There is a big misunderstanding that color correction of black and white projects is easier than color correction in color. While color correction is an additional level of complexity in some ways, achieving a black-and-white cinematic look can be just as complex for several reasons.
Many filmmakers use practically the same valuation approach that they would use for color photography in their black and white projects, and usually achieve less than excellent results. In fact, many of the techniques that make color material look more organic or cinematic can have the opposite effect on black and white material, making footage appear boring or video-like.
Below are some of the key considerations to keep in mind when coloring your black and white footage.
Remember that you can also apply these principles in virtually any basic editing software while I'm using DaVinci Resolve to create these looks and demonstrate some of the techniques.
CONTRAST IS YOUR FRIEND
In recent years there has been this impetus for the “milky-black look” in color projects. This look is achieved by increasing the black levels for shots that are well above real black (or 0 IRE). The idea is that raising your shadows mimics the look of old footage that sometimes had lower contrast qualities.
Personally, I don't like this look to be over the top – for film or black and white, since it's based on a nostalgic reminder of what a film used to look like rather than what really good footage can reproduce. But I've already covered this in another article.
Many old black and white footage actually had a very high contrast. In fact, many of them did not have a large dynamic range, and as such, shots from these stocks were known for crushed blacks and bright highlights, which created a very powerful expressionistic feel.
In this sense. The most important piece of advice I give when coloring black and white footage is to take your contrast curve into account.
Take a look at the illustration below as an example.
Desaturated + contrast
The second image clearly looks more like a desaturated video, while the final image looks more cinematic. Again, this is because many black-and-white footage tends to have a stronger contrast to them, and we repeated this in more detail in the third frame of the series.
With that in mind, there is a time and place where you can remove the shadows from your black and white footage. Sometimes you want to give your footage a more vintage or nostalgic feel, and increasing black levels might be the right choice.
In this case, it is important that you first crush your blacks and then lift them up. If you just leave your black tones raised and desaturate your image, the shot looks flat and boring. On the other hand, if you add contrast to your image and then raise your shadows, you get a much more interesting effect.
Desaturated + contrast + raised shadows
In the example above, raising the black levels was accomplished with a simple curve in DaVinci Resolve that looks like this:
In fact, it is quite possible to have the best of both worlds. You can take a relatively high-contrast picture that has also raised shadows – your contrast will only live in your midtones and not in your blacks.
USE ORGANIC POWER WINDOWS
Power windows can be a very useful tool in color correction – either to add a basic effect like a vignette or to highlight a specific area of the frame that may not have been perfectly lit. With this in mind, I recommend using electric windows when needed to improve the black and white look, knowing that the “less is more” approach is almost always best for you.
One of the strongest features of the black and white look is the ability to hide distracting details. Black and white shots can create puzzles or intrigue on a visual level by hiding distracting colors or unnecessary shadow details. For the same reason, vignettes can be used to more effectively focus the viewer's attention and hide details on the periphery of the image that may be better shaded.
In the following example, the vignette I use is very subtle, but it is there. If I went overboard and added several vignettes to highlight different areas of the frame, the organic nature of the shot would be completely lost. You never want to see a vignette, you should hardly feel it on an almost unconscious level.
Desaturated + Contrast + Vingette
So keep in mind: the limited use of electric windows will help highlight black and white's ability to hide the details, but too much will take you straight back to the digital realm.
PRINT YOUR COLORS STILL
If you were to capture a black-and-white image on actual black-and-white footage, you would have a few options regarding your production technique. You can simply load black and white material into your camera and get started, or you can use a color filter in front of your lens that dramatically affects the contrast quality of your image.
Check out this picture from Tiffen and show what two different yellow filters in front of the lens would do for your black and white shot:
Different contrast effects can be achieved by using any number of other color filters (not just yellow), each of which leaves its own unique marking on the image.
The point is not that you need to shoot with a color filter on your lens, but that you can actually push and pull your color wheels, white balance, curves, and other color settings to dramatically change your look in the same way.
Take a look at the pictures below as an example. We start with our baseline:
Now let's add a really extreme color effect using the primary bars in DaVinci Resolve:
This gives us an image that looks like this before it is desaturated:
We can then desaturate, which will give us the following:
Color channels pressed + desaturated
Moving the colors in this way obviously has a dramatic effect on the image, making things look much more unique and dynamic in this case.
An important technical detail is that you need to make your color adjustments on a layer or node that precedes your desaturation for this technique to work. In other words, let's say we have three nodes in DaVinci Resolve. They should be set up as follows:
The first node should be our color effect (let's say we push the red channel up). In the remaining nodes, the film material is desaturated, the contrast is increased and further final changes are made. If we applied desaturation before the color effect, we would simply add color to an already desaturated image.
This order applies regardless of the software you are working in. Even if you add layers in your editing software (instead of using nodes in your color software), you want to stack them so that your desaturation is on top of your color adjustments.
LUTS CAN BE USED
Many filmmakers and colorists now use LUTs to color their footage, but often find it unnecessary to color in black and white because most LUTs are designed for color. Still, you can use creative LUTs in a powerful way when sorting black and white material. All you have to do is adjust your workflow slightly.
Similar to the previous point, which stated that color effects should be added before desaturating your image (in your layers or in the node tree), this also applies to color LUTs. Assuming they are not black and white LUTs, you should add the look of your choice to your footage before desaturating the image.
This way, you can continue to benefit from the design of the original LUT (contrast, level adjustments, etc.) while stylizing your black and white footage in a unique way.
For example, the second image below uses a vintage LUT that I am promoting from one of my recently published images Cinematic LUT packs.
Not rated + Vintage LUT
Here's what happens when we desaturate after applying the LUT.
Vintage LUT + Desturated + Contrast
Obviously, there is a big difference in what the final image looks like, even though this special LUT is designed for color material. Personally, I love using LUTs when dyeing black and white footage because I can easily scroll through different looks and test all sorts of unique contrast / color combinations to determine which works best for my footage.
To learn more about my Cinematic LUT Packs, check them out here! I have currently provided 6 unique packs, all of which are designed to be used with footage from virtually any camera and can dramatically reduce post-production time while improving aesthetic results. Click here to see for yourself!
That was it for now. Check back soon for more updates, filmmaking tips, camera testing, and more.
And keep following me Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for further updates!
Noam Kroll is an award-winning filmmaker from Los Angeles and founder of the boutique production house Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television and in various publications around the world. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!