In the age of ubiquitous high-resolution color screens, it seems hard to remember that photography came into being without color. The medium earned its place in the worlds of journalism, popular culture and fine art long before Kodak introduced color film. But that does not relegate black and white photography to the basement. The genre remains powerful, present and widely practiced today, with film and digital cameras.
Digital photography makes monochrome (aka black and white) photography simple and non-destructive. Post-processing software offers instant color-to-monochrome conversion and the adjustment tools to give a photo a native black-and-white look. While you can leave your camera in color mode to shoot in monochrome, you’ll need to change the way your eye records a scene.
Here’s a guide to black and white photography, from the photographer’s eye to post-processing.
Why photograph in black and white?
Some seek the classic, “timeless” look inherent in monochrome photos, as portrayed by Sebastião Salgado, Henri Cartier-Bresson or Ansel Adams, whose iconic Tetons image is pictured above. Others want to draw viewers’ attention to things like contrast, texture, and shape. There are many reasons to seek monochrome images today, but the genre remains so established in photography – it represents the heart, the foundation of photography – that no excuse is needed to produce black and white photos. White.
This was not the case when color photography arrived. Color film had to prove itself against its monochrome predecessor, which it clearly did. Both sides represented photography on their own terms: color photos show viewers what something looked like, while black and white shows how it felt.
That’s not to say color photos lack feel. In fact, colors convey so much emotion, with each color representing various emotions for different cultures, that color can sometimes overwhelm the message a photographer is trying to convey. When the color starts to distract from the intent of the photograph, it’s best left in shades of gray.
What to Look for in a Black and White Scene
The trained monochrome eye can estimate the rendering of certain hues and luminances in black and white. A beginner can simply look for contrast, the juxtaposition of blacks and whites in a scene. Monochrome photography relies on contrast for visual strength. The human eye is hardwired to pick up contrast, perhaps helping our primal ancestors discern fruit among a canopy of leaves. This partly explains our continued appreciation for black and white images.
Other elements feature prominently in the monochrome. Texture can appear three-dimensional when something like a strip of weathered wood shows its intricacies in a range of tones from black to a myriad of grays to white. Form also finds definite expression in monochrome, as lines and shapes gain prominence through contrast and the absence of distracting color.
Extreme monochrome photos produce images with high contrast but very dark (low key) or bright (high key). Such a range of permissible tones (contrast) also makes black and white well suited to difficult lighting conditions such as low light and “midday” light (between the golden hours).
While sunrises and sunsets don’t find their full expression in black and white, most scenes and subjects work well without color, and some excel in monochrome. Extensive experimentation will teach you to see in black and white.
Camera settings for black and white shooting
As a beginner, seeing monochrome in a world full of color may seem difficult. Many current cameras assist in this process with electronic viewfinders and a black-and-white mode. This allows the photographer to see the image in monochrome before the shutter is released. It can also be useful to only search for monochrome shots on a given shot, as if all you had was a camera loaded with black and white film.
With enough practice, black and white mode won’t even be necessary and your eye will see potential monochrome shots even when you don’t have a camera in hand. The monochrome photographer’s eye sees beyond color, recognizing the interplay between dark and light in a subject or scene.
The in-camera black and white mode can make a permanent difference in your photos if you take jpegs, which will remain black and white. To retain the ability to create a color or monochrome image, it is best to shoot RAW images. This not only preserves a color version, but also allows full manipulation of color to black and white conversion, as shown below.
The exposure of monochrome images differs slightly from the color protocol. Where color shots require fairly precise exposure, black and white shots allow for extremes, including clipping, so underexposure works well here. Blown-out highlights can’t be recovered, but shadows can be, so prioritize highlight exposure and work on shadows in post-processing.
Removable lens filters have long added artistic nuances to black and white photography. Yellow, orange, red, green or even blue filters on a lens will alter, sometimes dramatically, a monochrome image. This can help increase contrast, darken skies, or minimize certain hues. The post-processing software offers an assortment of filters for the less keen monochrome photographer.
Conversion and editing in black and white
Converting from color to monochrome requires one click in post-processing: black and white. Once converted to gray, photo editing follows a similar flow as color. Each photographer evolves a workflow for monochrome images, with some choosing to edit tones and colors before going black and white, others preferring to make these adjustments from a monochrome base. Any.
Any photographer converting a color RAW file to monochrome should consider creating a duplicate file for the conversion, in order to retain a color copy. Once converted, the next step is to evaluate the photo: determine what needs improvement and how to achieve it. The tone sliders (blacks, midtones, whites, exposure) adjust the light as they do in a color photo.
The color channels contained in the RAW file have an additional influence on the appearance of the image. Color filters work the same way. Adding or subtracting blue in a monochrome photo, for example, can turn any object containing blue to a lighter gray or a much darker gray. It can darken the sky as well as a wooded hill or body of water.
White balance works differently in black and white. While a photograph no longer needs white balance to correct colors, white balance sliders affect colors under conversion, just like color channels. This adds another level of complexity and control to the monochrome image editing process.
Further tweaks exist in the many additional filters offered by software vendors today. Some offer the look of a specific type of film, and others, like Silver Efex, take care of black and white conversion while offering various editing controls.
When working in black and white, it is often helpful to lighten or darken certain areas of a photograph. Monochrome film photographers have always relied on the techniques of dodging (brightening) and burning (darkening) an image in the darkroom. Post-processing software offers these same tools in digital format, and a digital black-and-white photographer should become familiar with their use.
You don’t need to film or own a specialized monochrome camera to take great monochrome photos. So daunting at first, black-and-white photography eventually becomes second nature, partly because of its roots in photography, partly because our eyes instinctively appreciate it, and also because it always has the looks cool.
No magic is required to capture or edit monochrome images. Practice and familiarity will make the conversion process as simple, if not easier, than the editing process required for color photos. With more exposure margin, even the shooting process becomes more forgiving. In fact, with a folder of color RAW images waiting on a computer or hard drive, your journey into black-and-white photography can begin immediately. Find a color photo with good contrast, convert it to black and white, play with a few sliders and you’re already on your way.
Picture credits: The header photo is The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) by Ansel Adams