Saturday, November 10, 2007

Ken Seet on Digital Black and White

Last weekend I was at the Pix expo with Ken Seet. I was giving a lecture on basic portrait lighting and he gave a lecture on his method for digital black and white. Ken Seet has been a lover of fine art black and white prints for a long time. And he has spent a lot of time in the dark room. It is interesting that he shoots everything digitally now on a DSLR. His black and white prints from digital capture to digital output is very very good. So it was really nice to listen to him talk.

The first point he made at the start of the talk is that there are two types of contrast in an image, overall contrast and local contrast. And for him, the drama of a black and white image is in the tones and textures.

I was very happy to hear that Ken is shooting raw nowadays. What he does is he outputs three versions of the image he is working on, one that has highlight detail, one that has shadow detail and one that has mid tones. What he then does is use masking to have detail in highlights, mid tones and shadow area. In terms of overall contrast, Ken is actually lowering the overall contrast of the image by this method. It is like a one shot version of HDR using three outputs of the raw image.

Ken then burns and dodges the image to bring out the drama. He vignettes his images a lot. And in places where there is texture, he actually dodges the highlights to create better local contrast.

Thanks to Ken, I understood why I hated so much digital black and white work. People get relatively flat images from digital files. The try and put punch into the image by giving it overall contrast. This blows the highlights and kills the shadow areas, making a very unbelievable image. There is no detail to get engaged in. What a good image has is low overall contrast, bringing in detail from all over. In fact, Ken said in his talk that he likes shooting in low contrast situations. He then creates the drama by increasing local contrast. Brilliant!

Ken's insight has clarified a lot for me. But one thing I would like to add. Very good files for black and white can now be prepared from raw in Adobe CS3. The first thing is that you can do a good black and white conversion now controlling the colour response via sliders. The second thing is that you can use highlight recovery and fill light to bring out detail in the highlights and shadow areas respectively. You will then get a file that has a relatively flat overall contrast, but great as a first file to work from. This saves all the hassle of producing three versions and masking for the detail.

And one other tool is the clarity slider that increases local contrast.

I feel that an image maker still has to do selective burning and dodging for a personal interpretation, but Adobe CS3 really helps the process along.

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