Why Nothing Will Beat the Sharpness of Black and White Photography

Black and white images get a lot of hate, but they’re sharper than you think.

While some folks hate black and white, I find there to be special magic to it. Of course, not every black and white image is super sharp, but compared to a color photo of similar variety, they’re far sharper. Believe it or not, the best way to see how sharp your lens can be involves converting your images to black and white. Don’t believe me? Look at history. Acros, T-Max, and Tri-X are all super sharp black and white films. The images made with them are far sharper than any slide or color negative film out there. With digital, we became enamored with color. We also were all about fixing it in post-production to make an image appear sharper. Here’s the crazy secret: even if your color photo is sharp, it’s going to look sharper in black and white. Don’t believe us?

It’s Science

Color

Black and white

The way the story goes, the deeper the blacks are in a photo, the sharper it will appear. This is due to the way the eye sees things. The deeper the black level is, the more that your eye tends to ignore it. To that end, your eyes then focus on whatever else is in the scene. It’s why black backgrounds work so well. When mixed with sufficient lighting (not necessarily high contrast lighting) it can make a scene look even sharper. What first comes into play here are what’s called specular highlights. These are little lights that open up details in a scene that you weren’t able to see before. A flash will do this far better than any LED. The science of that has to do with flash duration, but that’s for another post.

Color

Black and white

Of the two images above, the black and white photo looks sharper, but the truth is they’re the same exact image. Our mind gravitates to her skin at the mouth. Everything else in the scene is rendered insignificant because of the dark shades. Now, you’re probably now thinking, “Oh, so I just need more contrast.” That’s where you’re wrong. More contrast would make the darks even darker and the brights even brighter, but it won’t give the look of a sharper photo. A lower to medium contrast image and deeper blacks will look more acute to the human eye. By making low image contrast, you’re getting a lot of details back in the scene.

High Contrast

Low Contrast

Here’s what that looks like in practice. The high contrast image makes you focus more on the specific object in focus. The low contrast image makes you focus on more of the object in focus. In the high contrast image, the blacks are deeper and forcing you to focus more on the ice cream. But the more opened blacks in the low contrast image are making you focus on the scene overall. Both of these are doing it significantly better than color could.

 

The Simplicity of a Black and White Photo

Here’s what this looks like side by side. The image above is the exact same photo. One is just converted to black and white while the other is the color photo. The color is used pretty effectively with each color being different enough from the one next to it that it makes you pay attention. But, the image on the left still just seems sharper. This is because of where your eyes are looking as a result of the highlights. Now, would you say that this photo is high contrast or low contrast? Why? In all honesty, it’s a low contrast image. Now, would you say it’s a properly exposed photo? That all comes into play.

 

Underexpose It, Create Contrast and Get Sharper Images

So how do you do this? It starts with your exposure. The fact is that when you overexpose a scene, you lose details overall. But if you underexpose it, you get details that you can push in post. It’s best to do it in post-production unless you understand and know how to see lighting and colors in a scene. Try underexposing the photo between 1 and 1/2 stop and creating more contrast in the light. What this will do is bring the more significant details into the frame better and give more emphasis.