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Turning color photos into Black-and-Whites: Is it cheating?

Heidi in Black and White

Heidi in Color

Being a professional photographer with a technical background, I often get asked photography questions that are technical in nature.  Some of the most frequently asked questions include “Why does aperture affect depth-of-field?”, “How do I photograph an all-black dog?”, and “Why does focal length affect perspective?” (short answer to the last questions: “IT DOESN’T!” it’s a trick question that requires a trick answer) I’m going to start writing a series of articles that answer some of these questions, in as plain of language as I can make it.  But instead of a highly technical question, I’m going to start of with more of a philosophical question that in my opinion requires a technical answer:

Is turning a digital color photo into black-and-white cheating?

The answer to that question isn’t exactly, well, black and white.  ;)

First, let’s examine the way a digital camera records an image:

The image sensor inside a digital camera is essentially “color blind” and can only detect the brightness of light it receives, not its colors.  (The Foveon X3 sensor is a notable exception, but unfortunately the sensor has not been a commercial success and only a small percentage of photographers use cameras with this sensor).  So without some clever engineering tricks, a digital camera is only capable of taking black-and-white images.  The clever engineering tricks come in the form of a “color filter array” that is put in front of the sensor.  The most commonly used is the Bayer Filter, pictured below:

Courtesy wikipedia.org

For each photosite (or pixel), the filter blocks out all but one primary color (Red, Green, or Blue) so only the brightness of one primary colored light is recorded.  For sensors using the Bayer Filter, this means that 1/2 of the pixels record green lights, 1/4 record blue and 1/4 record red.  The reason for having twice as many green pixels than the other colors is that this more closely mimics human eyes, which are more sensitive to green than they are to blue and red.  Various software algorithms (depending on the camera maker and model) then take “educated guesses” to fill in the missing two colors at each pixel.  For each color image, what’s recorded are actually 3 black-and-white images, each representing one of the primary colors.  For example, below are the 3 black-and-white images that make up a color photo of Louie:

Red

Green

Blue

If you look closely (click on each image to see them bigger), you’ll notice that the image labeled “Green” has the brightest grass and “Blue” has the darkest grass because grass contains a lot of green and very little blue.  By coloring each image red, green and blue respectively as follows:

Red

Green

Blue

and adding the three images together, we end up with:

Louie in full color

As you can see, when you take a color photo with a digital camera, you’re essentially taking 3 black and white images at the same time, each one with a different colored filter.  This allows the photographer much greater creative freedom when turning the color images into black and whites.  I will go over the editing process a little later.  Photographers shooting with black and white film often put a color filter in front of the lens in order to manipulate the contrast.  A blue filter, for example, will brighten the blue sky and a red filter will do the opposite.  A digital color image gives you both of these options simultaneously and automatically, plus a third one with a green filter.  I’m not an Ansel Adams expert, but I can’t imagine him saying no to having these options if they were available to him!

Should I use the “Black and White” setting on the camera?

That depends on what you intend to do to the photos after you take them.  If you’re serious about black and white photography and want to get the most of the images you shoot, however, the short answer is “no”.  When you use the “black and white” setting on your camera, the camera decides for you (through computer algorithms that are different for each camera maker and model) the “best” way to combine the three black-and-white images that it took to make one black-and-white final image.  It then records that final image and discards the three original images that it took.  So all that information that may be useful to you in the three original black-and-white images is lost forever and can’t be recovered when you use the “black-and-white” setting.  Here’s a very simple but exaggerated example.  Suppose you were to take a photo of a red, green and blue pattern pictured below:

the three stripes, although of drastically different COLORS, are of the same BRIGHTNESS.  If you used the “black-and-white” setting in your camera to take the photo, you’re likely to get this:

This is the “correct” black-and-white image based on brightness, but it’s not at all what you’d expect to see, knowing that the three stripes have different colors.  If you took the same photo in color, there is then the opportunity to manipulate the image later to obtain the black-and-white image you expect to see, which is an image with three different shades of gray:

The above image is obtained by subjectively making blue darker than red and red darker than green.  But that’s just one way to interpret these colors.  The image below, which makes red darker than blue and blue darker than green would be just as valid:

So which color appears as which shade of gray is entirely up to the photographer’s interpretation.  This is where the creative freedom comes into play.  If you used the “black-and-white” setting on the camera, you would’ve gotten a solid gray image and lost the opportunity to exercise that freedom.  This process of selectively brightening and darkening of colors to obtain black-and-white photos actually allows much more creative freedom than color photography, since when we view a color photo, we have an expectation of what colors we should see based on experience.  When viewing a black-and-white photo, we have no such expectations since we don’t see things in black and white.  The photographer is thus free to interpret the colors however they want when turning the image into black-and-white.

So what’s the best way to make a black-and-white photo out of a digital color image?

A very common tool that a lot of photographers, myself included, use, is the “Channel Mixer” in Adobe Photoshop.  It can be found under “Image -> Adjustments -> Channel Mixer…” its dialogue box is shown below (click on it to enlarge):

Photoshop Channel Mixer dialogue box

This allows you to selectively brighten or darken each of the three primary color, red, green and blue, to obtain the desired black-and-white image.  If you have Photoshop, the best way to learn it is to just have fun and play with it.  Move the sliders around and see what effects they have on your image.

Conclusion:

I hope I have made a convincing argument that turning a digital color photo into black-and-white isn’t cheating at all.  In fact, it’s one of the most creative ways of making a black-and-white photo.  If one simply takes a bunch of digital color photos and aimlessly pushes that “desaturate” button in Photoshop to obtain a bunch of black-and-white photos, I suppose you could probably argue that’s “cheating”.  A black-and-white photo obtained that way probably isn’t very interesting anyway  and the creative process that should go into a photograph was thrown out the window.  But when carefully planned and processed, it is one of the best ways of making a black-and-white photo.

3-Dog Morning with Ruth Price of the Jazz Bakery

A week ago, I had the pleasure of photographing the three dogs owned by Ruth Price of the Jazz Bakery. It was a wonderful, once-in-a-life time experience and I’d like to share it and some photos with all of you. Click on any image below to bring up a larger version.

Alfy - Not a bad life, eh?

I’m constantly searching for interesting personalities and their dogs to photograph. At the end of March I saw a photo of Ruth Price in an LA Times article in which she was holding a dog. I contacted her and asked if she would be interested in having me do a photo session with her dogs. I was ecstatic when she said “yes!” As a dog AND music lover, this is the type of rare opportunity that I crave for and simply cannot pass up. Otis & Lucy moved into its currently location – just a block from the former Jazz Bakery location – shortly after the Bakery lost its lease. I didn’t get a chance to visit the Bakery while it was there. So I was VERY excited to finally have a chance to meet Ruth.

Alfy

I rang the door bell at Ruth’s home and was immediately greeted with 3 dogs not much more than ankle high but with barks and personalities as big as my Labrador’s. Alfy is a long haired Dachshund with an easy going personality; he’s the quietest of the bunch. Possum is a rescued Pomeranian so named because when Ruth first saw him he was in such bad shape he actually looked more like a possum. He’s the loud one. :) Pork Chop is a Chihuahua mix with an assortment of neurological conditions, rescued from Taiwan (and coincidentally that’s where I was born). Pork Chop can’t hear, has trouble holding his head up straight when you pick him up, and likes to spin around in circles (but only to the right) when you put him down. But he’s adapted well to Ruth’s pack and not much seems to bother him. Ruth’s love and devotion to these dogs is immediately apparent as the house is arranged pretty much around the dogs’ needs; with dog beds and toys in every room and every corner of the house.

Possum standing on kitchen counter

The photo shoot started with Possum on the kitchen counter, where he (who looks nothing like a possum any more) is accustomed to hanging out, both at home AND when he’s at the Jazz Bakery. He was more than happy to pose for us in exchange for some treats and affection. We got lots of great shots while Ruth, Alfy and Pork Chop looked on from the living room. We then got Alfy up on the counter for a few shots as well. In case you couldn’t tell by now: the dogs OWN the house. ;) You wouldn’t usually expect dogs on too many kitchen counters. But this isn’t just any house. This is Alfy, Possum and Pork Chop’s house. Pork Chop couldn’t be on the counter because he’d probably fall off due to lack of balance. Otherwise I’m sure he’d have loved to pose on the counter too. Although telling people that I photographed a Pork Chop on a kitchen counter will probably draw a few strange looks.

Next the shoot moved to one of the bedrooms where there’s a window seat with gorgeous natural lighting. The dogs took turns hanging out by the window. I really loved the lighting in this room. The large window with greeneries outside provided just the perfect level of backlight. No need to set up the studio lights here, and the dogs were only too happy to pose without the distraction of the strobes.

Pork Chop - cute enough to eat!

We then did some more shots in the spare bedroom, where one of many sets of dog beds were set up in the house. Of course being the fair Mom that Ruth is, all the dogs have identical beds and are laid out side-by-side. So sets of three identical dog beds are in just about every room in the house. The dogs were a little tired by this point (modeling IS hard work) so we quickly finished up the shoot in this room and I followed the dogs around for a few more minutes around the house for some “candids” before packing things up.

Before leaving, I tried to pry some information about the new Jazz Bakery location out of Ruth. But no such luck. All she would say is that a new location is in the works, it’s on the West Side and she hopes a deal can be closed soon. I’m VERY happy to hear that, even though I was hoping for more detailed information.

I loved photographing Alfy, Possum and Pork Chop. I would have loved to spend more time photographing them if Ruth and I both had the time. So I’ve invited Ruth to bring the dogs in to the studio sometime for some studio shots. I have a few ideas for some really fun photos of the dogs posing with various jazz instruments. Ruth thinks Alfy should play the double bass, and I think that’s a great idea! Should be a really fun session. I can’t wait!

Next time you visit the Jazz Bakery, you just may recognize the little dogs hanging out and greeting you on the counter as you walk in. Be sure to say “hi” to them. Tell them that Andy, their personal photographer, sent you. ;)

- andy

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Pork Chop cuddling with Mom

Alfy

Pork Chop doing his signature spin

Alfy's nose - Spring's in the air?

Possum ALMOST looks like a possum in the photos...

Inside Paris Hilton’s Dog House – Part 5 – Harajuku & Baby Bear

*Once again, my sincerest gratitude goes to Ms. Hilton for her kind permission to post the photos publicly. Also to her assistant Ms. Jackson for coordinating the shoot and her hospitality throughout the shoot.

Click on any image to view a larger version

October turned out to be a very busy month with all the early holiday photo sessions.  I apologize for the long gap since my last blog post.

Prince Baby Bear looking handsome wearing Paris' designer bow tie

Prince Baby Bear looking handsome wearing Paris' designer bow tie

Harajuku and Baby Bear (officially Prince Baby Bear) are polar opposites in their personalities.  Baby Bear is like the hyperactive boy in school (which every class seems to have at least one) who constantly pestered the girls to get their attention.  Harajuku is more like the quiet, smart girl in school who couldn’t be bothered by Baby Bear’s antics.

Every time Baby Bear jumps on or swats at Harajuku, she just sits down, looks up at me with those big eyes and lets out a slight sigh as if to say, “see what I have to put up with?”  She is so sweet and lovable that I serioiusly contemplated (ok, maybe not so seriously) putting her in the camera bag and taking her home with me.  Ms. Hilton probably wouldn’t have appreciated that though.  ;)

Ok, ‘nuf said about Baby Bear and Harajuku.  Here’s more of what you came to see: photos.  Enjoy.

-andy

next up: epilogue (or is it epi-blog?)

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uh-hum, Baby Bear!  Behave yourself!

uh-hum, Baby Bear! Behave yourself!

"See what I have to put up with?"

"See what I have to put up with?"

Boys will be boys...

Boys will be boys...

Yes, Harajuku IS as smart as she looks

Yes, Harajuku IS as smart as she looks

Fluff ball

Fluff ball

Had a rough night?

Had a rough night?

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Inside Paris Hilton’s Dog House – Part 4 – Annabelle

*Once again, my sincerest gratitude goes to Ms. Hilton for her kind permission to post the photos publicly. Also to her assistant Ms. Jackson for coordinating the shoot and her hospitality throughout the shoot.

Click on any image to view a larger version

Annabelle reading for a cell phone strap

Annabelle reaching for a cell phone strap

Cats usually don’t travel as well as dogs, so I don’t get to photograph cats nearly as often as I do dogs in the studio (which is somewhat of a blessing since I’m severely allergic to certain breeds of cats).  But whenever I do get an opportunity to photograph cats, they almost always reward me with a session-ful of great display of feline personality.  I’ve often heard people telling me that cats are not as easy to photograph as dogs.  That certainly hasn’t been the case in my experience.  Although most cats don’t listen to verbal commands as well as dogs, their personalities come through the lens perfectly without the aid of verbal cues.  Maybe I’ve just been lucky.  Nothing wrong with a little luck though, and I’m more than happy to have luck on my side.

2009Sep03Paris-0036

Annabelle has the most beautiful, soft coat

Annabelle is a kitten adopted by Paris just a month prior to the shoot. Although new to the Hilton household, Annabelle acted as if she’s lived there all her life, and more than holds her own with all the dogs.  It was immediately obvious that she enjoys being part of Paris’ clan and enjoys all the attention.  Friendly and playful, she is not at all camera-shy.  She loved wrestling with Marilyn the Pomeranian, and loved playing with the strap on Paris’ assistant Taura’s cell phone even more.  We were able to easily get some great shots of her doing both.

I thoroughly enjoyed photographing Annabelle.  Her beautiful coat and playful personality made her a great subject and I’m very pleased to come away with tons of photos that show off her great energy.

Next up: Harajuku and Prince Baby Bear

-andy

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Curiosity...

Curiosity...

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Annabelle fetching a toy

Annabelle fetching a toy

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Swapping at a toy above

Swapping at a toy above

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This modeling thing is hard work!

This modeling thing is hard work!

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Annabelle looking at Marilyn off camera

Annabelle looking at Marilyn off camera

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Cell phone strap.  The best cat toy.  Ever.

Cell phone strap. The best cat toy. Ever.

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Inside Paris Hilton’s Dog House – Part 3 – Marilyn Monroe

*Once again, my sincerest gratitude goes to Ms. Hilton for her kind permission to post the photos publicly. Also to her assistant Ms. Jackson for coordinating the shoot and her hospitality throughout the shoot.

Sorry it took me so long to post the latest update.  I got rear-ended on the freeway a week ago and had to take time out to deal with insurance, getting a new car… etc.  Thankfully no one was injured.  Thanks to everyone who have asked about the accident.

Now back on subject…

Marilyn posing in the club room

Marilyn posing in the club room

Marilyn Monroe, Paris’ beloved blond Pomeranian, is the “girly girl” of the bunch.  Her personality is in stark contrast with those of Dolce and Prada, the pair of Mini Pinschers featured in my last post.  While Dolce and Prada seemingly never stopped moving, Marilyn, living up to the reputation of her namesake, seemed to never miss an opportunity to stop and pose for the camera.  She sat, lied down and rolled over on command, and loved being dressed up.  Now those of  you who know my photography style would know that I strongly discourage costumes on animals because I feel costumes distracts the viewers from focusing on the animals’ personalities.  But in this case, I felt it was entirely appropriate to dress up the animals because it’s important to let Paris’ personality show through her animals, especially since the clothing were of Paris’ own design.

Taking a rest on the dog house balcony

Taking a rest on the dog house balcony

Marilyn also showed us her feisty yet playful side when the kitten Annabelle jumped on set and started a wrestling match.  We were not sure whether we should call it a cat fight or a dog fight, but they sure provided us with some comic relief and great action shots.

As with the “real” Marilyn Monroe, people probably care more about the photos than the articles about her.  So I’ll end this blog post here and let the photos do the rest of the talking.  ;)

Next up: Intermission: Louie and I visit the home of Diane Haithman of the LA Times, her husband Alan, and of course, Heidi the German Shepherd.  Stay tuned.
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Marilyn taking a punch from kitten Annabelle

Marilyn taking a punch from kitten Annabelle

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2009Sep03Paris-0012

Belly rub, please!

Marilyn posing on the top step inside the doggie mansion

Marilyn posing on the top step inside the doggie mansion

Hanging out with Prada on the second floor of the doggie mansion

Hanging out with Prada on the second floor of the doggie mansion

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Marilyn playing with Baby Bear

Marilyn playing with Baby Bear

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