Monday, January 20, 2014

Contrast in Black & White Photography

Engrossed - Leica MM, 50 Summilux, ~f/1.4, 1/90s, ISO 320
Having sufficient contrast to create visual interest is important to me for black & white imagery.  I know that there are many artists that make black & white imagery with low contrast, opting for a flatter tonal palette but for me, most of my monochrome images need those deep blacks.

One of the challenges with working with the Leica M Monochrom is the combination of its fairly flat response combined with the desire to preserve highlights (especially if highlight detail is important to you) as recovering highlights is even harder with this camera than a color digital sensor.  This means that 'properly' exposed images can appear a bit flatter straight out of camera.

The above image is what it looked like straight out of camera.  The exposure is ideal because highlight detail is preserved even for the brightest tones.  In many scenes, I would appreciate the subtle dark tones and may even want to accentuate it but not in this case.  I wanted tonal contrast to bring attention to the face and the eyes.  Without color information to manipulate the tonal relationships, one turns to just simple dodging and burning to get there.

In general, I find working with Leica M Monochrom files to be different from most other cameras' files.  Lightroom's tonal control sliders seem to respond a little differently (especially shadows) and my workflow is a little different.

Under-exposed Leica MM files at ISO 320
The Leica MM's ability to pull detail out of the shadows is also impressive; though users of Sony's EXMOR sensors have been enjoying this for a while.

Same file as above but with final processing
The typical danger is lifting shadows a lot (apart from the noise) is that you can end up with a flat image, so manipulating tones to retain contrast is important.

Unfortunately my choice of subjects is fairly limited, given my restricted movement.  Still, last week I went out to the exotic location of a Home Depot parking lot.  The little one was asleep in the back and so I was relegated to remain in the car with her, parked in the shade.  Nothing else to do but stare at trees, leaves and pavement, photographs present themselves, even if they aren't going to win any awards.

Bark and Leaves - Leica MM, 90 APO Summicron, ~f/9.5, 1/80s, ISO 320
It wasn't until about an hour that I noticed the bark and the leaves both in shade and in the sun and the contrast of all the different textures.

Sony A7r, 55 FE, f/1.8, 1/60s, ISO 2000
Not everything has been about the Leica MM though, I've also really been enjoying the output of the Sony A7r both in color and black & white.  Combined with the superb 55mm f/1.8 FE lens, I get sharp files and great tonality even at higher ISOs.

I'm about 2/3 of the way through my month of monochrome and though I've only made 6 posts so far on this blog, I have been spending time looking at a lot of files and playing with conversions and processing images.

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