Color vs. Black & White

Color vs. Black & White

Color vs. Black & White with Ian Ross Pettigrew

Photography Gear, Tools, and Planning a Shoot

When I’m planning a shoot and I’ve decided it would make a good black & white image, I start thinking about the background colors and wardrobe that will affect the final product.

With film, photographers have always retouched their images. Nowadays, knowing Photoshop and Lightroom (or Capture One) allows you to do the same thing. If you are going to be working in black & white, I’d suggest always shooting in RAW because there is simply more latitude to work with.


My workflow starts with bringing the images into Lightroom (I also shoot most of my portrait work tethered and in Capture One). I use both Capture One and Lightroom, but prefer Lightroom. This is where I make my major adjustments to the file. Because of its handling of colours, you can make such a wide range of adjustments. For example, if your subject is shot on a blue background and they are wearing a blue top, you can make separate adjustments to the black & white file in terms of brightness, etc. Skin tones vary; some people have more red than orange in their skin tone, so making adjustments with backgrounds and clothing with these particular colours can be somewhat difficult, especially orange. See the example of the girl in the red dress on a red background. This particular red allowed for lots of latitude with adjustments in tone and brightness.

The same goes for the two images of the WWII Veteran. This image lends itself well to both color and black & white. The blue and green tones on the background and his wardrobe allowed me to play around with the darkness of those while lightening up the face and hands, driving the focus more on those areas. This begs the ultimate question: Which is better, color or black & white? Search for the portraits of Robert De Niro by Martin Schoeller and Platon. Both are fantastic, and both are instantly recognizable as that photographer. One is not better than the other. It’s art. It’s subjective.

After the Lightroom stage, I bring the image into Photoshop and start to do the more delicate retouching, like removing stray hairs and blemishes. If it’s a beauty or fashion image, I probably spend more time on the skin texture. Like the link showing the iconic photos marked up for the darkroom, I’ll do the same digitally, altering colours, adding dodge and burn where needed, sharpening up or softening areas. I’ll probably spend more time here than in Lightroom. Sometimes I’ll import an image into Lightroom and spend about 5–10 minutes on my major adjustments. There are some useful plugins you can utilise to help expedite your workflow if you use them judiciously. In Photoshop there’s Pixelsugar and Nik Collection, which has Silver Efex. In Lightroom there are many companies that make decent presets, but I usually use my own. It’s pretty easy to overcook something, so you have to know where to draw the line.

I’m not loyal to any one particular brand, especially when it comes to cameras. Over the last 10 years, I think I’ve used almost all the big names: Canon, Leica, Nikon, Hasselblad. For the last couple of years, I’ve used Sony and I’m quite happy, but if something else came along that piqued my interest, I’d be tempted to try.

What happens is this: I get the image in my head first, then it’s about the process of translating that idea from my head to the page. How exactly that is done, and with what gear, is irrelevant to me. Most of the work shown for this article was done with either my current Sony A7rII or with my old Canon 5DMII. 21 megapixels is certainly more than enough for today’s work, since we mostly view on digital.

The image of the WWII Veteran was shot with the Fuji GFX 50s, their medium format camera. The files that come out of this are fantastic. If I had better resources, I would certainly shoot most of my black & white portrait work on medium format film. Monetarily speaking, almost all of my clients want colour and not black & white images. Most of the good paid portrait work is corporate or through ad agencies, and even stock photography. I don’t think I have ever had one client request to work in black & white. So, it’s something you do for love. The one camera I have always wanted to try is the original Leica M-Monochrom, which was 18 mp CCD sensor. Something about the files that came out of that camera…

One piece of gear I do like are all Sigma lenses. I’ve used them on all my systems in the past. For lights, I’ve used the PCB Einsteins or AlienBees for years now. You can’t beat the price. For various situations I’ll change up the lighting modifier, but for the most part I stick with a deep octabox of varying sizes. I like simple. I find a lot of portraits I see from other photographers get way too complicated with lighting, like using four or five lights. I usually stick with one or two. Sometimes we aren’t always blessed with the best spaces to work with, so you are limited to what you can bring and how much room you have to set up.

Past and Upcoming Projects

I used to think about who exactly I wanted to photograph. Usually a celebrity, always someone famous. Maybe the Dalai Lama, or Brad Pitt, or some head of state. But a few years ago, I started to work on a very personal project that ended up becoming two books.

Thirteen years ago, I was diagnosed with the genetic disease cystic fibrosis (CF). It was a traumatic time and very life-changing. After a series of circumstances, I decided to make a portrait book about adults living with CF, and then made a second book specifically about women living with CF. That book, “SaltyGirls,” ended up going viral worldwide (see the links below). I found that it was more rewarding doing a project like this than photographing some celebrity who probably doesn’t give a shit anyway. The difference was making an impact in someone’s life, taking a portrait that had real value and could produce real emotion, not just in the viewer but also the subject. I’d much rather pour my time and energy into making a true change to someone’s life.

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