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.