Lesson 9 - Be bold with black & white

AJ looks at seeing and shooting in black & white. A subject that is particularly close to his heart...

I know from experience that shooting for black & white requires the photographer to take a leap of imagination and project what is being seen with the naked eye into something different and fresh. For many this is often the biggest hurdle. The world is full of colour, so how does that range of colours translate into something interesting when we strip it back to its basic monochrome tones?

There is no simple answer to this question because no two situations are the same. I’ve heard other photographers say that, for them, it's more natural to shoot in black & white than in colour. I’m not convinced of this. Unless you actually see in black & white, I think that translating the colour world into a colourless one is perhaps the most unnatural thing of all. But luckily for us I also genuinely believe that it can be learned and that with practice it becomes quite instinctive. Fortunately there are some basic tricks we can use to help fine-tune that creative black & white muscle that’s located somewhere in our brain!

While it’s always best to try to shoot specifically for black & white, as opposed to simply hunting through old images and converting them, there is some merit to at least using your old images to experiment with the principles of black & white. A quick and basic black & white conversion which, if you are working with raws in Lightroom, involves nothing more than hitting ‘v’ on your keyboard. It means you can take an instant look at how a typical colour scene translates into tones. You’ll see how close some colours are in tone and how the nature of a scene can completely change when that colour is stripped away. This is especially obvious when the image has been constructed around a strong, vibrant colour such as red or orange. As soon as you take away the colour, the tones may merge and the emphasis of the photograph changes completely.

Spending some time converting old images will alert your mind to the things you need to look out for when you are out in the field shooting images. With black & white, contrast, shape and texture start to play a much more important role. That’s not to say they aren’t relevant in the colour world but in the black & white world they take priority. The shot above is a prime example. I didn't shoot this with colour in mind if I am absolutely honest but the conversion works well because of the tonal range and contrast.

Take a look at the next image – a very colourful scene on the left and its straight (ie un-edited) Photoshop conversion on the right. The combination of red and blue in the colour version is striking but in the mono version those tones are too close together and the image immediately lacks something.

Let's have a look at this concept again with the next couple of photos. Firstly a colourful image. While not a prize-winner, the combination of red and green cars stand out well against the relatively drab building (Cuban Parliament based on the White House in Washington). The shot was panned to give it some movement and there's some contrast too so how will it work in mono?

Ah! Well as you can see the answer is not particularly well! It's mediocre at best as the red and green tones become very similar. Without doubt the colour image is the stronger of the two. I've added a bit of extra contrast into the black & white version by using Curves in Photoshop but it's not an image that is really doing justice to the medium of black & white.

We’re lucky that, thanks to the technology inherent in our modern Digital SLRs, we can actually use ‘instant’ in-camera black & white conversion to help us while out shooting, like a monochrome Polaroid, if you like. This is something we could never do when using black & white film. We can either use Live View to see the scene in mono before we shoot or get an immediate black & white version to appear in the LCD screen after we shoot. Either option is a real bonus but it has its limitations and you need to know how you use the functionality to ensure the best results. Remember we want to capture the scene in colour because this gives us the maximum amount of information in the file for when we convert the image to monochrome in post-processing. The best thing here is to work in raw but change your in-camera Picture Control/Style to Monochrome. You can read more about this specific thing in an older article called Digital Black & White Shooting Options. It's a bit 'hidden' now at the start of the specialist classes but you can link to it here...

Customising the camera setting like this means the preview image that now appears in your LCD is black & white. But if we are working in raw, rather than JPEG, we’re still capturing the file with all its colour detail so that there will be no compromise on quality. If you still want to shoot JPEG (I could interject with 100 reasons to switch to raw shooting here), then you should take your image with the camera in monochrome and then, if you think it’s a scene you will want to develop further, switch back to colour and repeat the shot. Now you can 'develop' the colour image into a stronger black & white in your editing software. Naturally this can only work when you are shooting a subject that is prepared to wait for you while you alter settings, so our advice is to shoot in raw so that you don’t have to keep changing. It’s important to remember however, that the in-camera black & white processing will never be as effective as it will be when you are back at the computer. Therefore, even if you tweak your in-camera monochrome settings (recommended for JPEG shooters) by adding filters, such as red, yellow, or orange, the instant results you are going to look at are only an indicator to what is or isn’t working.

So what does work?
Shape, contrast, texture, and pattern, that's what! Devoid of colour to separate the components of an image, the brain looks for contrast, shape and pattern to make sense of a scene. This is why, when you look at a monochrome image that is relatively featureless and very flat tonally, it seems very dull. But strong shapes and contrasting tones that accentuate the form of the objects within your image become really interesting to the eye. It can also pay to keep the scene simple. Bold but clear shapes, with a tonality that helps to ensure light and shade is balanced, will always work in monochrome.

Here is another Cuban image taken from just a block down from the ones above. This is a much more effective black & white conversion. The colour is okay but I knew as I took it that it would potentially make a much better monochrome photo. Why? Well let's analyse the reason that, as monochrome, this works so much more effectively...

1 Subject choice
The two cars had natural contrast so they are separated tonally.

2 Pattern and shape
Using a wide angle lens (17mm) I was able to make a feature from the road markings. They add a lovely angle that draws you in and this diagonal is improved in black & white because in colour it is simply white on grey tarmac and looks a little lacklustre to me. The black & white version also accentuates the textures of the tarmac.

3 Even more pattern, shape and contrast!
The hotel in the background has it all and holds up the top half of the image, along with that little hint of cloud. I could burn that cloud in so it is stronger but in this case I like its subtlety, as it just helps to frame the top of the image. If you look at the image from the top down it is a combination of shade to light, shade to light, all the way through. So, if the above are some images that I have converted to black & white but simply by chance found they worked, what sort of scenes do I look for with monochrome already lodged in my head. Here are five images I took, knowing that I would convert each one of them into monochrome, along with a few notes on each...

Summer storm
Contrast and texture are the mainstay of this midday mono shot. A polariser has helped to deepen the blues of the sky and added contrast to the stormy clouds. The field of crops is slightly waving in the breeze but they add texture too, another great element that you can add to your monochrome images for added impact.

Cod piece
Photographed on a dockside in the Faroe islands I got some odd looks from the fishermen but it was worth it as I knew this would convert very well to a black & white because of the contrast between the fish and the ice, plus the subtle texture of their scales.

Abandoned huts
This is part of a graveyard of old beach huts on the Norfolk coast. The sky was a flat blue and normally I'd hate these conditions but actually the smoothness of the sky is another contrast with the texture of the grasses and I knew shooting for a mono conversion was the answer. The huts - or sheds if you'd prefer - bring shape and more contrast to the scene.

Baled out
Texture, shape and mood! Minutes after this shot those threatening clouds had blown away. I actually took this for a magazine article on colour popping. I hate colour popping and always knew this was really better as a pure monochrome shot.

Screen grab
I make no apologies for another character shot! But rather than Cuba, India or some other exotic location, this was taken on an industrial estate in Leicester! The guy is a screen printer and I was shooting images for a new website. My brief was to capture the 'old school' artistry and to show how the techniques are very much hands-on. To me, black & white does this much more effectively than colour and as I looked around the place and watched the workers getting on with their craft, I knew I wanted to work in mono for the project. I am pleased to say the owner of the company loved the black & white versions so lots more mono shots like this will adorn their website when it's finished.

One of the things the last set of images all have in common (as well as being mono), is that they have been processed relatively 'boldly'. By which I mean they tend to have strong blacks and clean whites. I am of the opinion that if you are going to use black & white then do it with a bit of a fanfare. I remember getting into a debate (okay an artistic pistols at dawn style argument) with a tutor was was teaching (allegedly) me how to wet print. He liked a more neutral, even black & white than me and was trying to get me tone it down a bit. But I can't abide insipid black & whites so we agreed to disagree. I still hold by that point of view. Of course an image need tones between black & white and my images have that, but I'm not interested in mid-tones as the dominant force. Black & white is a powerful expression for your photography so load that black & white cannon properly. I am pretty sure AndyR will back me up on this one.

Exposure for black & white
When it comes to exposing for black & whites just remember, don’t blow the highlights. If you blow the highlights so there is no detail in parts of the image then no matter what kind of Photoshop magic you attempt to conjure, you’re not getting that information back at the post-processing stage. In truth, just as when you are shooting for a colour image, you want to capture as much of the dynamic range in a scene as it is possible to do. You don’t want to overexpose so detail is totally lost and you don’t want to underexpose to such a degree that you need to recover important detail from the shadows. Ultimately you want to expose so that the histogram shows that you have captured both shadow, mid-tones, and highlights, but neither the shadows or the highlights are so far to the left or right that they are clipped and therefore either pure black or pure white. If you have to make a compromise, err on the side of underexposure. You may be able to pull some detail out of that shadow but if your image has clipped to pure white, there is no detail to recover. Of course, for creative reasons you may want some pure black (as above) or pure white (as below left) in the shot but even so, do your best to expose so that you are capturing the greatest dynamic range that is possible. For this reason, as I've already stated, raw is still your best file option. For more general info on Histograms don't forget about our Histogram article here. Alternatively, here's a brief refresher.

The histogram is nothing more than a graphical display of the pixels in each image. The graph represents the 256 RGB tones, starting at O (black) to 255 (white). When you look at the graph you have the shadow areas to the left, the midtones central and highlights right. The vertical peaks of the graph are the number of pixels. In fact, there is no perfect histogram shape but as we’ve already explained it’s important to try and expose so that neither shadows (left) or highlights (right) push against the side of the histogram rectangle. For general photography, but particularly for black & white, try to expose so you make the most of the right side of the histogram. Images that have a histogram bunched and running off the graph to the left will be underexposed/dark, while those with the same to the right will be overexposed/light. Always use the histogram as a reasonably accurate representation of the brightness tones in your image, but don’t rely on it in isolation. Also use your judgement when looking at the preview of your image and make your exposure decisions based on both indicators.

Filters are also your friend. Faced with a typical high contrast landscape scene your camera is likely to be unable to cope with the entire dynamic range in front of it without help and whatever you try you end up with, either the sky or the land is incorrectly exposed. A Neutral Density graduated filter will help you bring the dynamic range to within a level that your camera can cope with and balance that exposure. The strength of the ND will depend entirely upon the exposure difference between land and sky but typically a 2 (0.6) or 3 (0.9) stop ND grad will be required. It’s important to remember that it is only the graduated form of the ND filter – either soft or hard-edged – that will help here. A straight ND filter that affects the whole scene will slow the exposure down but can do nothing to balance the difference between highlight and shadow areas. Since we now have a lot of articles on here, if you want to learn more about filters specifically then check out the article here.

If you don’t want to use filters but find that you cannot achieve an exposure that isn’t excessively clipping highlights or shadows, then your other option is to shoot three different frames – one for the highlights, one for the midtones, and one for the shadows using your camera’s Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) function. At least this way you know that you are capturing all the important detail, although of course you will then need to blend the images together in post-processing which adds an extra stage to the development of your black & white image. We've written about this several times on FotoBuzz, most recently here.

Highlight alert
Your DSLR is likely to come with a highlight alert system that will help you see if you have clipped highlights before you even study the Histogram. When you look at the image you have taken, if your exposure is too far to the right and therefore highlights are burned out, the offending areas will be identified. For example, on a Canon 5D MK III, overexposed areas blink on and off in black. If your image preview doesn’t do this it is probably because you haven’t enabled it so take a look in your menu and switch it on because it is your first indicator that you have an exposure issue. Looking at the histogram will confirm that your highlights are clipped because the detail in the graph will be pushed to the far right of the histogram rectangle. In this case, dial in a little less (-) exposure and reshoot. If you think this is good way to avoid even having to look at the histogram, think again. Your image could easily be underexposed and therefore too biased to the left and we want to push it as far to the right as possible without it overexposing. Dial in a third or half stop extra exposure (+) and shoot again. You will shift the histogram to the right.

And finally...
We've worked our way through black & white as a concept and how it's best to set up for shooting it in this digital age. None of it is desperately difficult - except the visualising bit! That's really the main thing you have to work on because the exposure bit is, as we've discussed, very similar to how you shoot for colour anyway. But I can't emphasise enough - it is the post-processing that will really lift your black & whites from okay to amazing. Yes, that also is the case with colour images but I think it's even more valid when it comes to talking about black & whites. You can't expect that basic 'grayscale' conversion to do the business - you've got to bring out all that tonal goodness. I've already done several black & white tutorials in Lightroom and Silver Efex that will give you a good basic understanding of mono processing. There is one here and another here. But I haven't previously done one in Photoshop.....until now! So check out the new tutorial in the Workflow classes as it accompanies this article...

Oh and one last little tip off. All this black & white banter might just come in handy soon. Can't say anymore. Touches nose with finger twice and whispers: "You've not seen me, right?"