Going Monochromatic

April 10, 2013

By RF Staff

Just about everyone in the wedding photography community knows the name Bambi Cantrell. Between her seminars at WPPI, her best-selling photography books and the many accolades she’s racked up over the years (among them, being named one of the “Ten Best Wedding Photographers” by American Photo, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from WPPI and being the first woman ever to receive Microsoft’s Icon of Imaging award), it’s hard to image a time when Cantrell wasn’t the photographic dynamo she is now. For the last 25 years, she’s shot everything to do with people—weddings, portrait, boudoir and stories—but what not everyone may know is that Cantrell got her start in black and white.

A Simple Foundation
When Cantrell started shooting weddings, she worked predominantly with black-and-white film, which she processed in her home darkroom. “Black and white is really where I gained my roots,” explains Cantrell. “I wasn’t a master at it like [photographer] Robert Cavalli, but I understood how to get a clean black-and-white image.”

That photographic foundation influences Cantrell to this day. Her early experiences had such an impact on her photographic eye that, even now, shooting exclusively digital, she still considers herself a black-and-white girl.

Photography is a lot like fashion, says Cantrell, and that means that styles come and go. For a time, in the 1980s, black and white was not the style for wedding photography, and that meant that Cantrell didn’t shoot it. However, in the early 90s, she noticed that half of the brides’ magazines she was receiving were in black and white; she realized the monochromatic color scheme was back. While Cantrell had been shooting predominantly medium-format color on her Hasselblad, she immediately added 35mm black-and-white film to her repertoire. To her, it was about adaptation.

“I think that’s the key to my success today. I don’t change who I am, but I am willing to grow and move forward based upon style changes,” says Cantrell. “This is my business, first and foremost. It’s my art, but first, it’s my business.”

From that point on, black and white became an irreplaceable part of Cantrell’s photography, with her shooting it and infrared film at every wedding. “Because of that experience, I’ve always been a black-and-white snob,” says Cantrell.

When the digital revolution came several years later, Cantrell was not as psyched as the rest of community. To her, digital black and white didn’t come close to the real thing, and that made it hard for her to get started. “It looked flat or it was extremely contrasty and there were no gray tones,” explains Cantrell.

While technology improved with the many changes to Photoshop and the advent of Lightroom, it wasn’t until very recently that Cantrell felt digital black and white was close to analogue. Cantrell compared the original Lightroom black-and-white presets to
“flat Coca-Cola.”

“[The presets] had the color of Coca-Cola, but it had no depth to it and the taste was bad,” says Cantrell. “There was no real pop-up color or the dimensionality that you expect.”

The black and white that Cantrell demands of her digital photography must have bright whites and deep blacks without losing tonal range. It goes back to the old photographic adage that a well-exposed black-and-white image should have one pure black element and one pure white element. It’s a tall order that takes technological know-how starting in the camera, progressing to the digital darkroom and finishing at the printer.

Bambi’s Process
For Cantrell, producing rich, vibrant black-and-white images starts in-camera. The better the capture, the less work there is later to produce a perfect image. Because Cantrell now shoots digital almost exclusively, every shoot starts in color, even if she knows beforehand that she wants a particular image to end up black and white.  

“I want to have a complete palette that I can change my mind on,” says Cantrell. “I like variety.”

When Cantrell is doing weddings, there are particular images that she knows will look better in black and white, and she compensates for that when shooting. Shots such as a bride getting ready—where a room is littered with tissue paper and junk—can look messy in color.According to Cantrell, when such an image is converted to black and white, the background begins to blend in, and the bride becomes the more clear focal point in the image.

In addition, there are certain compositional elements—such as trees in an outdoor lunar scene—that Cantrell knows are particularly striking in black and white. However, in general, Cantrell shoots the way she shoots, with strong, striking compositions, and converts later.

This is also true when it comes to lighting. Whether or not Cantrell is shooting color or black and white, she focuses on direction and quality of light to achieve the mood and look she desires. Her favorite is soft lighting at a strong 45-degree angle. To achieve this, she has most recently found herself using Jerry Ghionis’ Ice Light, which she confesses she is “nuts about.”

Often the decision to go black and white over color has a lot to do with her subject, especially when it comes to portraits. For a recent portrait of a tattooed couple, she felt that part of their story would have been lost if she shot them completely in color. Because their many colorful tattoos would force the viewers’ eyes to bounce around, she opted for the final image to be in black and white, thus presenting a more focused focal point.

After Capture
After a shoot, Cantrell immediately puts the images on a hard drive appointed for the current year, labels them appropriately and then does a first edit. This edit is to separate the winners from the losers, those with closed eyes, poor exposure or other problems. Once she’s done a first edit, she does color correction on all her images, whether or not she knows that some will be converted later to black and white. That way, if a client really wants a black-and-white image in color, it’s ready to go.

After color correction, Cantrell retouches images that require it. When it comes to people, she doesn’t eliminate blemishes or wrinkles, only softens them. According to Cantrell, eliminating such things robs photographs of their character and makes people look plastic—a look she says is “awful.”

Once the images are as perfect as possible, she does a second edit for those that she wants to convert to black and white. She looks for images—such as the one of the tattooed couple—with messages better conveyed in black and white. To achieve the best black-and-white quality, she works with a combination of specialized Lightroom presets, Photoshop actions, and manual work done in Photoshop to create what she calls her “magic sauce.” Primarily, there are three sets of presets and actions that Cantrell uses to achieve her look.

“I know how to make my own actions,” says Cantrell, “but I believe different black- and-white textures and tones are like recipes. Sometimes you want this one and sometimes you don’t.”

Cantrell uses a variety of actions from Marcus Bell’s Image Styler and Instant Collection, Yervant Black & White, and Kevin Kubota’s Artistic Tools. If a preset or action isn’t giving Cantrell quite what she’s looking for, she will pull an image into Photoshop and work on it manually. While she has used dedicated programs like Nik Silver Efex, she finds that having a “smorgasbord” of tools can sometimes be overwhelming.

When it comes to printing, Cantrell has two Epson printers in her studio, a 7900 and 9900. For black-and-white images, her favorite papers are the Epson Cold Press Bright White and the Epson Wag paper. She doesn’t use her own printers for everything (confessing it’s not the most cost-effective method), however, having the printers in the studio means she can rush prints for clients. She likes the capability of doing a shoot on a Wednesday, retouching a photo on a Thursday and having the print ready for the client on Friday. She also enjoys the flexibility to test many different styles until she comes up with her ideal print.

When it comes to prints that she doesn’t need rushed, she goes to her pro lab—Simply Color in Akron, Ohio­­—which uses the same Epson printers. That way, Cantrell knows the results she gets from the lab are going to be identical to the ones she prints in her studio.
From start to finish, Cantrell is after perfection, and that means clients do not see unfinished images. As she puts it, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That means what the client sees when Cantrell gets down to showing images is the closest thing to a fine-art image without it being printed.  “I want them to see themselves as perfect. I want them to see me as a perfect photographer,” says Cantrell.