"With black and white photography I have a feeling that I am getting closer to the truth of the moment" Kadir van Lohuizen
"It's really a question of feeling, I feel much freer when I am Photographing in Black and White" Jon Lowenstein
Why would one want to Photograph in Black and White ?
These great artist have expressed their opinion, but what's yours? For them they find it easier to concentrate on things like contrast, composition, form, and the interplay of light and shadow when shooting in Black and White.
Color then can easily be a distraction!
One can easily be distracted by color, thus ignoring the subject, the light, the feeling of the photo. Black and White photography is truly a choice that impacts what you shoot.
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So, How Do I take Black and White Photos?
If you are inspired by the work of famous artists such as Ansel Adams, James Nachtwey or the many others which have mastered this form of Photography, you will immediately realise that a lot of the choices come about in the contrast of the two colors.
If you just don't know where to start this guide will give you some advice on what directions are available.
I am by no means a guru in this field, but my recent work in Black and White Photography has given me some insight and lessons which I think will be very useful!
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Learning to see the World in Black and White
Our eye is use to seeing in color which can explain the difficulty when first coming to grips with this type of Photography.
For example a Photograph of a tulip, it's loud red, the contrast of primary colors - this is a wonderful color photo and shooting this in Black and White will take away for it's beauty rendering the image "tired" and almost soul-less.
Black and White Photography is not absence of color, it is the abundance of Forms, Light and the interplay and contrast of shadow.
Mastering this very difficult medium takes time and practice so start shooting!
Carefully choose your subject
Taking Photographs is telling a story and a quick history of the word shows us it's Latin roots: Writing with light. Here are some pointers on Black and White Photography that you can readily apply to your work:
- Texture : Often magnified by the use of Black and White, Color tends to soften and dull texture. Think of wood, A stone, leaves in the wind, the wrinkles on skin, goose bumps! These are extremely intensified by the use of Black and White.
- Form : Nature is a great fan of symmetry. Can you picture a dense patch of pines, or a long rolling field of barley? Now try to imagine how different they would look without color, how emphasized their order would be!
- Motif: Again the repetition of motif is more readily identified by the viewer as pattern emerges with more ease without color.
- Lines: Especially in Architecture. The picture of a street will be more stark and visceral in Black and White. Look at the detail of the stone, the smooth face of the concrete and the incredible interplay between pure light which almost seems to shadow a figure out from itself.
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Using light and contrast to tell a stroy
Black and white uses less colors. This means that the natural separation between things will be made by nuances of the same color as opposed to the stark separation of different color objects which the eye and mind are use to. The wise Photographer knows then that the interplay between dark and light tones : Contrast, makes a Black and White photo.
Strong and decisive lighting and shadows suddenly become indispensable tools in your kit - no matter what Photographic Lens you use.
A strong light from the side or from directly in front of you will go a long ways to creating wonderful shadows as it reinforces contrast and focalises textures.
The technique of shooting against daylight, which is a term for when the camera is pointed directly at a source of light becomes a close ally in Black and White photography.
Don't rush! Waiting for the right light is a prerequisite of great Photography, it will also allow plenty of time to move your subject and to explore the space so that you can capture exactly what you have in mind!
Shooting on Overcast days
Since clouds have a vicious tendency towards diminishing contrast one might think that shooting Black and White on overcast days is a very bad idea. It also means you've been reading , but here comes the exception to the rule!
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As you might have seen from the above picture, it is actually the ideal time to take Black and White photos!
The intensity of this photo comes from the already present contrast which is only intensified by the use of Black and White. A stormy day is a perfect time to take pictures! You will discover very fine and once unseen details!
Black and White photos taken after a rainy day will look stunning as the wet or damp ground will accentuate the suns reflection and bring an added depth and saturation to your photographs.
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Shooting in RAW format
I don't know whether your Photo Course has already covered this, but shooting in a RAW format is often a very good idea! In Art Photography this is also highly recommended, in Black in White Photography however, it's a must !
RAW is a file format that captures all of the image data (information) recorded by the sensor when you take a photo. Why is this important? It's not, it's vital! Without it you have very little latitude when re-working or cleaning up your photos in post.
Shooting in RAW will decrease the possibility of banding, so allowing you a higher sharpness in the nuance of your color.
In order to get a better sense of how to convert an image to Black and White, let's do a quick brush up on the technical makeup of a photograph. A digital photograph is made up of pixels, the amount varying with its size, and each pixel has a value dependant on its' RGB, basically, how much Red, Green and Blue are in it. Thus every pixel in a byte image has a value between 0 (Black) and 255 (White) thus a 255 ; 0 ; 0 value corresponds to a solid Red.
What is a Channel Layer Mixer ?
If you are using a professional editing software such as Photoshop CC, Lightroom or Aperture, a simple click on the desaturate button will do all of the work. This is of course a general feature .
Desaturating an image in this way will usually render it gray and flat, as the program will take an average RGB (Red, Green, Blue) value and apply it. The use of the Channel Mixer will allow you to get more character from gray!
Begin by Breaking the Image down into three different layers- you guessed it- Reg, Green, Blue. From there start to play with the values, exploring and finding the best meaning for each!
The color wheel and color levels will help you play with contrast, a key factor in Black and White Photography, as we've previously discussed.
It's all about nuance : a strong contrast will generate a hard or defined image where as a soft contrast will creating a more appeasing and rounded photo generally evoking a softer feel.
A great program which will give you that extra edge in your Black and White Photography is Silver Efex Pro.
Shooting straight into a Black and White Format
Retouching photographs, especially with the advent of Digital Photography, has become a must for every photographer, and this applies even, and maybe especially, when you shoot in Black and White.
Your camera will more than likely have a Black and White settings, but even so, this does beg the question of why one would want to use this as a native format when you can edit your photographs in post production.
As a start, it is useful foremost to get a sense of the immediate possibilities of Black and White photography. By using the monochrome setting in your camera you will begin to immediately get a sense of this very different and interesting dimension thus starting to look at your photos differently!
Beginning to shoot in this setting will also give you insight into how to take the perfect photograph. Remember that more time spent behind the viewfinder is less time spent in Post - a no brainer if you enjoy photographing more than editing!
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We already spoke briefly about some of the benefits of shooting in RAW, how this is a great first step to remember!
When shooting in a manual setting, you will have the ability to select the Monochrome feature. This simple setting often has the downside of being generalized because of its standard parameters. Let's look at how to make it a bit more personal:
- Start playing and experimenting with the Contrast options
- When talking about Changing Exposure setting try to see how under and over exposing a picture changes it completely!
Have you thought about Analog Photography - shooting on film? The wide debate between Digital and Analog might have already peaked your interest, and with the low price of old cameras and the availability of cheap film stock you might want to take a look for yourself!
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Settings on your Camera
Most DSLR (Digital single-lens reflex) cameras give you the option to change quickly between Color and Black and White/Monochrome in their settings menu. More advanced DSLR's which are usually worth the price for professionals, will also give you the ability to choose specific Color settings so that the sensor is at an ideal setting for when you go to Black and White in post.
Shooting directly into a Black and White format, especially if you are still shooting in JPEG format (Which we are not because we read the part about RAW :-) might not be the best option as you are essentially using the camera's limited sensor and computing powers on the spot as opposed to the more efficient and advanced one's in your computer.
Also important to note is the fact that you cannot go from Black and White to Color once you have chosen that parameter.
The Camera, even the most expensive one's, just can't compete with an even average computer. Once you have chosen to shoot directly into Black and White you will be very limited in your post work!
It's seems that shooting in color and then treating it in post is generally smarter, unless you know exactly what you want on the spot!
Once again filming in RAW takes the gauntlet as the amount of information the sensor and image keep is : everything! This will allow you to take your time and have many more options when revisiting and reworking your photographs at home!
If your intention is to take Black and White photos and to immediately see the result don't worry, change that setting to B & W! Using an application such as Capture NX2 for example will allow you to further play with color once imported but again to note that you can only play with what you have captured!
If you use an Adobe product, such as Lightroom, Photoshop or Camera Raw, the settings which you have selected when shooting will not be imported as every camera manufacturer stores the camera settings differently in their proprietary raw file format. Adobe products do not have this capacity and just one look at the range of native formats out there are enough to understand why! So I guess this is yet another perk of the RAW Photographer!
Here is my camera set-up: (Feel free of course to adapt this to yours)
- Image quality/ Format: RAW (As you might have guessed!)
- Bit depth: 14 bits (of course if possible) Bit depth refers to the color information stored in an image
- ISO sensitivity: Lowest ISO setting possible (base ISO)
- White Balance : Auto
In the same way as for color photos, you want to take RAW photos with the highest possible resolution in order to get the most data for color filters, with minimal distortion.
Regarding the white balance, I personally set mine to "Auto" because the Black and White settings are not imported when shooting in RAW.
The only thing you need to make sure is that your white balance is corrected after importing your photos into Lightroom / Photoshop - or you will have problems with the colors during the conversion process. In this Link- you can get a better sense of this problem and how to fix it!
Some Inspiration and Ideas for Black and White Photography
Learning how to shoot in this color range is all about Practice! Here are some ideas to get you started in the right direction!
Architecture, for example, is extremely well suited for this type of Photography. Form, textures, patterns - the medium brings out the contrast and the repetition. Depending on your source and use of light, you will be able to play with stark and cutting contrast when shooting in Black and White!
The portrait photo, one of the most interesting choices in the Photographer's arsenal, can also be worked in black and white. Without color, the focus is naturally on the eyes and face. Similarly, black and white is more flattering for wrinkles.
The landscape photo can be done in black and white, provided you have a lighting and a brightness that lend themselves to it. The lines and shapes will stand out as for the architectural photos.
Close-ups and detail and texture photos are also ideal for black and white.
Feel free to check out these professional photographers' blogs for ideas!
In Closing :
- A Professional Photographer will have many different reasons for why he or she is shooting in Black and White. The choice of Color should be made before one starts shooting.
- The subject, the Light and the Contrast are the three basic foundations of a Black and White Photograph.
- When Shooting in a RAW format, there is no limit to the possibilities one has before them in post, such as playing with contrast and shadows in order to get that photo you've had in your head!
- It is also possible to create incredible black and white photographs by playing with the various shutter speeds on your Analog Camera.
- Practice, as always, remains the best coach! So go out there and capture something amazing!
The last thing I will add is that there really is not a magic formula for creating incredible Black and White Photographs. Every single Image is different.
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