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Author Talk: Photographer Vincent Versace on Black and White Conversion Techniques (Podcast Transcript)

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Publisher Nancy Ruenzel chats with author and photographer Vincent Versace about his latest book, From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black and White Conversion Technique Known to Man. Vincent explains why it's important for photographers to learn more than one black and white conversion technique.

This interview is a transcription of the podcast, Photographer Vincent Versace on Black and White Conversion Techniques.

Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel:  Welcome.  I’m here today with author and photographer Vincent Versace. He just wrote the book From Oz to Kansas, and it’s a book I’ve been waiting years for. Vincent, congratulations, you really nailed it.

Vincent Versace:  Well, thank you. Thank you very much. And I know you’ve been waiting years for it because unfortunately I took years to write it! 

Nancy:  [laughs] Oh, but it’s worth the wait because, you know what, the tagline says, “Almost every black and white conversion technique known to man,” and when I look at the table of contents, I’m just blown away by how many techniques are here. Can you tell the audience what’s the best technique, or do we need them all?

Vincent:  You need to know them all. I mean, what is best is what works for the picture. There are some techniques that, for example removing color cast out of clouds, do you need to go through a multiple channel mixer or multiple third-party Silver Efex Pro plugin approach to do that or simply use desaturation?  It’s understanding what is going on under the hood. What I’ve found, in watching people teach black and white and reading everybody’s theories and reading all the books there are to read--I’ve read 117 books in addition to all the other books I think one should read about black and white photography to research this book. I’ve read every book that I could get my hands on in a bookstore or off of Amazon. What I walked away with was that there is a discussion around how to convert or it’s made so overly technical that it’s difficult to understand what’s going on or it’s not discussed in a way in which it is useful. And so what I wanted to do is to look at everybody’s technique and apply scientific method to it. There’s a quote from Richard Feynman that has always stuck with me, which is, “It doesn’t matter how smart you are.  It doesn’t matter how eloquent and elegant your idea is. If it cannot withstand experimentation, then it is wrong.” So, with that thought, that was the way I approached every technique in the book. And the other thing that I wanted to look at was how Photoshop actually did the conversion and what was the physics that was going on behind those conversions so that it’s rooted in, this isn’t just an observation, this is rooted in fact. And I had experts check this to make sure that I was telling the truth; that what I was saying was factually correct. 

Nancy:  You just mentioned Photoshop. How do you determine when and how to use Lightroom or Photoshop or Nik’s Silver Efex Plugin? 

Vincent:  Well, alright, first off I don’t really think that a raw processor is the best place to do a black and white conversion. I know that that is absolute heresy and oh my God, I’m going to have to dig it in my front yard with stakes and mallets and burning effigies. But the point being is that a black and white image or a chromatic grey scale image, when you’re talking a digital photograph, because you’re working in the RGB color space, firing all the colors using equal values of red, green and blue, is not an afterthought, and a raw processor is just too global of a piece of software to be able to do some of the things that you need to do to an image. A raw processor is exactly that. It’s very good at processing the raw file to something that is usable. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great when a raw file is all I need to do. Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible and no simpler.”  And that’s a good way to approach the world, but sometimes we tend to want to make things simpler than possible by staying in a piece of software that is not the best tool for the job. For me, Photoshop is, for fine art photography, the best tool for the job. You can do way more things in it. A black and white photograph or chromatic grayscale photograph is an image that is not an afterthought. It’s an image that its entire workflow is a goal to getting there, and you need to have a perfect color image before you can start the conversion. Now, why are some of the tools challenged in raw processors? Because of the way in which they collide with each other. You have a tool in Lightroom--the black and white adjustment module--which is made up of multiple tools. You have three colors that address one color, and then you have three more colors that address colors that are made up of two colors. But the problem with that is that they are at cross-purposes sometimes, because the algorithm doesn’t necessarily know how to deal with colors made up of three colors, or that it will pick a color more towards the red when it’s actually more towards the magenta, based on its red count, and then if you adjust the magenta, you now affect that color. So, they’re good to a point, but they’re not good to the level of granular control that one must take to produce a fine black and white or chromatic grayscale image. And you need to know that. It’s not a “one size fits all” solution. It is understanding how it all works to inform your decision. When should you use Silver Efex Pro? You shouldn’t use it necessarily as a raw processor, because you defeat the purpose of a raw processor, because what happens in Aperture and what happens in Lightroom when you use that plugin is that it automatically converts it to a .tif so that it can run the plugin. So, if you’re going to convert something to a .tif, wouldn’t it make sense to be in a piece of software that is far more powerful with regards to that file format? Again, we’re back to Photoshop. So, yeah, would I like everything to be done in a raw processor and be out and taking more pictures?  You’re darn tootin’.  But the fact of the matter is my job is to make an image that, when it is done, takes the viewer’s breath away the same way my breath was taken when I first saw it. 

Nancy:  And for those newbie photographers listening in, how do you define a raw processor from those that aren’t?

Vincent:  A raw processor is a piece of software that takes the raw files, which is a linearized black and white file and which contains red, green and blue data based on something called the Bayer array, and there is twice as much green as there is red and blue data, and interprets it so that you get a color image. It has to do with how the source is mixed up that determines the quality of your image. Nikon, believe it or not, Capture NX does a better job processing a raw file than Lightroom does as a raw processor, but just that aspect of it. Now, as the rest of the piece of software goes, I think Lightroom is one of the most inspired pieces of software ever written for handling cataloguing and all sorts of other stuff, but for that one simple thing, that gives me a slightly better quality file. If all I ever did was use Nikon View, which is free, or Nikon Capture to open up my raw file and save it as a TIFF, I would have a better looking file than I would if I processed it in Lightroom. Now Lightroom 4 has gotten considerably better than its previous versions, but that still remains the same. There are differences: if you do infrared, you cannot use Lightroom, Aperture or ACR, because it does not know how to handle the white balance because its filtration is different.  You have to use either Canon’s raw processor or Nikon’s raw processor to do that and be able to create an appropriate white balance without losing data.  That’s just, you know, the way that is.  Would I like it to be all in one piece of software, something like Lightroom? Yeah, that would be nice, but that’s not the reality. I live in a world of 2%. What that means is simply this: If it’s going to conceptually give me a 2% quality increase, I will do it. Because all artefacting is cumulative and may be multiplicative. What I’m trying to do is negate a multiplicative aspect and minimalize a cumulative aspect. So my workflow tends to be very much based towards a fine art workflow where everything matters. You know, if you’re happy with the way your pictures look out of a raw processor, right on. That’s great. If you’re not happy with the way your pictures look out of a raw processor and you want something more, right on, that’s great too, and you need to explore the other things that are available to you.

Nancy:  That’s really great advice. Thank you. When thinking about black and white, of course, a lot of people think of the zone system. Do you address that in the book?

Vincent:  I sure do. I have a whole chapter about it. And actually, one of the creators of the zone system wrote the foreword to my book. It was the last thing he wrote before he passed away, and he was definitely an inspiration throughout the course of my life and with his book. After reading Minor White’s Little Tiny Yellow Book, that actually cleared up the whole thing, and I am the photographer I am today because I was a zone system photographer since the age of nine. The zone system is one of the most inspired ideas of analog photography, if not the most inspired idea with regard to that.  It was a system to put all the nuances of film onto a piece of paper that did not have the levels of gradation that film had. So how do you do that? I mean that was what they thought. How do you make it that way? How do you analyze a print so that you can understand what’s going on? The validity of the zone system today is in print in that it’s a great way to discuss and understand and analyze how you’re going to manipulate a file and where you want things to fall. We wouldn’t necessarily underexpose and overdevelop, which is the hallmark of a zone system photographer, where you have n+, n- and n. We only have n. This has to do with the nature of the way exposure works in digital, because digital and film are decidedly different. Digital is linear and film is non-linear, it’s logarithmic, and what that means is that one in is one out, two in is two out, in digital. In film, because it’s logarithmic, let’s take a look at a cup of coffee.  OK, we have a 16 ounce cup of coffee, and I put a packet of sugar in the cup of coffee. The cup of coffee will taste sweet. If I put two packets of sugar into the cup coffee, in a logarithmic space: it won’t be twice as sweet. It will just taste sweeter. In a linear space, it would be twice as sweet. How did this manifest itself with regard to black and white? Simple. If I have two flowers, a pink flower and a yellow flower, and they are both the same luminance but they’re a different color, film would record those two flowers as two separate grays. There would be two different grays. If I took a picture digitally of the same two flowers and desaturated the image, they would be the same gray. That’s because digital is linear versus logarithmic. Now you would think that a logarithmic approach would be better, but with regard to digital, a linear approach gives you far greater control because one in is one out, two in is two out. So you have greater control in an RGB color space because what you see is what you get versus a logarithmic space with regard to control, which is why lab conversions are not necessarily the most optimum way to work on an image. They are very, very popular approaches to conversion. 

Nancy:  Tell us a little bit about a film and filter approach. You write quite a bit about that, don’t you in the book? 

Vincent:  Yeah, it was funny, and I’ve got to give the devil his due!  Alright, and I’ve got to say this because when I started this book, and you’ve got to cop to things, I had to tell you I thought that was the biggest bunch of hooey of all the techniques, really and truly. And as I applied Feynman’s approach and Einstein’s approach, which is:  I have a thousand experiments that can prove me right, just need one experiment to prove me wrong, those ideas, and I started playing with Russell Brown’s film and filter approach, I realized what a really brilliant idea that was. It‘s a smart idea and it was a great way to look at what’s going on. You can actually see the creation of a total reproduction curve, which is the hallmark of film, and you can actually see, with his approach, what is going on with regard to color. So it addresses the first issue of what black and white conversion is. The question I get is: did you see that in black and white? And the second or third is: can you teach me how to see in black and white? You can’t see color that way. What makes an appealing chromatic grayscale image is if you look at the underlying color, the underpinning color that created, it looks, you know, somebody that had bad makeup from a Twilight movie. So you don’t see colors with overly magenta and overly green cast skins that create these grayscale images. What you see is what is visually appealing to your eye. So that approach teaches you an incredible amount about understanding the importance of the ownership of color. Because, if it matters anywhere, it matters most with regard to chromatic grayscale conversion of black and white imagery in the digital world color management.  Understanding and controlling color is what is most important in a digital image. Part of the problem, I found after reading all of these books, was that we are taught a top down approach; you look at it from the top down in which color doesn’t matter. The reason that color doesn’t matter is because the color has already been extracted out of the image. Then it becomes one of 12 contrasters–-light and dark contrast, because there is no color. But the problem is that it’s an image from the bottom up that defines what it is that we see when we look from the top down. Soren Kirkegaard said that we live life forwards, but frequently we experience it backwards. What we are seeing here is the experience of the image backwards. The colors underneath the conversion layer are what matter. And what is most interesting to me is that you require a 16-bit prophoto photograph as the base image to produce an image that, when it’s done, its color gamut can easily fit in an 8-bit sRGB space.  But you cannot get the quality of image structure that you need by working in a color space that’s small. You need to work in a color space so big that you have everything at your disposal so that you can take that which you need out of the red, green and blue channels and create the perfect black and white image. 

Nancy:  So tell me how that plays into, did you use that approach at all in your cover image of the book, which is just a beautiful, beautiful image? I urge everybody listening today to go check out Vincent’s cover and buy the book, obviously. Tell us about the cover photo.

Vincent:  Well the cover photo is a pretty fun story. I’m actually writing about this in my, what seems to be developing a trend called The Accidental Photographer, which is the stories behind all of my photographs--that apparently my photographs have given me the appearance of a far calmer photographer than I actually am, which you can attest to. This particular shot I shot in Paris during a blizzard, which absolutely never happens. And what you’re looking at, when you look at that photograph, is actually nine photographs.  It’s also an EXDR photograph.  This has to do with the nature of the physics of focus and resolution with digital images, which is something I talk about in Welcome to Oz 2.0. What it is is the foreground buildings are one capture, the Eiffel Tower is another capture, the trees are another capture, and then I photographed the snow as it whips across to get the best expressions of snowiness and then put that all together. Once that occurred, then I did a conversion from the color image to a black and white one or chromatic grayscale one. For this image, that was a straight Silver Efex Pro image, and the reason being is that its color palette was so tight that it was already almost grayscale to begin with. 

Nancy:  Speaking of Nik’s Silver Efex, did you hear the news about Nik being purchased by Google? 

Vincent:  Yes, I’ve been privy to that knowledge for a bit. 

Nancy:  What’s your take?  I’m sure everybody listening would be interested in knowing what you think.

Vincent:  Well, I think that it’s potentially a good thing. I think that a company the size of Google, with the economic depth and breadth of Google, it is not a stupid company, and if they go after the photo space what we actually might see here is something that is very much needed: competition. What we’re going to see, I think, is the integration and the marketization to some degree of the products into a more cloud-based approach. I think that more people will have access to the great power of these tools. Now, granted, the standalone stuff I feel needs to stay because I go to a lot of exotic places and when you’re out, you know, 36 hours to get to a location in the middle of a rainforest, there are clouds but they don’t hook up to the internet! So I don’t see that going away. I don’t see the plugin aspect of it. Knowing what I know about the people that are staying from the former design team, innovation is around for a while. What I’m happy to see and excited to see is the potential of a product, which is more in line with what it is we really need, which is a cross between something like Lightroom and something like Photoshop, has the potential to evolve and have that be web-accessible. Now, I’ve spent 13 years of my life being involved with that company, so I have some investment in a sense of just time and work.  There’s always the potential for screw-ups because we could all do that, but I see more of a potential for good in this than I see for bad. 

Nancy:  So before I let you go, Vincent, I just wanted to ask you to explain to us the way in which you want your readers to read the book, to use the book.

Vincent:  Sure. The book is meant to be read from page 1 to page 272, cover to cover, in the order. This is not a tips and tricks book that you can hop through the book and pick out little nuggets of things. This book is based on something called the programmed learning approach. When I was a kid, my father took pity on me because this was during the time of the Spassky-Fischer chess games. So chess was a big thing in my neighborhood, and everybody beat the absolute snot out of me playing chess.  My father bought me a book called Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. I think he felt really bad if he bought me the book that said how to beat your father at chess, but what that book was, was that every chess problem builds on every other chess problem. So I went through the entire book and I went from being the guy that everybody looked forward to beating to the guy that everybody avoided because I was unbeatable. And that approach has always stuck in my head. So, with this book, what I wanted to do was to put the reader on exactly the same journey that I went through--discovery of all the techniques that I tried and played with and all the discoveries that I made about how it all works so that, when it’s all said and done, what you’re left with is: here are all the tools, and sometimes one tool works better than the other. There’s really only one technique in the book that I think is silly but it’s in the book because many people use it. 

Nancy:  Which one is that?

Vincent:  I’m not going to say. 

Nancy:  Oh, we have to find it and tell you.

Vincent:  No, it’s controversy. I don’t want to be on the record as going, “Oh Versace says that this guy’s technique…”.  You know, the other thing I tried to do with this book is as close to little or no personal opinion about the book or the techniques I could as possible. I just stated the facts and what the observations are. I believe that it is very important for the readers to draw their own conclusions with all the facts put forth as close to without personal opinion as possible. 

Nancy:  Well, listen Vincent, thank you so much for taking time today to share with us thoughts about the book and I wish you great success in your world travels.  Let’s chat again soon.

Vincent:  I look forward to it.

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