photograph, especially an early one such as a calotype. It can be produced by first bleaching a print (after fixing) and then immersing it for a short time in a solution of sodium sulphide or of alkaline thiourea. Or a dark reddish- brown pigment obtained from the inky secretion of the cuttlefish.’ (www.collinsdictionary.com)
The yellowish tinge comes from the ageing process of the emulsion, paper and/or the dyes. (Fun Fact: All dyes fade over time but yellow dye lasts the longest which is why aged photos tend to be yellowish and not bluish) It could also be due to the chemicals and moisture the photo has been exposed to in the air. When restoring photos, it again depends on the taste of the client.
Here’s a photo we’ve received.
Here it is restored in true black and white.
Here it is in Sepia:
And here it is restored but still retaining the same yellowish tint, just a little bit less intense. It all depends on what you prefer.
I hope that this opens your eyes up a bit to all the possibilities of black and white photography.
P.S. who counted the number of times I used ‘black & white’ in that post?
About the Author
Lara Stanko is the Creative Director for Tumbleston Photography in Charleston, SC. They specialize in portraiture and event photography. She has a passion for unique and captivating imagery. She loves sparkly things, flamingoes and reality television. You can find out more about her on her company website or blog, follow her work on Instagram or Facebook.