Black and White Photography
Why Black & White?
One of the drawbacks of colour is that it tends to overpower other aspects in the frame – so “colour” is the dominating influence in the image. When you shoot in black and white, you rely on tones, story & composition to convey your message to the viewer and this in-turn can translate into a very emotional photograph. Images in black and white look different - They can be successfully leveraged by an experienced photographer to showcase moods, emotions and stories in a manner that is far beyond the reach of colour.
Shooting Black & White
Our approach to shooting black & white today is very different from some years ago when you had to make a choice at the store: do I buy colour film or black & white film? And you were then stuck with that option for 24/36 exposures. You couldn’t change your mind depending on the scene in front of you. In this era of digital photography we have the flexibility of deciding on b&w and colour very easily and photographers tend to make this choice (of colour or monochrome) later at the post processing stage rather than while shooting the image. While the purist in me might cringe at this approach, it has more or less become the norm for most of the photographers I meet today.
I feel that every serious photographer should think about adding some good monochrome images to his portfolio, irrespective of the genre. Contrary to what most people think, it’s not just street photography & portraits which look good in black & white. Birds, nature & wildlife too can look fabulous in monochrome if shot in the right manner. I remember writing some time ago that the day they make a good digital camera that shoots only black and white, I’m going to buy it. Leica did manage something similar when they made the Leica M MONOCHROM however; they also priced it so high that I’d most probably have to sell my house to buy it. Well okay, maybe not the house but the cars would surely have to go!
Creating Black & White images
There are 2 popular ways of getting a black & white image today with a modern DSLR.
1) Almost all cameras have a black and white jpeg mode as one of the options in the menu. Choosing this option will give you a monochrome image that in most cases would look dull, flat and boring- it just doesn’t look the same as something shot on T- Max 400 or Tri-x or Iford Delta 400.
You can however amend custom settings and picture controls in your camera to make these “sooc” (straight out of the camera) black and white jpeg photos look much better than the standard option. If you do not know how to work with picture controls or tonal curves and still want to shoot black & white in jpeg mode – increase the contrast in your in camera settings as this will make the sooc images look better in most cases.
Some cameras also allow you to emulate certain black and white films via custom picture controls. There also is another use of this mode and I’ll touch upon this later during the write-up.
2) The other & and more popular option for a regular DSLR user is to shoot in Raw and convert the photo to black and white during post processing.
Almost all mainstream software used for post processing allows you to convert a colour image into black and white. This b&w conversion can be done in various ways in photoshop, lightroom etc etc.
My suggestion would be to refrain from simply reducing saturation to zero or going with a standard “convert to grayscale” option. Use an option that allows you to work with contrast & colour sliders so you can tweak tones in the image while doing the conversion. This is very important if you need an image that has “impact”. Usage of “dodge & burn” too has traditionally been considered acceptable.
When we shot black and white film in the good old days, we had colour filters with 5 basic colours (red, orange, yellow, green, and blue). These filters were put in front of the lens and they would allow light of their own colour to come through and block all the others. Example: a red filter in front of the lens will allow red light through so the sky which is blue will turn really dark. That is how the masters shot black and white images – You needn’t use these filters in front of your lens today but you can use software equivalents which will allow you to emulate a similar effect and amend contrast and brightness in various sections of the image.
Tips & pointers for creating good monochrome images
There are quite a few elements in a photograph that come together in holding a viewers attention and (as I mentioned earlier) colour is a very important aspect. In black and white photographs however, you don’t have this “colour” so the other elements that make up a “good” image need to be really strong for you to be able to get a photograph that will make a viewer stop, look again and say “wow”.
Composition - There are no bright colours to camouflage a weak composition. So its really important that you get the composition right.
Think about subject placement, think about horizon placement, think about leading lines, think about all of this and more before you press the shutter.
Remember – Strong composition is different from a casual snapshot. Black and white can be very unforgiving towards poor composition.
Think - about contrast, check for texture in the subject, try and search for patterns in the scene, look for lines. Get all of these into the photograph as they will enhance your photo and take it up a notch or two.
Look - for 50 shades of grey (no not the book). There’s black, there’s white and there are loads of shades of grey in-between – Check if the subject in front of you has those shades. You need to have some variation in tones to make your image stand out and a scene which has this tonal range will look good in black and white.
Pure black and white - Make sure you get pure black and pure white into the photograph atleast in some parts of the image in addition to grey. A photo with pure white and pure black helps in making all the other shades of grey stand out better and hence increases the visual impact of an image.
Visualize - a particular scene without all the colour that you see in front of you before you press the button. Think – is it going to look good or will it just end up being a normal, boring photograph once you remove all the colour.
A tip to help you train in understanding what will look good in monochrome: Choose the black and white mode from the settings in your camera, take the photograph and review it on the camera LCD screen. As long as you shoot in RAW + jpeg, only the jpeg will be in black and white. The RAW file will retain all the colour. Use the jpeg to preview and make up your mind if the shot looks good. Use the RAW file later to convert to black and white during post processing.
High contrast - Look for subjects where there is high contrast and a wide range of exposure in the photo. These usually make great black and white photographs.
Dull flat light - Look for subjects where the light isn’t all that great. Dull flat light also makes good black and white images - if you’ve got strong composition and if you can get something in the frame which is pure black.
Learn to think in black and white - Think, identify and learn the type of shots that look good without colour. With some practice this will come naturally to you and you’ll be able to indentify shots which will work well in monochrome as well as shots which won’t.
Aspect Ratios - Stick to aspect ratios which have been traditionally considered as “Acceptable”.
Grains look good. Noise is ugly. Understand the difference and use it to your advantage.
Some additional information on monochrome, Black & White, duotones etc:
Monochrome and black & white are often used to mean the same thing in online photography forums and discussions (as well as in this write-up) however technically speaking all black & white images are “monochrome” however all monochrome images need not necessarily be just black and white. A black and white image actually has grey along with black and white. A monochrome image can be an image with a single colour cast like sepia, rose tint etc.
Toning traditionally refers to taking a black-and-white print and dipping it in chemicals to change its color. Split toning has also been used for a long time for b&w images and printers would add one or more mid-toned inks along with black. A printer could choose a warm mid-toned ink and get a print with warm mid-tones along with pure white and pure black. Post processing software also gives the option of creating duotone, tritone and quadtone “black & white” images and you can explore these options to make your “black and white” images look better.
Do take note however, when International contests and exhibitions have a category called “monochrome”, this traditionally refers to Black and White entries of a single tone only. You cannot submit duotones or quadtones as “monochrome” images.
Text and images by - Ayaz Bambotia