Digital Black & White, Color Matters

For the most part many of the black and white treatments used in this on-going project notebook are random, slapped on during import or applied arbitrarily to a giant group of images without much care to individual frames. I try not to get sucked into hours of fine-tuning or dilly-dally-ing with endless processing treatments on images I may never use anywhere but in these notes.

I wanted to drop a quick note about one of the aspects of black and white treatments that doesn't get a lot of air play outside of landscape and making skies darker etc — color sensitivity. Below is something similar but maybe a bit grainier that I've been using to proof the Fragments side project.


No density tweaks, just the exposure out of camera. Most of Jessica's skin can be considered highlight. I may even push it a bit higher, who knows but it's already fairly close to the whites as related to that white corset and white sheet. Not a bad thing for caucasian female skin and fairly typical. Pushing broad highlighted skin into compression usually hides flaws by reducing local contrast, etc. What does that have to do with color? Well let's take a look at the spectrum we're working with.


J. has very fair skin that tends towards the pinks and reds with some freckles. This is a pretty conservative in-camera exposure as it's really easy to blow out at least one color channel with this skin type look how close the tonal values are to that white corset.

When using black and white film I was typically a no-filter kind of shooter. Sure every once in a while when I made pictures with a lot of sky I'd use an orange or a red filter to darken it but for the most part when making pictures of people I was color filter free. That would give you somewhere in the neighborhood of the black and white rendition at the top. Common advice for film and for digital black and white is to use color sensitivities that resemble using a yellow/orange/red family of filters. All of these brighten skin in relation to other colors and more importantly in relation to whites.

Great, that makes sense, it also has the effect of blending blemishes in and smoothing them over as they are typically even more red-ish than other skin areas. I've done that from time to time but only for people that have really dark skin or a lot of red-ish patchy-ness. It was an exception. There's really not a one size fits all approach, it's far more deciding what you want.

If going for a flatter brighter look on skin using color sensitivities that boost reds and also push skin tones into the upper highlights can be great, with skin tone and coloration for people like J. It can be overkill and be really flat. Certainly a valid look but going the opposite way is just as valid. In fact when working with very light and pink-ish skin going with color sensitivities somewhere near a green filter can be great.


Above is an identical treatment to the image at the top except for the color sensitivities messed with to get near a green filter look on film. This kind of treatment can really knock down skin values in relation to whites in the scene for a lot of skin types but especially skin like Jessica's. You can see for yourself but it can add a lot of dimension and inner contrast to skin while also allowing a bit more exposure while maintaining that inner contrast. Below is the same knocked up a third of a stop.


Compare the above with the first frame at the top of the post. For me and especially with personal work black and white is a first class medium rather than an after thought to be used on color images that have bad color. With digital tools black and white enthusiasts have an embarrassment of riches even if I'd like to have a few things a bit more "film like". When it comes to color sensitivity that's one thing that I really prefer not to be baked in as it was when working with black and white film.

When working with black and white color is not an afterthought. If you happen to shoot film, which I still do, it can be a primary component of consideration when looking at a scene. For monochrome images generally the following hierarchy is something to keep in mind.

  • Light trumps subject tone/reflectivity. As in light falling on darker objects will be brighter than lighter objects in shadow.
  • Lightness/Darkness of objects trumps color. Example, objects in the same light that meter much higher than others will be brighter no matter what the colors of them and sensitivity treatment (excepting the extreme)
  • Color sensitivity variations in processing, film, treatment, filtering is a fine tuning exercise but an important one.

End Notes

All photos made with the Fuji XT-1 and 18-55mm XF. Processing via Lightroom CC with a semi-grainy treatment of my own.