How to see & visualize in black and white
When it comes to black-and-white imagery, being able to ‘see’ how your final shot will look is a key skill. It’s important to understand how the color image you see through your camera’s viewfinder or on the rear screen will translate into a striking monochrome image. To get the best results, you have to look beyond the colours, and instead try to visualise how a shot’s shapes, textures and tones will be recorded.
The success of your black-and-white shots relies on several different factors, but the main thing to look out for is a main subject that will appear in a significantly different shade of grey to the background. Then look out for subtleties of tone and texture that will add depth to your images.
It’s tempting to think that white balance doesn’t matter if you’re going to remove the color, but because the success of any conversion relies on successfully translating colors into attractive tones, it’s important to capture an image without any colour casts.
Recognising potential shots when out in the field can take practice, so why not try converting some of your existing images to black and white to get a better feel for what will work.
Good subjects for black and white photography
When you use photo-editing software to remove the color from an image you instantly lose one element that the viewer relies on to interpret the scene. So other elements become even more important for successful black and white images.
Here’s a run-down of the most common elements that you should look for when identifying a suitable subject for the black-and-white treatment. Remember that these elements can be used individually, or even combined to produce marvellous mono images with clout.
Bad subjects for black and white photography
There’s no absolute right or wrong when it comes to choosing a subject for black and white photography, but you’ll come across subjects and scenes that rely on colour for their impact, and also lighting conditions that don’t work well in monochrome.
Here are some examples of what to avoid when looking for suitable subjects for black and white photography.
1. Blank skies
It’s easy to think that because you don’t need bright colors you can shoot black and white photography in any light or in any weather.
It’s certainly true that with some skilful conversion and adjustment in Photoshop post-shoot you can add drama , but the sturdier the building blocks the better your finished image will be.
So, unless you’re trying to create a minimalist image it’s worth taking the time to capture maximum detail in the best lighting conditions possible.
2. Safeguarding mood
If the scene you’re shooting relies on color for mood or impact, chances are you’ll be better off keeping the image in color, as in our mushroom image above. Sunrise or sunset shots are another good example; you should always ask yourself whether the image loses some impact without the subtle hues.
3. Color contrasts
Subjects that rely on contrasting colors – such as a purple crocus against a green lawn – generally don’t work well in black and white. This is because the two colors will end up looking similar in tone when converted.
4. Shoot RAW + JPEG
The best monochrome conversions are made by editing raw files which have the full colour information, but if you shoot raw and JPEG files simultaneously and set the camera to its monochrome Picture Style/Picture Control/Film Simulation mode you get an indication of how the image will look in black and white.
As many photographers struggle to visualise a scene in black and white, these monochrome modes are an invaluable tool that will help with composition and scene assessment.
Many cameras are also capable of producing decent in-camera monochrome images these days and it’s worth experimenting with image parameters (usually contrast, sharpness, filter effects and toning) to find a look that you like.
Because compact system cameras and compact cameras show the scene seen by the sensor with camera settings applied, users of these cameras are able to preview the monochrome image in the electronic viewfinder or on rear screen before taking the shot.
DSLR users can also do this if they activate their camera’s live view system, but the usually slower responses mean that many will find it preferable or check the image on the screen post-capture.
5. Look for Contrast, Shape and Texture
The complimentary and opposing colours that bring a colour image to life are all reduced to black and white or shades of grey in a monochrome image and you have to look for tonal contrast to make a shot stand out.
In colour photography, for example, your eye would immediately be drawn to a red object on a green background, but in monochrome photography these two areas are likely to have the same brightness, so the image looks flat and dull straight from the camera.
Fortunately, it’s possible to work adjust the brightness of these two colours separately to introduce some contrast. However, a good starting point is to look for scenes with tonal contrast.
There are always exceptions, but as a general rule look for scenes that contain some strong blacks and whites.
This can be achieved by the light or by the brightness (or tone) of the objects in the scene as well as the exposure settings that you use. The brightness of the bark of a silver birch tree for example, could inject some contrast (and interest) in to a woodland scene.
Setting the exposure for these brighter areas also makes the shadows darker, so the highlights stand out even more. Look for shapes, patterns and textures in a scene and move around to find the best composition.
6. Try Long Exposure
Long exposure shots can work really well in monochrome photography, especially where there’s moving water or clouds.
During the exposure the highlights of the water, for example, are recorded across a wider area than they would with a short exposure and this can help enhance tonal contrast.
The blurring of the movement also adds textural contrast with any solid objects in the frame. If necessary, use a neutral density filter such as Lee Filters’ Big Stopper or Little Stopper to reduce exposure and extend shutter speed (by 10 and 4 stops respectively).
Naturally, when exposures extend beyond about 1/60 sec a tripod is required to keep the camera still and avoid blurring. It’s also advisable to use a remote release and mirror lock-up to minimise vibration and produce super-sharp images.
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