Dynamic Monochrome

(I’m trying to write a post a day on here for now. Let’s see how long this lasts…)

Many of us love black and white photography, and I am no exception. I still have a Canon film body (a dinky Rebel K2) and will periodically shoot black and white film with it. For all our obsession with megapixels and lack-of-noise and everything else, there’s something still very striking about the contrast and grain pattern of monochrome film.

Of course, I find that shooting my monochrome work is easier with digital than with film these days, simply due to a decreasing number of places where one can get film properly developed and a lack of space for my own darkroom.

There are a wide variety of digital solutions to this, including simple ‘Greyscale’ or desaturation options in many image editors, on up to specialized solutions like Silver Efex Pro, which allows you to recreate grain patterns and contrast levels of specific films. This image, for instance, was shot digitally and converted using Silver Efex Pro to recreate the look of monochrome film. (Kodak TMAX film in this case.)

Winter Dance

But one of the places that film has a significant advantage over digital is the dynamic range. Digital cameras are wonderful, but there’s always that bit that’s a little blown out or a little underexposed, where you might have gotten it with film. Of course, there’s already a technique for getting a better dynamic range with digital photography: High Dynamic Range, or HDR.

HDR is a pretty divisive topic at times; some people feel it’s a travesty that warps images beyond recognition, others feel it is a great artistic expression. I admit I personally do not much care for the extreme end of HDR, where images turn into crazy-quilt patterns of vivid color, but some people creatively thrive there. And more power to them! What we’re specifically concerned with for purposes of this post is the more subtle HDR, where it’s merely used to get a more fully rounded exposure.

A while ago, I went with my friend Terence to shoot the Museum of Glass in Tacoma at night. The unique conical shape of the Museum’s main building looks like something out of an old science fiction movie, and that was the look I wanted to capture in my image. However, the light on the museum was too dramatic; there was no way to capture all the detail I wanted on the cone without either under- or overexposing parts of the whole.

So I took a tripod and took a bracketed exposure; my ‘correct’ exposure, then -2 EV and +2 EV. The resulting triad was put together in Photomatix, and produced a result with more detail. (I would post the three original and the combined one, but I am writing this on my laptop and don’t have those on Flickr. I may update the post later.) This resulting shot was then fed through Silver Efex Pro to create something looking a bit like a black and white movie image from an old science fiction film:

Cone of Glass

This helped preserve the tiling along the side of the museum’s cone, making for a much more dramatic and detailed monochrome image than would have otherwise been possible.

This technique has developed a bit of a following, including at least one Flickr group devoted to the technique. If you enjoy playing with monochrome, you might find this an interesting thing to try out.

Obviously, not every shot can be done bracketed, but when shooting RAW you can sometimes generate more than one exposure from the single RAW file, and then feed those exposures into aprogram such as Photomatix, Hydra or the HDR process included in Photoshop CS4.


~ by Rachel on February 25, 2009.

2 Responses to “Dynamic Monochrome”

  1. Yeah, I’m just glad I have a great lab near me. They do a fine job with black and white negatives (I scan my own stuff). They definitely help feed my obsession with black and white film.


    • Yah. I am lucky; Panda here in Seattle is still an excellent film house, especially for black and white developing. But it /does/ get pricier as time goes on, unfortunately. And to me, I feel like I increasingly have to special order the good films (like Ilford Delta or HP5) in order to find them!

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