The other day someone asked what made a good black and white photograph. He went on to say that he only uses black and white processing when he’s trying to achieve an old photo look, but noticed when someone converted one of his color images to black and white it looked better because the distracting color of an object was eliminated. While both might be good reasons for sometimes converting to monochrome, I find the approach puzzling. Why use monochrome to “save” a picture only? Or to fake a vintage look? Then I thought about it a little more and wondered if this kind of thing happens because people new to photography have never shot film. My initial conclusion was borne out in a limited way by conversations I had with two photography buddies. One has a good eye and often produces excellent images, but only has digital camera experience where every image starts in color. My other friend on the other hand shot a lot of Tri-X in the past and we agreed that if you do this enough, you can get a feel for the gray value of color.
But it’s not the grays that make a monochrome image sing – it’s the blacks and whites. You’ve got to have both extremes to make it work. Even if you clip a little in the highs and lows, it’s better than having a dull, lifeless image swimming in gray. Depending on the mood you want to strike, lots of contrast can work to make an image sing as well. Don’t get carried away, but don’t be afraid to play with those sliders.
You can’t do all your work in post processing though. You’ve got to put the camera to your eye and envision things in black and white. Because there will be no color to catch or lead the eye, you must be especially careful about compositional elements and the forms and structures you’re photographing. A black and white image has to be even stronger in composition and framing than a color photograph. If it’s weak in color, it will be doubly so in monochrome. Remember that the eye instinctively looks towards white and light shades first. We also react very well to strong shapes defined by dark and light areas.
One exercise that may help you is to set your camera to record black and white jpegs. You can have it give you raw files, too, if you want color renditions. But if you really want to figure out what works and what doesn’t in black and white, set your camera to monochrome (most DSLRs and many high-end compacts have this mode, you just need to find it). You will still see in color through the viewfinder, but live view will be in black and white. Look at the differences. How differently does your eye follow through the image in color versus B&W? Are your forms strong enough? Can your subject be recognized (identified) without color? Are the gray values of the colors too close and without definition? Are you working with strong leading lines? Do you see pure white and black? It shouldn’t take you long to get the hang of it.
Once you’ve got your images on your computer, process them in the normal way, adding contrast, sharpness and cropping if needed. You can further enhance your images with white balance, color sliders in B&W mode and curves. If you can add grain, play with it. Tri-X film had some beautiful grain back before they changed it to T-Max and we loved using that as part of the mood of our images.
Oh and one more thing – don’t be afraid to take chances with black and white. Go for the unconventional. Do a black and white rainbow picture. Try a sunset in black and white. How about a flower? The beach? If your subject is strong in terms of form and you’ve nailed the composition, there’s almost no reason a B&W image can’t be as strong as a color image. Identify what’s interesting your subject – is it shape? Texture? Light and shadow? Framing? Mood? Use black and white to enhance those things that might be overwhelmed by color.
Here are a few more images that I think work particularly well in B&W. All were shot in color since I work from raw files, but each was done with a final B&W image in mind. Some were done this way because there was little color in the scene, some because the forms, lines, shapes or shadows made me go hey – I don’t need color for this one. They are all from my Black and White Gallery.
So to recap –
1. Set your camera to monochrome jpeg mode
2. Use live view to ‘see’ in black and white
3. Check for strong compositions and recognizable subjects
4. Make sure you have pure white and black in your picture
5. Take chances and have fun
Check out Black and White Photography 201