Black and White are Rarely Black or White


There are very few absolutes in this life. Most issues we face fall into more “gray areas” than the purely polar dictionary definitions of actual black and white. We use these terms rather cavalierly when expressing personal opinions even when real-life situations are anything but! This is also true in a number of photography-related issues. Since photography is the topic de jour, I’ll turn the conversation in that direction. I’ll explain to you how black and white are rarely black or white.

Black and White are Rarely Black or White
Total black and white can lose important detail. Occasionally this is appropriate for drama, but in general, even the darkest areas of an image should contain contrasting tones. f/9, 1/250, ISO 200, 70.0-200.0 mm f/2.8.

The hard facts

Black is the total absence of light, as in a cave at midnight with your eyes closed. Nada, nothing, total emptiness. Nothing is quite as disorienting or scary as total blackness. Blackness is un-relational and unforgiving. Even our sense of balance is affected by our inability to orient ourselves to our environment. What we can’t see, we can’t relate to.

Black and White are Rarely Black or White – waves crashing on rocks
Opening up the darkest channel (unfortunately labeled “Black” in most software) can reveal a depth that otherwise gets buried in the D-max of the photographic medium.

White is at the other end of the light measurement scale, defined as a direct unobstructed blast of light from the Sun at noon. Blinding, blazing, searing, scorching light.

True white light would actually blow the rods out of our eyes and leave us (at least temporarily) blinded. Perhaps it is good that we don’t try to function either physically or psychologically in either of these two extremes.

Dark and light vs black and white

In the photographic film and darkroom world, “D-max” and “D-min” determined the total light range of photographic prints and transparencies. Actual black and white light measurements simply cannot (by definition) be replicated in photographic materials.

D-max refers to the maximum light blocking capacity (density) of a particular film or print. D-max is the point of maximum development for either film or prints in a traditional (chemistry-emulsion) darkroom environment.

D-max for an inkjet printer would be the darkest black that can be achieved by a particular ink on a particular paper (yes, some different inks and papers achieve different results).

D-min would be the highest light-reflective measurement possible from a particular paper with no ink.

In either case, neither “actual” black nor total white is possible. In truth, black and white cannot be expressed in the medium of photography, though we still employ the terms.

Black and White are Rarely Black or White - an example of black tones
Actual original image (left) and adjusted image (right). No kidding. RAW files deliver! f/2.8, 1/250, ISO 1600, 35-100mm, f/2.8.

Real-life vision vs digital interpretation

By contrast, we live our everyday lives in the natural world where we can experience this “actual” extreme range of natural light. We occasionally witness these extreme lighting conditions, and this reference to reality keeps our lives in clear focus.

There exists a broad range of contrast in nature’s lighting that keeps our visual cortex amused and intrigued. We experience the extremes of light and dark almost every day, and our eyes adjust to these dynamics quite naturally. But in the subdued visual expression called photography, we are restricted to using a much more muted palette, which presents our minds with a different challenge.

Our brains insist on detail to help us navigate this world, both visually and rationally. We are a relational species, and we rely on the existence of distinct details in our surroundings in order to relate and negotiate our way through those surroundings. The very same issue determines how we relate to things photographic, which brings me to my point – finally.

Black and White are Rarely Black or White
Every physical item that we describe as “black” must be distinguished from actual dictionary-definition “black” if it is to be seen as a dimensional object.

Detail is all about contrast

Contrast is the determining factor in detail. Without contrasting tones, there can be no detail.

Our eyes get to experience the full dynamic range of light in real life. However, in photos, our perception is very limited by the whole visual D-max/D-min thing. We must learn to use what range we have to mimic the range that we don’t… get it? Pushing the internal tones around within an image will simulate the full range of tones that we normally see (and often take for granted) in real life.

Black and White are Rarely Black or White
Another example of extremes. The lighting was good on the female, but the male model was underlit. Some serious internal adjustments were made in one copy of the RAW file, and a masked copy of the correction was placed into the scene. Once again, tonal reproduction is key. f/3.2, 1/250, ISO 1600, 35-100mm, f/2.8.

In a practical sense, the detail is created when a visual relationship is established. The greater the contrast between tones, the sharper the detail becomes.

In order to express detail in a dark area, there must be a distinction between black and “almost black.” Without that distinct separation, there can be no detail.

There is a cardinal rule when printing a photo on a printing press… “there are no absolute blacks and only specular (reflections) pure whites in print.” Even pure white must contain a tonal element to maintain dimension and texture – neither black nor white express detail.

Black must be implied more than stated. Even a black hat or garment must contain tones of dark gray to carry the illusion of detail.

black or white
Black is a relative term. Total black loses important detail and dimension. f/4.5, 1/50, ISO 1600, 35-100mm, f/2.8.

Delivering the impression

When a photo lacks internal contrast, it lacks detail. The tension of contrast creates both detail and definition. Of course, even detail is a relative thing. Not all images require the same dynamic appearance. If all pictures contained the same degree of (internal or overall) contrast, the monotony of sameness would probably drive us to boredom.

The point I want to make here is that in order to keep the human mind amused, engaged, and involved, we must learn to use all the tone dynamics at our disposal.

Fortunately, the human mind (and it’s willing accomplice, the visual cortex) provide us with a very forgiving and creative instrument that interprets (and believes) the limited dynamics of printed photos. When this tonal orchestration is successfully accomplished, the result can be breathtaking.

We were designed to be very creative. Start believing that and watch the magic happen.

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