Welcome to week twelve! This week we will be exploring black and white images. I admit that for many years I basically avoided bw images unless I had to minimize color casts or minimize other issues relating to color. Although I still generally prefer color images, I have really come to appreciate the way bw images bring out textures, shapes, and how black and white contributes to the mood of a photo.
Creating an image in color often relies on the color to tell part or much of the story. The color of light changes throughout the day, and even throughout the year. It’s important to learn to see the color of light as it affects the white balance of your images, and it can be used to shape how viewers feel about a photo; a warm yellow light might make a viewer feel nostalgic, or it might allude to long summer nights. When you strip out that warm tone, and you are left with just shades of gray, does the story still stand? Have you clearly identified your subject in a way that excluding color doesn’t matter? Does stripping away color serve to make your story stronger? These are things to think about when composing bw images.
The big word for bw images is “contrast.” But what does that actually mean? Contrast comes from the range of lights to darks in your image. If you don’t have clearly identifiable highlights and shadows, you run the risk of an image becoming muddy, or all gray. Your image will feel flat and boring. Although you can add some contrast in post processing, you should ideally have a location that is naturally well lit; think of our shadow week as a good base foundation for creating bw images; if you have shadows in your image, you must have light as well; when you convert that shadow and light to bw, you will have a naturally contrasted image. And while it’s true that you might need to process a bit more after removing color to increase contrast, if you start your images with light and shadows your final image will be much stronger.
It is hard at times to strip color out of an image as we are composing; humans are inherently drawn to color, and until you learn to see light/shadow intuitively, parsing one tone from another can be difficult. When I decided to really start working on bw images, I switched my camera to shoot in bw; by shooting a digital image in bw, you can see immediately if you have a good range of tonality through the EVF or live view. And if you are working with an older camera with a cumbersome live view, you can still see the image in camera for playback review and make adjustments as necessary. Shooting digital bw really helped me to see how bw worked within an image.
Many people will tell you that the only way to really understand bw images is to shoot bw film. I now love to shoot bw film, but here’s the thing – the viewfinders of film cameras are still in color! The color is stripped from the film, but not from our eyes. We are still seeing the world in color when using bw film, so I did not find a huge leap in my bw work when starting to shoot bw film; it came from shooting digital and becoming familiar with how different colors render different tones and how to work those together.
If you are using an iPhone, you can shoot natively in black and white open the Camera app, be sure the option bar is showing by clicking the white up arrow at the top of the screen. The arrow will turn yellow, and options will show at the bottom of the screen. Scroll over to the right, and click on the Filters tab, which looks like three interlocking circles. Black and white options will be all the way to the right of the list. Now your camera will show as black and white and you will be able to create bw images natively. I don’t use my phone camera very often, but here are some other tips for creating black and white images on a phone. Keep in mind, however, that if you shoot bw on your phone in the native Camera app, you will not be able to convert it back to color. So proceed with caution at this point; you might want to just to a walk around with your phone set to bw but actually shoot the image in color and then convert to bw when editing.
When shooting digital images I don’t always shoot them natively in black and white, but I do still often do so as a good refresher to see how the tones render. Because I do use light and shadow in my work as standard practice, many of my photos easily convert to bw with little effort other than clicking a preset in LR. Here are things I look for when I decided to purposely shoot black and white:
- Pockets of light, which give a natural highlight/shadow range
- A contrast difference between subject and background; my dog Halley is a great subject to shoot in black and white because she is black and almost all backgrounds end up lighter than she is. However, placing her against a dark gray wall would make for a poor black and white conversion because they would blend together too much
- Textures; macro and close up images often translate well to bw
- A strong light source with good light fall off to create shadows throughout the image
In terms of actually converting your images from color to bw, you will want to be sure to really nail your exposure; I see a lot of images that are relatively successful in color even if the exposure is a bit off because the color tells the story, but when converted they fall flat; often a simple exposure boost is enough to increase the overall contrast. In your editing program, I would encourage you to work the tone section and increase whites, decrease blacks, but make sure neither become clipped in the process. Although I edit in Lightroom, any photo editor should have a similar section. I often decrease highlights and increase shadows for my images to create a wider tonal range, but your editing process should be your own.
Here is a great list of free editing programs for phone shooters if you need an external editor. I find Snapseed to be fairly intuitive and great for beginners, and I also like PicTapGo, which is not on this list. If you are using a big camera, then you should be able to easily convert to bw with your preferred editor.
Have fun this week!
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