YOU ARE PHOTOSHOP
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EVER SINCE THE ARRIVAL OF THE DIGITAL DARKROOM and its attendant legion of post-production fixes, the world of photography has been pretty evenly divided into “befores” and “afters”, those who prefer to do most of their picture making in-camera and those who prefer to “fix” things after the shutter clicks. Most amateur photography, in the film era, was heavily weighted in favor of the “befores”, since a lot of traditional touch-up technology was economically beyond the reach of many. In the Photoshop era, however, the economic barrier to post-production was shattered, resulting in a more even balance between the two philosophies.
I really see this quarrel as very sharply defined when it comes to black and white photography, with many shooters making most, if not all of their monochromes from shots that were originally color, then desaturated or otherwise manipulated as an afterthought. I prefer to shoot b&ws in-camera, however, for the very simple reason that it gets you thinking in black and white terms, from lighting to composition. It also allows you to benefit from digital’s immediate feedback/playback strengths to shape your shot in the moment. If you’ve worked in mono for a while, and especially if you’ve ever shot on b&w film stock, you are used to seeing the 50 shades of gray that subtly shape the power of an image. More importantly, you realize that black and white is much more than color with the hues sucked out. It’s not a novelty or a gimmick, but a distinct way of seeing.
When you conceive a shot in color, you are shooting according to what serves color well. That means that not all color shots will translate well into grayscale. Fans of the old Superman tv show will recall that, during the series’ early b&w days, George Reeves’ uniform had to be made in various shades of brown so it would “read” correctly in monochrome to viewers who “knew” the suit was red and blue. Cameramen had to plan what would happen when one set of values was used to suggest another. Tones that give a certain punch to an image may look absolutely dead flat if you simply desaturate for mock-mono from a color shot. And, anyway, there are plenty of ways to pre-program many cameras to adjust the contrast and intensity of a b&w master image, as well as the use of filters (polarizers for instance) that do 90% of the tasks you’d typically try to achieve in Photoshop anyway.
The mid-point compromise would seem to be to take both color and black and white shots of your subjects in-camera, allowing you the option of custom processing at least one image afterward. However, knowing what tonal impact you want before you click the shutter is just easier, and usually more productive. Do your shooting with purpose, on purpose. Making a b&w “version” of a color shot after the fact will likely bake up as half a loaf.