All Mixed Up?

By , January 29, 2014 1:35 pm
This is the image file in our example today, a mission church on the Pecos River in northern New Mexico, shot on 6x7 color film in 1999. Beside it is Abode Photoshop's channel mixer dialog.

This is the image file in our example today, a mission church on the Pecos River in northern New Mexico, shot on 6×7 color film in 1999. Beside it is Abode Photoshop’s channel mixer dialog.

For decades before the internet and expensive color printing presses, many, or even most, photographs were in black-and-white. The first films were all black-and-white. In practice, the first color film was Kodachrome, introduced in 1935.

My career followed a similar evolution. In high school and college, our newspapers were 100% black-and-white, and our yearbooks only had one color section, which we had to send to the printer at the start of the year. When I became a career photojournalist, we used color so infrequently that we referred to its occurrence as a “color project.” It wasn’t until 1991 that my current newspaper, The Ada News, got the equipment to produce in-house color.

So there was a lot of black-and-white for a long time. As color became more common in print (including some very handsome hardcover books my wife and I have made in recent years), and with the advent of the digital era, black-and-white has evolved from the norm to largely a form of artistic expression.

It’s easy, staring at an smartphone or a tablet, to be satisfied with nothing but color images. But there are those of us who see black-and-white as more than in homage to our past, but as a very compelling visual option.

The question then becomes: how do we get our digital color images into black-and-white, and what is the best way to do this?

One option is to set the camera to black-and-white mode. I do this once in a while, since it forces me to “think” black-and-white at the time I am shooting. The downside is that it limits what I can do with the images later.

Another option is the “app” option. “App” is lazyspeak for “application,” and there are various applications, like Instagram or iPhoto, that have one or more black-and-white options.

My go-to workflow for black-and-white from a color image file is Adobe Photoshop’s channel mixer function. The channel mixer is more sophisticated that mere grayscaling, and offers some of the best options for fine-tuning how the colors in the image are converted to grays. I am particularly fond of the channel mixer in more recent versions of Photoshop, which offer presets that emulate the way black-and-white film responded to filtration.

If you have the software, it’s worth a try. Black-and-white still has the potential to amaze.

The result: two very different ways to render a color image in black-and-white using the channel mixer. On the left is the blue filter emulator, and on the right is the red filter option. There are several other filter presets in between, including infrared.

The result: two very different ways to render a color image in black-and-white using the channel mixer. On the left is the blue filter emulator, and on the right is the red filter option. There are several other filter presets in between, including infrared.

2 Responses to “All Mixed Up?”

  1. Wil C. Fry says:

    The channel mixer saved my hide a few times when converting to grayscale for our black-and-white press in Seminole. It was something I was taught at an OPA workshop and passed along to my office mates.

    “But there are those of us who see black-and-white as more than an homage to our past, but as a very compelling visual option.”

    There are certainly moods that black-and-white portrays more vividly than color.

    There are also many images where the color would only be a distraction.

    (And I’ve been known to simply flip a color image to grayscale when I’ve given up correcting a funky color balance.)

  2. Robert says:

    Ohh, a infrared!

    Let’s see it man.

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