What You Choose to See

I've been trying to come up with the best workflow to accomodate both B&W and color digital work.

I think I've managed somewhat to come to terms with a seeming paradox in working with B&W: when you're snapping a pic, obviously the world in front of you — and visible through your viewfinder — is in color. When I work digitally, and of all color photos, I only occasionally feel the urge to remove the color. Yet when I shoot B&W film, I never feel as if the color is somehow "missing."

My conclusion so far is that the paradox is illusory, a byproduct of the work process and the fact that neither the color photograph or the B&W photograph are the things being photographed. As the old Winogrand saw goes: they're new facts. Once you see a color photograph, already made, it's harder to think of it as anything else. Seeing the photograph is a new experience, one that is like seeing the things photographed while photographing, but... not the same. And that this surely has an influence on the way photographs are redacted from contact sheets and so forth. If they start B&W, they are B&W. Color, color.

What this leads to is trying to find a better, more conscious workflow. My newest attempt is to work on better mastery of Adobe Bridge, and a greater use of "raw" camera images. The advantages of raw in this context aren't the ones usually cited by raw devotees: i.e., greater exposure latitude, color white-balance readjustments, or avoidance of compression artifacts. Instead, by using Bridge color profiling, I can quickly assign and view lots of images in B&W or color, all at once.

Bridge, in tandem with "Adobe Camera Raw" (aka "ACR") , has three useful tools for this. One is the ability to do a RAW-to-Photoshop conversion in ACR, then apply the same conversion rules to any number of selected raw files in Bridge (not available for JPG files, alas).

The second tool is the ability to save such profiles on disk for instant recollection. I have several profiles on my computer, both color and B&W varieties. For example, the color balance for certain location which I visit often (such as my office) I keep stashed in such a profile. This saves me the trouble of messing with WB whenever I have occasion to shoot there. I also keep a few different B&W profiles: simple, high-contrast, high-key, low-key, negative.

Combining those two tools can be very useful for previewing the results of a day's shooting. For example, I can just open the first picture in the folder from Bridge, load a B&W profile into ACR, then click "Done" — then, back in Bridge select all the photos in the folder, call up "previous conversion" (or if no tweaks were required, just call the profile by name), and all of the Bridge preview images will shift to match the B&W profile.

It's surprising how the overall complexion of the shoot — and tellingly, the images that I find myself selecting — can be changed by doing this color assignment before I start examining the photos one-by-one.

The images can still have their color profiles changed at load time, of course. The data's all there. Contrast can be changed, color can be re-introduced, whatever. And individual images within that folder can likewise have their previews altered. The preview assignment is just a starting point.

The last tool, which I haven't been able to force myself to use in any strong way, is Bridge's ability to automatically apply color profiles on a per-camera basis to any new images that might come from that camera. So as an example, if I wanted all of the photos from my Canon to be read as B&W (or hyper-saturated, "cross-processed," whatever), I could load an image from it, set up the profile in ACR, and then grab "Save as Default Profile." All subsequent new photos from that camera would be previewed that way.

So far, I haven't been able to bring myself to follow such a one-size-fits-all strategy (though I suppose the built-in "natural" default is also a one-size choice, if you think about it). Though that has a certain appeal, my real interest is just in understanding the pictures better — I'm not all that interested in being a fundamentalist.

Comments on "What You Choose to See"

September 20, 2006 02:44 AM

Interesting how we tend to see b/w as a photo with the colour missing, when, as you have realised, a colour photo is a picture with the grays missing.

I am somehow still attached to the notion of deciding b/w or colour before even taking the photo. For me that is true commitment, jump without looking back. Commitment is good for creative expression. But perhaps it is just personal preference.


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