We’ve all seen stunning black and white photographs: gorgeous works of art that call our attention to details both subtle and striking which are highlighted in the absence of colour.
The nature of a monochrome photograph can be used to enhance contrasts, define shapes, and create the unique atmosphere available only from a black and white picture. While it might be easy enough for you to simply apply a black and white filter to any old photo in your favourite photo editing program, there is much more that goes into taking a high quality black and white photograph than just removing the colour!
As with any other aspect of photography, there is a bit of an art and science behind taking black and white photos. To help you get your own stunningly gorgeous monochromatic shots, I’ve put together this brief guide which should provide an excellent primer on taking black and white photos.
The greatest asset to any photographer is their eyes: being able to visually assess the shot and know more or less how it will come out when the photo is taken or post-processing is applied.
What this means more than anything is having a familiarity with the equipment, the process, and the results. In this respect, black and white photographs falls into the same paradigm any photography would, but with the slightly more complex caveat that the photographer needs to take the extra step to imagine his subjects in monochrome and choose shots accordingly.
So how do you get the knack for visualising your shots in monochrome?
The first key is to look for contrast. Most black and white photography rely on the extremely powerful contrasting effect of monochrome photographs to bring drama and presence to their images.
To achieve this effect in a powerful and visually intriguing manner, many black and white photographers have a portion of the photo which is almost entirely black, while another which is almost entirely white. These powerful contrasts – wielded properly – give black and white photos their depth and atmosphere.
The Detail is in the Texture
The second most important factor is texture: in the absence of colours, textures will give your photograph the detail and intrigue which draws viewers in. If we were to convert a photo where a large portion of it contained a plain, blue, detail-less sky, we would have a very bland black and white picture. But a photo of the same location with a sky rich with cloud formations could make a far more interesting black and white composition, with the texture of the clouds bringing a whole new dimension to the piece.
An ideal way to bring out the texture and detail in all sorts of objects is having good side-lighting. Whether it is natural lighting or a well-placed flash, the use of side-lighting can bring out all sorts of minor details which might be lost in a colour photo but really add a lot of detail and add textures to your black and white picture.
The Colour of Black and White
Paying attention to the tones of the colours you are photographing is also extremely important. Although we like to refer to it as black and white, monochrome photography actually includes a huge range of greys with all sorts of subtle hues in them. The colours you are photographing will ultimately determine the look of your monochrome photograph, so it is important to consider the way the colours will translate. Even though it is in black and white, it is still important to watch out for colour cast and watch the white balance to ensure the best translation into black and white.
Understanding how colours will translate and which tones of grey will be produced can be something of a process. The easiest way to get a feel for it is to simply go ahead and experiment: convert a bunch of photos into black and white and see what works and what doesn’t.
When it comes to the tone of the end result, you want the main subject of the photo to be a very different shade of grey from the background of your image. Otherwise, the contrasting effects of black and white could actually be detrimental to your composition or desire to focus on a specific detail. Some subjects and shots simply do not work in black and white, while otherwise unworthy colour photographs can sometimes be salvaged with the monochrome treatment.
I tend to shoot in HDR if I know I’m going for a black and white shot. HDR photographs produce some stunning results with black and white photography. HDR makes the dynamic range of the photo come to life, giving monochrome photographs a new life and really making the shapes and textures of the photo “pop” out of the composition.
The Post-Processing Party
Inherently black and white photographs rely on some post-processing to get them looking the way they do, and this is a very important step. But before you ever get to post-processing, you can try to make sure the shot you are taking is ideally suited for the post-processing to get the most from the image. I like to shoot in RAW mode to make sure my photographs have the least amount of compression possible and are as suited for the editing process as can be.
When it comes to actual post-processing software, there are many options on the market which specifically work to convert photos to black and white, and many of them do an excellent job of it.
However, any standard image editor like Photoshop is more than adequately prepared to convert photos. While I won’t go into detail on how to get your software to make things black and white, the most important tool in any image editor for black and white photographs is the Hue, Saturation and Lightness (HSL) tool. After converting your image to black and white, the HSL tool allows you to fine tune the expression of the different tones and hues of your image. This step is essential and every professional high-quality black and white photo has almost certainly been carefully refined with a careful tweaking of HSL levels.
Hopefully this guide has given you a good platform from which to launch your black and white photography expeditions! Always experiment to get the best results and never relax your curiosity!