If you started your photographic life during the digital era, you may not have a whole lot of familiarity with black and white photography. But back in the old days, anyone taking photography classes always learned first in black and white. Black and white film was easy to develop and print, and it did a very good job of teaching students about things like light, contrast, form and texture. So can you still get great black and white photos with a digital camera? Absolutely! Keep reading to find out how.
Solitary Confinement. by Flickr user Shawn Harquail
Today we don’t really shoot in black and white, at least not in the sense that we used to. In the early days if you wanted to shoot in black and white you bought black and white film. Today if you want to shoot in black and white, you shoot in color. Then you go into post processing and you convert to black and white after the fact.
The new way of doing things does have some advantages—when you shoot everything in color, you can never regret your choice to make something into a black and white image. In other words, you can always go back later and change it back to color if you don’t like the black and white version, provided that you didn’t do something silly like save over the original.
But the new way of converting to black and white has some idiosyncrasies that the old way didn’t have. For a start, you have to have a pretty good understanding of what makes a good black and white image, so that you can not only convert the image, but do it right.
Erdberg Bridge Vienna by Flickr user Gehmacher_Photography
What makes a good black and white image?
Not every subject makes for a great black and white photo. Some subjects just look better in color—an obvious example of this might be a row of colorful umbrellas on the beach, or a particularly vibrant purple flower. Any time color has obvious importance for the subject matter, the photo needs to be shot in color. You wouldn’t ordinarily want to take a picture of a sunset in black and white, for example, because then you lose all of those amazing colors that are the reason why we love sunsets in the first place.
Instead, you need to look for subjects that don’t depend on color for their impact. Or, you need to look for subjects that would particularly benefit from being converted to black and white. How do you know? Any time you look at a scene and your eyes sort of hurt from all that color, that may be a good image to turn into black and white. A person who is wearing a particularly loud Hawaiian shirt, for example, might need to be converted to black and white just because the color of that shirt is such a distraction from what the subject really is—in most cases, that person’s face and personality. In other words, any time color distracts from your subject, that might be a good image to shoot as black and white.
Untitled by Flickr user Ushlambad
That’s not the only criteria, of course (in fact it barely scrapes the surface). Black and white also suits subject that have beautiful texture and form, even if they also have beautiful color. I have seen plenty of photographs of flowers that that worked beautifully in black and white, even though flowers may seem like an obvious choice for a color photograph. Flowers are colorful, so why not shoot them in color? Well the reason is that a beautiful flower isn’t always just about its color—flowers also have a really amazing texture and form, and texture and form are two elements that simply look wonderful when you reproduce them in black and white.
The reason is simple: when you remove the color from a photograph you remove some of what prevents your viewer from studying or even noticing the texture and form of that object. So if you shoot a beautiful purple flower in color, your viewer may look at that flower and think “wow, that’s an amazing shade of purple,” but if you take the color out of that photo then your viewer will look at it and say “wow, look at that amazing texture on the flower’s stamen and the wonderful curves and lines of the flower’s petals.”
Landscapes often look amazing in black and white for this very reason—because when you remove color, your viewer has no choice but to study all of the other wonderful natural elements that make a landscape so beautiful.
So choosing a great black and white subject is actually pretty simple—ask yourself if, when the color is removed, there is enough texture and form to really compel your viewer. Ask yourself if the color is a boon or a distraction. When you have your answers, you’ll know whether the photo would make a great black and white or would be best left in color.
How to shoot with black and white in mind
So now that you know how to choose a black and white subject, let’s talk about the best way to reproduce that subject in black and white. You’re going to be shooting the object in color, but you still have to think as if you’ve got a film camera with a roll of black and white inside of it. This means that you need to compose the image according to the form, shape, and texture of your subject. But it also means that you need to look for contrast.
If you were ever enrolled in one of those photography 101 classes at your local community college, one of the first things you learned is that a good black and white image must contain both a true black and a true white. This is almost always true, although there are some exceptions (a very low-key photo or a very high key photo, for example, may not contain both a true white and a true black because the goal of those images is somewhat different than it is for the average black and white photo). But for the most part, your image is going to have a lot more interest to your viewer’s eye if you have a nice range of tones that includes both a black and a white.
The problem with converting from color to black and white, though, is it that you often don’t get that true black and true white because the conversion tends to be a little on the flat side. In other words, when you do a simple desaturation in post-processing you may get a lot of gray and not very much black or white.
Ruffled by Flickr user peterned
So the first thing you have to do is make sure that you get that full range of tones—or rather the potential for that full range of tones—in camera, before you ever open up the file in post processing. Look for areas of shadow and areas of highlight in every scene. You may need to do a black and white conversion in your mind in order to visualize what this will look like after your photo is complete. Remember that burned out highlights don’t count as whites—if you have a sky that renders as a bright white that’s not going to count as a true white in your black and white image, rather, that’s a do-over. You should try to avoid blown out skies as much as possible in any image, but it’s particularly important in a black and white because a big, white sky draws the eye away from the scene and into that big, white void.
This may mean that you take photographs mostly during the golden hour, when the sun is low in the sky and the light is softer and more diffuse. During the golden hour there's less dynamic range, or less variation between those blacks and whites, which means that you can avoid a blown out sky. You’ll also avoid burned out highlights in other parts of the scene, which can become a problem particularly when you’re shooting at mid-day.
You can also use a graduated neutral density filter, which is a device that you place in front of your lens that can help you cut down on the amount of dynamic range in a scene. A graduated neutral density filter is dark on the top and then transitions gently to a clear bottom. If you place the dark part over the sky, you cut back on the brightness of the sky, which makes it possible to get both a well-exposed sky and a well-exposed landscape.
Converting to black and white When you convert to black and white in post processing, you can take the easy route and simply desaturate the image. But you may not be happy with your results, because again, the simple desaturation tool tends to create an image that looks very flat. In other words, you may have a lot of grays but not very many blacks or whites, and you need those blacks and whites in order to make a complete black and white image. Depending on how much time you want to spend on each individual image, you can correct this with the levels tool—simply move the highlights slider over to the left until it is under the point on the histogram where you start to see pixels. Likewise, you can also move the shadows slider over to the right until it is also under the point on the histogram where you start to see pixels. This will convert your darkest grays into shadows and your lightest grays into highlights.
A Series of Tubes by Flickr user Peter E. Lee
You can get much more interesting results, however, if you make your black and white conversion in each individual color channel (in Photoshop, go to Image > Adjustments > Black and White). When you do this, you can actually change the way that each individual color renders in black and white. So you can make the blue sky almost black, if you want, or you can make the leaves of a tree almost white. It can be really fun to mess around with color channels, but remember that if you go too far you can actually add undesirable elements to your photo such as noise. Always make sure you do your conversions while viewing the image at 100 percent, so you can pay attention to what’s happening to the details.
Again, never save over your original color file—you may find that the photo just isn’t working for you in black and white, or that you want to do the conversion a little differently. So shoot with black and white in mind but don’t be afraid to keep the color if it turns out to make the better photo.
Most importantly, try to think in black and white. Imagine every scene as if it appears to your eyes without color, and then decide whether or not you should turn it into a black and white. Eventually you’re going to get very good at seeing in black and white, and it will show in your work.
- Choose your subject
- Does it have loud or distracting color? Convert to black and white.
- Is the color important? Leave it as color.
- Does it have great texture and form? Convert to black and white.
- Shoot with black and white in mind
- Look for highlight and shadow in every scene
- Shoot during the golden hour, when there is less contrast
- Use a graduated ND filter
- Converting to black and white
- Use the levels tool to boost highlights and shadows
- Adjust each color channel separately
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