Better Colour Grading in Black and White

Better Black and White Colour Grading

There is something about black and white cinematography that simply makes for more captivating images.

This supercut of beautiful black and white cinematography (from Plot Point Productions) recently hit the inter-webs and it inspired me to dig through my library of ‘yet-to-be-posted’ links for a few goodies on techniques for better black and white colour grades.

Obviously to get a good looking black and white grade you need to start with something that’s been well thought through from a set and costume design point of view, prevent your blacks from getting too crushed so you don’t lose all that lovely detail, plus you’ll probably want to throw a little grain on there for some nice texture.

Well, at least, that’s what I’d do. But now to hear from the experts…

The following is what happens when Director David Fincher works with cinematographer Mathew Libatique and 5 RED Epic Monochrome camera’s pushed to 3200 ISO on a Justin Timberlake video. It turns out this was edited by Tyler Nelson, Fincher’s long-time first assistant editor.

Pretty stunning. I’m not sure who the colorist was, but Light Iron Digital have credit for the ‘DI’ services.

Raiders of the lost ark in black and white

For further inspiration on the benefits of black and white movie viewing you can check out Steven Soderbergh’s version of Raiders of The Lost Ark, in black and white and set to the Social Network soundtrack. You can check out 600+ stills from this version here.

At some point you will say to yourself or someone else, THIS LOOKS AMAZING IN BLACK AND WHITE and it’s because Douglas Slocombe shot The Lavender Hill Mob and the The Servant and his stark, high-contrast lighting style was eye-popping regardless of medium.

How To Colour Grade in Black and White

colour grading in davinci resolve

Colorist David Torcivia shares how to tackle a black and white grade in a more nuanced way, in this excellent blog post, whilst also neatly explaining the fundamental difference between a look based on simple desaturation and one based on channel separation.

I would recommend reading and understanding these concepts before diving into any of the other content.

The “Levels” node sets basic levels for the shot before we get to the BW conversion. The meat of the color altering process occurs in the next few parallel nodes.

I split the image into it’s red (R), green (G), and blue (B) channels which gives me individual control over each component’s luminosity (as well as saturation and hue).

I merge these (into the inverted image in Parallel) and apply the proper desaturation to preview individual color channel adjustments.

By manipulating each R, G, and B node, I can gain fine control over the black and white conversion occurring in node 6.

Adjusting lift, gamma, and gain as well as some hue and saturation changes let me separate the colors and tones and produce a vibrant image with proper tone differentiation.

Colour grading in Black and white

Noam Kroll writing over on shares how he likes to approach a black and white grade, including a useful tip about adjusting your white balance and also chooses to remind us of the fundamentals of any good grade at the same time.

  • Match your shots first
  • You can still adjust your white balance
  • Up your contrast

In this older Resolve tutorial (that’s the Resolve 8 interface!) Patrick O’Sullivan demonstrates how to create a simple black and white grade based on a reference image from The Artist.

In this tutorial Patrick creates the grade in colour, isolating a few key parts and then desaturates at the end.

using resolve monochrome settings

If you want to make use of Resolve’s Monochrome mode, then this post from Tristan Kneschke demonstrates how to get good results with it.

This is, in effect, a similar way of working to David Torcivia, but simply using Resolve’s mode to do the heavy lifting for you, although you may have a little less ‘finesse’ at your finger tips as a result.

Resolve’s Monochrome mode, emulates the Black and White adjustment layer used in Photoshop.

This preserves the color information underneath and allows us to perform fast moves that give us interesting creative effects.

Lastly, in this hour long seminar, professional photographer John Battdorf shares some excellent insights into advanced black and white processing in Lightroom.

Although this is obviously about stills, this is particularly handy for anyone working in Adobe Premiere Pro as the new Lumetri colour tools function in a very similar fashion to Lightroom’s controls. But you can of course, easily port the principles to any grading application.


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