Five different ways to colour grade Black & White


It is not uncommon to be asked if black and white films need the same amount of time in a colour grading session as colour films. Or if they need colour grading at all. The answer is a big resounding Yes! In this post we hope to unpack why that is and in the process show you five different ways you could colour grade your black and white project.

When you are colour grading your content, the ‘colour’ is actually only one element of the process. Some of the other elements a colourist will deal with is brightness/luminance, contrast, shaping/cutting light and creating the appearance of more depth, drawing attention to different parts if the frame by shading, highlighting, blurring. Also looking at texture – grain, noise, sharpness/softness. There is then making each shot cohesive with the previous and next shot, cohesive within the scene and within the film. Making a shot flow to the next (or jolt to the next, if that is the intention).

With the absence of colour, it can be argued that these other elements become even more important. You have to create depth, focus and a dynamic image without the bonus of a colour palette to help you. Grading black and white motion picture footage most certainly does take as long as colour and you can get some absolutely stunning images when you simplify an image down to black, white and all of the tones in between.

The following are just five looks, but there are of course infinite ways to carve and shape an image. Each of these looks have their own art history attached to them, and cinematic history, and subconscious connotations. You could grade a black and white film to look “nice” (ie. nice blacks, nice clean whites and middle greys), but if you chose a look to reflect what is happening in the story or subtext that’s when your visuals go the next level. That’s when you really start to feel something from the image.

1. High contrast look

This look has stark whites, strong blacks, not much range in the middle for variations of grey. High contrast black and white is striking, dynamic and bold. Examples would be noir films, thrillers, scenes/films where there are two strong conflicting elements… such as good vs. evil.

2. Soft look

In this context “soft” does not refer to focus. Images with a soft look can be sharp but may have elevated blacks (blacks not sitting as true black but raised up to a shade of grey), no “crushing” (so there is detail in the shadows) and soft highlights (the whites are not jarring, they roll off beautifully). These photographs by Max Dupain have a soft black and white look. We can see right into the subject’s eyes and they have a very “human” feel. Often you need to shoot when it’s cloudy to get this look, or at least fill in the shadows with reflectors or fill light. In the colour grade you can soften the contrast and pull up shadow detail but in order to achieve this clean look, the exposure needs to be bang on. Arguably this soft look is not very realistic – in the sunny outdoors there would be way more contrast and shadows are dark. I guess this is the beauty of great colour grading, it can look very natural even when it has been played around with quite dramatically.

2. Dark low contrast

The difference between the brightest and darkest parts is not very contrasted. The film sits in the low range of the luminance spectrum. It can feel mysterious, not clear, dark, moody. The shadows are a real feature and it can feel like a character is coming out of the darkness, going in to the darkness, or something ominous is about to happen.

4. Black and white with a tint

Monochrome with a cast/wash of another colour. This can be subtle or obvious. Sepia fits in to this category and can be used as a nod to a vintage era, a nostalgic time. Can also have one element with some colour in it to signify a motif ie. the red coat in Schindler’s List. I have colour graded entire documentaries with the black and white archive elements all with a subtle cool tint – if the subject matter calls for it, it can just really give the archive a unique feel.

5.  Gritty/textured look

In a textured look you can often see grain. The opposite would be a silky smooth look. A gritty/textured look often has dark shadows, low mid-tones, not much clarity – instead it feels harsh and rough. Modern day cameras and lenses are so sharp and clean that people often miss the “texture” that is found in imagery that was shot on film. You can help create this textured look in the colour grade, “muddy” up the image so it’s not so clean and has more imperfections – just like real life.