Photography is rarely perceived as an art, especially color photography: it is so close to reality that we have the impression that it is simply reality.
Black and white erases this colored dimension and naturally becomes different from reality; we therefore more readily admit that it can be artistic.
But in déﬁnitive, only the support changes, the creative intention remains the same.
Black and White Photography
Black and white photography, which is part of the silver age, became very popular with digital because it offers a timeless vision on many subjects but also on the environment.
This monochromatic perception of the world today embodies an art form in its own right in photography.
Colour, on the other hand, can sometimes act as a source of distraction in an image, and not correspond to the subject or the mood of the scene.
Although many photos work equally well in color or black and white, often a monochrome photo looks more captivating than a color image.
From an artistic point of view, a black and white image is often seen as an interpretation, unlike colour.
Removing it can help to refocus the viewer’s attention on important elements in the image, highlighting textures, shapes and revealing details that may have gone unnoticed in colour.
To make beautiful black and white photos, there are no secrets, but a few simple tricks and notions to know.
The purpose of this article is therefore to help you identify the elements to be taken into account when shooting.
Learning to see the world in black and white
The greatest difficulty is to perceive your subject without color when shooting.
Being able to view a monochrome image through your camera’s viewfinder is the key to make your black and white photos look good.
To do this, you need to be an excellent observer, especially of light gaps, shadows, textures, contours, lines, patterns and shapes.
To help you better distinguish the rendering of these elements, I recommend that you use the monochrome setting on your camera.
This tool is very efficient to train your eye to see in black and white as soon as you take a picture.
This is a black and white preview on the rear screen.
This trick is simple but very practical to use.
But be careful, you must absolutely work in raw format, in order to keep the color information recorded at the time of shooting.
This is very important to get a nice black and white image in post-processing.
If you are working in JPEG format, remember that all color information is permanently lost with the monochrome setting.
That is to say that what you see on the screen will also be seen on your JPEG photos, saved on the memory card, without the possibility of recovering the color.
If your camera allows it, I recommend that you photograph in RAW + JPEG.
The importance of contrast and light in black and white photography
As a reminder, contrast is the difference in brightness between the lightest and darkest parts of an image.
Remember that it plays a very important role in black and white photography.
It is the one that allows to create a disturbing or serene atmosphere, according to a soft or hard light but also thanks to shadows, lines, shapes, patterns, textures etc…
A high-contrast black and white photograph gives an impression of strength thanks to the wide range of tones.
Conversely, a low contrast photo aspires to a feeling of softness.
Not to be confused with an image that lacks contrast, because here it is no longer a black and white image, but a grayish looking photo that does not give any particular feeling.
To fully understand what contrast is, you need to know how to differentiate between tonal range and tonal contrast.
The tonal or dynamic range depends on your camera’s sensor, it determines the range of tones between the lightest and darkest areas.
In black and white, it is the shades of grey that are represented in this latitude of exposure.
The height of each peak in the histogram will determine the tonal contrast level of the image.
For example, too much contrast will produce a high peak in the lightest and darkest tones of the tonal range, representing a U-shaped histogram.
That’s why you should check the histogram of your photos regularly to check the tonal range for good contrast.
By photographing directly in black and white with your camera’s monochrome setting, you make sure you can see the contrast in the image.
I also advise you to adjust the intensity of this one in the menu to obtain more character to your images according to the desired rendering.
Remember that when shooting in RAW format, this setting is reversible in your software.
Light is still the essential element to obtain a quality black and white image.
Learn how to analyze it and use it in your shots.
You need to pay attention to the direction of the light and the shadows it provides, but also know how to distinguish between diffuse light and hard light.
For example, a cloudy sky diffuses a soft light, providing low contrast.
Conversely, direct sunlight, which is more difficult to manage, creates strong contrasts the higher it is in the sky.
It’s up to you to determine the type of contrast according to your subject to know in advance what black and white rendering you want to achieve.
The influence of color on black and white rendering
Defined by three components (TSL), colour plays a very important role in the contrast of tones after a photo has been converted to black and white.
The first is the hue, which is simply the name of the colour, such as red, green or blue.
Next comes saturation, which indicates the intensity of the color.
Finally, brightness refers to the amount of white or black that is mixed with color.
These last two components determine the tonal contrast and make sense for black and white conversion.
We are so used to seeing in colour that it is difficult for us to perceive shades of grey.
To understand this, let’s take a very simple example; red and blue are two completely different colours, but when switching to black and white, at equal saturation and brightness, they will have a similar shade of grey.
Amazing, isn’t it? Take a look at the arild_storaas image “before/after” the conversion.
You will have understood it, to vary the tonal contrast, you have to play on saturation and brightness.
Black and white conversion in post-processing
As is often the case in post-processing, there are different techniques, and this is also the case for converting a black and white photo.
The first advice I can give you is to avoid a simple desaturation of your image, because the average of the RGB layers made during the black and white process would make your image grey and flat.
Prefer the use of the layer mixer, you will obtain much richer and more subtle shades of grey.
In addition, you can also adjust the contrast using levels and curves.
It’s all a question of dosage, of course.
All these settings are available in the main image processing software, such as Lightroom or Photoshop to name a few.
To make your black and white photos even more striking, I strongly recommend that you download Silver Efex Pro, which specializes in black and white conversion.
Finally, if you wish to deepen your knowledge of black and white photography, from shooting to post-processing, I recommend this excellent book.
I hope that these few tips will help you succeed with your black and white photos.
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