I learned to develop black and white photography in my college darkroom decades ago. Back then, we didn’t shoot or develop color photographs. Instead, we hand-tinted black and whites if we wanted to colorize our images. I learned a lot about values, composition, form and line in those days by using black and white rather than color to express my subject.
Some Photographs Are Stronger with Monochromatic Tones
I think that the architecture I remain focused on in my photography is well suited to the monochromatic palettes of black and white and sepia. There is a certain attention to architectural detail and structure when color is not a distraction. Figures that wander into my architectural photographs also benefit from sole focus on form without color distraction. However, once in a while, a small spot of color is the exclamation point I’m looking for in certain images.
Color Can Add Drama to Photos
The addition of a color accent or punch to a photograph must be done with infinite care. Just as light contributes to form, color may add to a monochromatic composition. Architecture as well as figures in an architectural setting may be strong in their lines and form, but the composition may be overpowered by colors that demand attention. I have created a practical system of addressing color in my black and white and sepia photography that is highly compatible with my workflow:
1. Working with RGB raw files, I create a folder for my project/image.
2. In Adobe Bridge I look at the multiple images of one building I shot to decide on the photograph(s) I would like to use in postproduction.
3. Using a selected shot I “fix” any distractions in the color image using Adobe Photoshop, such as straightening, cloning out dust spots, aligning windows or moldings, etc.
4. Once the raw image is corrected, I desaturate it.
5. Using plugins (Nik, Tiffen, and others) and/or Photoshop, I pop the whites, darks, or crunch values.
6. At this stage I decide if I want the photograph to be black and white or sepia and develop it in that hue/tonality.
7. When everything else is completed, I slowly bring in the touches of color that I think will really punch up the photograph by going back through my layers and masking.
8. If I add color, I might revisit steps 5, 6, 7.
Personally I find color a powerful addition to a black and white or sepia image. Although I rarely use color, I find it can give my architecture photographs and the occasional figure in an architectural setting more by using much less.