The Digital Darkroom
Digital Imaging In Black And White

Use Extensis' Intellihance Pro 4.0 plug-in to bring out the best of your black and white images. Here a Pro Photo CD image of a Kodak Tri-X 6x6 negative is enhanced using the plug-in's built-in Photo CD preset.
Photos © 1999, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

There is a popular misconception that digital imaging is limited to color photography. That's simply not true. Digital imaging embraces all the same aspects of color--or lack of color--that conventional photography does. Part of this lack of understanding boils down to semantics. In computer terms, "black and white" means there are just two colors in an image--black and white--so the term "gray scale" is typically used to describe a graphic image containing continuous monochromatic tones. Photographers usually refer to monochrome prints as black and white and computer users prefer the term gray scale, so I'll use both terms interchangeably.

There are many different ways in which you can work with black and white digital images. You can start with a black and white print or negative that's been digitized using a flat-bed or film scanner. Some digital cameras even have a black and white image capture mode that lets you make a photograph in gray scale mode, almost as if you had black and white film loaded in a conventional camera. You can also have your existing black and white negatives digitized using Kodak's Photo CD process.

Tools Of The Trade. One approach for creating black and white digital images is to convert an exiting color photograph into gray scale. The simplest way to accomplish this is to use the Mode command found in image-editing programs like Adobe Photoshop and select gray scale instead of RGB (Red, Green, and Blue), which removes all of the color from the photograph. This process sounds simple, but if you've ever tried to tune your television to take color out of a colorized movie so you could see it the way it was originally made, you know that the result is often flat and boring--more gray than black and white. Similarly, black and white digital photographs created from color originals are rarely perfect in their "raw" state. You need a way to translate those black and white images into the way you want them to look, much as you would in a traditional darkroom.

This old photograph showing the author's grandmother swimming with some friends was restored by scanning with the Epson Perfection Scanner and tweaking in Adobe Photoshop.

For Photo CD images, you can use Kodak's free Photo CD Acquire Module to acquire the image--even if it's originally in color--and convert it to gray scale as it's being opened. When working with Photo CD images made from original black and white negatives, there are some differences in the process. When you open an original gray scale Photo CD image it will not be in gray scale mode. Instead, it will be in the RGB format it was scanned in. This means you can immediately experience a savings in file size when converting it to gray scale. For example, a 4096x6144 Pro Photo CD image takes 72MB, but when converted to gray scale it drops to 24MB. If the image was shot in the 4x5 format, like some of the examples in this story, the file size drops another 3.5MB when you trim the black edges off the initial scan. This means you can squeeze the maximum quality out of a large format Pro Photo CD scan and still save the file in just 20.5MB of hard disk space.

The best way to open a color Photo CD image, convert it to gray scale, and extract the maximum image quality is to use LaserSoft International's SilverFast Photo CD Photoshop compatible plug-in. You can use this plug-in to select, convert, and tweak the image before it's opened by your image-editing program. Start by choosing the Scan Type that includes a choice of color or gray scale. When you select the photograph you want to open, the plug-in does a pre-scan, and a large thumbnail of the image is placed in a preview window. Dotted lines automatically appear and you can click and drag them to crop the image exactly the way you want. You have two ways of working with the plug-in: autopilot or manual. To let the plug-in do all the work, use the Image Type pull down menu to select the type of corrections SilverFast can make. In addition to Standard, there are Landscape, Skin Tones, Gold Tones, Technic, Evening, Snow, Night, H-S Cast, Highlight Cast, and Shadow Cast. Instead of waiting until the image is opened to apply unsharp masking, you can also apply it within the plug-in. Since sharpness is related to image size and resolution, make sure you set output size and output screen of the image before using Unsharp Masking controls, which are much more extensive than Photoshop's. As I was completing this story, the plug-in's list price was lowered to $276.

The IPC Photographic Filter's plug-in was used to convert this color image into black and white. Then the sliders can be used as if you were applying color filters to a camera lens.

One of my favorite tools for overcoming the problem of working with color images converted to gray scale is another Photoshop compatible plug-in called Intellihance Pro 4.0 by Extensis. At its basic level, Intellihance Pro lets you visually adjust the image's sharpness and contrast. It will also find and eliminate any dust spots and scratches from your digital image and remove them without blurring or destroying detail. Intellihance Pro 4.0 ships with 25 presets--including Photo CD and "digital camera"--that let you automatically apply a set of corrections appropriate for the source and these settings can be adjusted further to suit your vision. The plug-in has a list price of $199.95 and is available for the Mac OS, Windows 95/98, and Windows NT 4.0.

A less expensive approach uses a photographic rather than computer approach. The Independent Photogra-phers of Colorado have produced a package of 26 plug-ins that work with any Windows or Macintosh program that accepts Photoshop compatible plug-ins. What makes the IPC filters different is that they emulate standard photographic filters within a digital format. For example, in the set you'll find: 1A, 80A, 80B, 80C, 80D, 81, 81A, 81B, 81C, 81D, 81EF, 82, 82A, 82B, 82C, 85, 85B, 85C, as well as CFA, CFB CFD, for images shot under florescent lighting. The plug-ins also include some unique filters--a "Synthetic Polarizer," Arial Photography Compensation Filter, Synthetic Sepia and (sic) Ciba-Chrome, and--ta da--a "Color to Filtered Panchromatic" filter. This last filter converts the image to gray scale and lets you place the digital equivalent of a color filter over your image before it's rendered as a black and white photograph. This filter works the same way, as you might expect, when using conventional filters in front of a camera lens. The package costs $35 for non-members. You can learn more as well as see before and after images by visiting their web site at:

LaserSoft International's Photo CD plug-in provides the ultimate way to acquire a Photo CD image, convert it to gray scale, and perform an Unsharp Masking--all at the same time.

Restoring Family Memories. One of the most fun digital imaging projects I know of is restoring old black and white photographs. Several years ago, my sister gave me an old negative of a family snapshot. I filed it safely away and didn't find it until recently. It looks like a cut negative made with a rollfilm camera and the image area measures 51/2x33/16". The negative shows several women swimming wearing bathing suits that have the look of 1920s fashion. Lately, I've been testing Epson's new Perfection 636 flat-bed scanner with the optional transparency unit that lets various film formats be scanned at up to 2400dpi optical resolution. The scanner is $299 and the film unit costs $99, making the Perfection 636 one of the lowest cost ways I've found for scanning medium and large format film. The transparency unit is packaged with carriers for 4x5, roll film, and 35mm film, but my negative measured almost 53/4" edge to edge, so I just let part of it hang out of the recessed film area. Epson includes a TWAIN driver that's a "Lite" version of LaserSoft International's SilverFast scanning software that works with Adobe Photoshop or any image-editing program that is TWAIN compliant--and that's all of them. Even with part of the negative hanging out, the scan worked fine and the digital image opened in Photoshop.

I used the Intellihance Pro 4.0 plug-in to tweak the image's brightness and contrast, along with the plug-in's "Dust and Scratch" filter to minimize the abuse this unprotected negative had acquired over the years. Next, I used a small, soft-edged brush from Photoshop's Brush palette to spot the white dust spots that were on the people's faces. To take care of two large defects in the emulsion, I used Photoshop's Lasso tool to select a portion of the background that was near the damaged area. Then I pasted these digital "rocks" over the defect and used the Water Drop tool to smooth the edges of the pasted-on area. I didn't want to cleanup every visual defect the negative had because I felt that some of the damage added a patina of wear that befits an 80-year-old negative. To wrap up the restoration process, I used Sepia Action to give the image the kind of brownish sepia tone that most people expect to see in an old photograph. The freeware Sepia Action file was downloaded from The Action XChange web site at:

The original color slide was transferred to Photo CD, then acquired and converted to black and white with LaserSoft's Photo CD plug-in. The image was rotated 11/2° and tweaked using Adobe Photoshop Auto Levels command.

Black And White Output. You would think that getting good black and white output from a color printer would be easy and it can be--but not always. For example, some dye sublimation printers have a slight cyan bias that may be hard to see, but when you print a black and white image, the color shift will be immediately apparent. Most ink, but not all, ink jet printers seem immune to this problem, while most dye sublimation printers can be affected by it in some way. One exception is the Alps MD-1300 that uses Micro-Dry ink ribbons and a four pass technique to produce remarkable black and white (and color) images on the company's photographic paper. The photo quality ink set includes an "overcoat" ribbon that produces a protective, semigloss finish on Alp's photographic paper, which has a weight and feel similar to a "real" photograph.

As good as your color printer may be, sometimes a gray scale image will be output with a slight color shift. In those cases, you'll need to correct the image to achieve a neutral print. Until recently, the only way to produce color test strips with your computer was to make your own. All that's changed with the introduction of a Photoshop compatible plug-in from Vivid Details called Test Strip. Available for Mac OS and Windows systems, Test Strip can produce horizontal or vertical test strips that can match the shape or design of your photograph or artwork. The plug-in lets you interact with the correction process by clicking on the strip displaying a reduced (or increased) amount of color or density. You can remove color casts by selecting the opposite color on a color wheel. Test Strip maintains a Task List that records and displays all of the color corrections you have made. You can save all of your corrections as a set, so you can apply the same corrections later on. One of Test Strip's best features is the ability to save one of its views as a file and print it on any output device, so you can see the effect of your on-screen corrections. While not specifically designed just to take the color shift out of black and white images, if you use Test Strip to match your monitor color to your printer, all of your color output will look correct, too. Test Strip has a list price of $149.


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