Black & White Photography

Why Black & White?

One of the drawbacks of colour is that it tends to overpower other aspects in the frame – so “colour” is the dominating influence in the image. When you shoot in black and white, you rely on tones, story & composition to convey your message to the viewer and this in-turn can translate into a very emotional photograph.

Images in black and white look different - They can be successfully leveraged by an experienced photographer to showcase moods, emotions and stories in a manner that is far beyond the reach of colour.Shooting Black & White

Our approach to shooting black & white today is very different from some years ago when you had to make a choice at the store: do I buy colour film or black & white film? And you were then stuck with that option for 24/36 exposures. You couldn’t change your mind depending on the scene in front of you.

In this era of digital photography we have the flexibility of deciding on b&w and colour very easily and photographers tend to make this choice (of colour or monochrome) later at the post processing stage rather than while shooting the image. While the purist in me might cringe at this approach, it has more or less become the norm for most of the photographers I meet today.

I feel that every serious photographer should think about adding some good monochrome images to his portfolio, irrespective of the genre. Contrary to what most people think, it’s not just street photography & portraits which look good in black & white. Birds, nature & wildlife too can look fabulous in monochrome if shot in the right manner.

I remember writing some time ago that the day they make a good digital camera that shoots only black and white, I’m going to buy it. Leica did manage something similar when they made the Leica M MONOCHROM however; they also priced it so high that I’d most probably have to sell my house to buy it. Well okay, maybe not the house but the cars would surely have to go!

Creating Black & White images

There are 2 popular ways of getting a black & white image today with a modern DSLR.

1) Almost all cameras have a black and white jpeg mode as one of the options in the menu. Choosing this option will give you a monochrome image that in most cases would look dull, flat and boring- it just doesn’t look the same as something shot on T- Max 400 or Tri-x or Iford Delta 400.

You can however amend custom settings and picture controls in your camera to make these “sooc” (straight out of the camera) black and white jpeg photos look much better than the standard option. If you do not know how to work with picture controls or tonal curves and still want to shoot black & white in jpeg mode – increase the contrast in your in camera settings a bit as this will make the sooc images look better in most cases. Some cameras also allow you to emulate certain black and white films via custom picture controls. There also is another use of this mode and I’ll touch upon this later during the write-up.

2) The other & and more popular option for a regular DSLR user is to shoot in Raw and convert the photo to black and white during post processing.

Almost all mainstream software used for post processing allows you to convert a colour image into black and white. This b&w conversion can be done in various ways in photoshop, lightroom etc etc.

My suggestion would be to refrain from simply reducing saturation to zero or going with a standard “convert to grayscale” option. Use an option that allows you to work with contrast & colour sliders so you can tweak tones in the image while doing the conversion. This is very important if you need an image that has “impact”.

Usage of “dodge & burn” too has traditionally been considered acceptable.

When we shot black and white film in the good old days, we had colour filters with 5 basic colours (red, orange, yellow, green, and blue). These filters were put in front of the lens and they would allow light of their own colour to come through and block all the others.

Example: a red filter in front of the lens will allow red light through so the sky which is blue will turn really dark. That is how the masters shot black and white images – You needn’t use these filters in front of your lens today but you can use software equivalents which will allow you to emulate a similar effect and amend contrast and brightness in various sections of the image.

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Part II of this series is Shooting Black & White like a Pro - TIps & Pointers

You can click here to go to part II

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