Why does my black & white picture look different than my photographer’s?

A few times a year I offer Holiday mini sessions which are shorter in length than a regular session but include the option to receive a 3 or 4 digital files for download (often used for holiday cards).  Since I normally include several black and white portraits in addition to the color portraits this brings up a very common question:  ”Should we just order the color version of the photo and convert it to black/white ourselves?”.  I understand why this question is common – clients want to receive the greatest variety of photographs without purchasing extra files.  Here is my warning to them, as well as to all of you about making your own black & white photos:  Don’t do it.  It won’t look the same.

Here is why.  This is an example of a beautiful family portrait from this year’s mini sessions:

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and here is the black and white version of the same portrait that I included with their gallery:

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Finally, here is what it would look like if you ran the same color picture (above) through a typical editing program like Picasa:

Why do they look so different?  Well what is the difference between a store bought Hostess ( too soon?)  and a homemade cupcake?  Picasa and other 3rd party photo editing programs cater to the masses.  Pictures of birthday parties, prom dates, and Snuggles the Cat all get the same treatment.  By making their magic “black and white effect” perform the same action for every picture, you’ll get a predictable result . . . a color picture with all of the color sucked out of it (or as some call it “desaturated”).  The result, as you can see looks a bit like gray newsprint.  Whites fade to gray, blacks fade to gray, vibrant colors . . . fade to gray.

By contrast (pun intended), my black and white portraits are hand edited in Photoshop.  Through a series of steps I create separate layers in the image, adjust the tone curves, tweak the color channels with a specific formula, increase or decrease contrast and brightness to taste, and (if needed) increase the sharpness.  The result?  A custom piece of art.

So if you’re deciding between the black and white photo you love or just getting the color version and converting it yourself – know that there is much more to making a black and white portrait than clicking a single button.

One Response to “Why does my black & white picture look different than my photographer’s?”

  1. Brandi says:

    Which PS software do you recommend? Also, I’m torn between purchasing a Canon vs a Nikon. Do you have any suggestions? Of course, I’m no where close to your amazing talent, but photography is my passion. It has been since I was a child. I live in a small town in Louisiana. I am a beginner, an amature, but I enjoy producing photos my friends and family love. I am currently shooting for free due to my lack of proffessional training. My biggest fear is that my health condition will put a damper on my dreams. I was diagnosed with MS in 2000; therefore, it is impossible for me to be in heater weather conditions. I know this will hinder my shoots during the summer seasons, but I don’t want to give up! I need training, but of course I cannot attend a university because I am a mother of two amazing, young children.
    Do you know of any online courses I can take to help better my chances of success? Any tips you can give me would be greatly appreciated. By the way, your post on hiding behind the camera because of fear of being seen hit home more than you know. I struggle with this immensely! I also shun the camera. I have a 9 year old and a 7 year old and this year was the first year we took a family portrait. My New Year’s resolution was to quit being so hard on myself and to stop avoiding capturing moments with my loved ones. It’s a huge struggle! I still haven’t overcome my fears that the world will see that I’m 50 pounds overweight (to my standards). I’m so afraid that once they see the body attached to this face, that so many claim is beautiful, they will cringe. Thank you for sharing your story. It has truly touched me. You are an amazing photographer. You inspire me on so many levels. I’d truly consider traveling to see you if you’d teach a class to adults.

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