Digital Black & White Photographs

Gisele, 1999 copyright of Patrick Demarchelier

One of the benefits of writing about photographs for this web-journal or The Photo Exhibit, I do receive a lot of digital photographs, usually low resolution (72dpi) JPEGs. Nevertheless, these digital JPEG files contain all of the relevant technical photographic information, such as the hue, saturation and tonality.

What I have noticed in many of the photographs that I receive, is the limited use of absolute blacks in photographs, especially in Black & White photographs.

For absolute blacks, I mean that if you have a photograph in PhotoShop and you apply a curve or level adjustment layer, what does the resulting histogram look like? Are the blacks running off the histogram on the left side? If the blacks are not off the histogram, but just barely not touching the left side, I think that you may not have any absolute blacks in your photographs.

I understand that many photographers look at the histogram as a representation of the full zone system and that the far left side should be absolute black. But is it, or is it a very, very dark gray? From my experience and what I have read recently, I believe that just barely touching the left bottom corner with a histogram is a very, very dark gray.  To truly have an absolute black in a digital black & White photograph, requires some “clipping” or going off the left side side of the tonal histogram.

I am not sure if some photographers have decided to limit the amount of black in the digital representation of their photographs by keeping the entire histogram within the borders. An example is this photograph, Gisele, 1999 by Patrick Demarchelier from a local SoCal exhibit. From those who recognize his work, he is a very well known international fashion photographer. Yet when you review the histogram of this image, it just barely touching the left edge. When you active the clipping box to see where there are blacks, the photograph is blank with just one tiny light gray spot at the shadow under her foot. Which indicates that this one spot is almost clipped. Thus no absolute black.

With all of the shadows, especially in her hair, you would expect to have absolute black. Not there.

So with the wonders of a curve adjustment layer, I moved the dark side of the histogram to the right by a value of 8. The differences (my version, below) may appear very subtle on your monitor. But when I toggle the clipping for the dark values, now there is some clipping of the shadows in her hair as well as some borderline clipping in the shadows along her feet and legs. Now there is some absolute black in this photograph.

Gisele, 1999 copyright of Patrick Demarchelier

My point is that I see many photographers whose black and white photographs do not have absolute black, where there should be some. If you have a high key photograph, such as a bright foggy day, then perhaps there are no blacks, thus it would make sense not to include any. But if you have dark shadows, then by all means, use the entire tonal scale, including absolute black. I think your black & white photographs will be better as a result.

By Doug Stockdale

One thought on “Digital Black & White Photographs

Add yours

  1. While I don’t pretend to fully comprehend Doug’s dissertation about the lack of absolute black in black and white photographs, I do have two things to add. From an aesthetic perspective I’m in absolute agreement. Being enamored with well done high contrast black and white photography, I appreciate images that use a wide spectrum of tonality, including deep rich blacks. Secondly, if you enjoy the photograghic art of Patrick Demarchelier and would like to see a wide variety of his prints, you can do so until November 29 at Fahey/Klein Gallery at 148 N. La Brea in L.A. You can also find a number of his images on their web-site, although I can’t speak for the presence or scarcity of absolute black in the images that are posted. I’d appreciate any additional opinions and comments about the issue that Doug raises, including any that would further my understanding of why I appreciate what I see in the type of images that Doug is extolling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: