It’s almost a cliché to say it but black & white is special. I still recall the very first time I developed a black & white print in my makeshift home darkroom, writes Andrew James.
When it actually worked and I saw the face of the person whose portrait I had taken beginning to appear beneath the developer I was amazed. Mind you, I wasted a lot of paper and time trying to get those prints just right. Thankfully, these days it’s a lot easier to get a good result and it doesn’t involve turning the spare bedroom into a blackout zone.
Why is black & white special?
It’s timeless and people love how a classic black & white image looks. Mono evokes the emotion or feeling of a scene better by stripping out distracting colour. It instantly feels more ‘arty’ because this isn’t how we see the world. We see it in colour so a black & white image is a dramatic manipulation of the real world that makes the viewer look at the subject differently.
As most of us shoot digitally these days, when we want to create a black & white image we have a number of different options at our fingertips. There are pros and cons for each option that I’ll outline but ultimately which approach you choose is down to the time you want to spend and, to some extent, the equipment you use.
Is mono still relevant?
Absolutely! Black & white is still very relevant today. One of the key things about black & white is that it works at some point across almost every photographic subject and genre. From bold abstracts based on pattern to sumptuous moody wildlife images, monochrome really can give your images a different feel. These days, of course, most of us shoot in colour and post-process the original Raw file in the editing software of our choice.
Whatever you use, the art of seeing an image’s monochrome potential is the most critical aspect in the whole process. I like drama and punchy impact in my black & whites so I’ve always got an eye on conditions to see whether there is an opportunity to take a photo that I can process as a black & white image.
Option 1 – Colour JPEG
Pros: It’s simple and you can capture plenty of information you need to get plenty of tonal range when you convert to mono.
Cons: You can’t view the image you are shooting in monochrome on the LCD (see tip below) and a JPEG is always less flexible when it comes to processing as it contains less information that a raw file.
By deciding to shoot in colour JPEG you are signing up to some post-production down the line but you are making sure you have a good tonal range to play with when you convert. You will also always have the original image as a colour file, just in case it doesn’t work out in black & white. But JPEG isn’t as flexible as Raw – especially if you want to ‘rescue’ a dodgy exposure or a white balance mishap – but there is no reason (other than the fact you won’t get a black & white preview of the image on the LCD) that you can’t work this way if you haven’t stepped up to shooting and processing raw files.
Option 2 – Monochrome JPEG
Pros: Gives you an instant black & white image you can print without needing to do anything and you can see your image in monochrome on the LCD at the time of shooting too.
Cons: To get an effective black & white image you’ll need to experiment with different in-camera filters. You also have less tonal control if you want to develop your image further in software and you don’t have the option of switching back to colour.
If you want to capture black & white images directly in your camera, avoiding all post-processing hassles, and see an image in black & white as a reference at the time of shooting, then switch your camera to its black & white JPEG setting. This option is available in most modern digital cameras.
Each manufacturer calls their JPEG setting something different. I shoot with Canon and so on my camera it’s called Picture Style but Nikon refer to their mode as Picture Control. Other manufacturers have their own names too, such as Creative Style (Sony), Custom Image (Pentax), Picture Mode (Olympus), and Film Simulation (Fujifilm). Essentially they are all the same thing, allowing you to switch your JPEG from capturing the image in colour to capturing it as a black & white.
Depending on the sophistication of your camera, the menu will allow you to tweak the monochrome setting further still by adding a filter. To get the maximum from a monochrome JPEG you’ll need to do this. For example, I can go into the Monochrome setting on my Canon, tweak Contrast and Sharpness and add a filter – Yellow, Orange, Red or Green. Each filter will give a slightly different look to the final image.
On the occasions I shoot this way I usually use the Orange Filter just to darken blue skies a little or, if I’m feeling particularly dramatic then I’ll use the Red Filter as this affect has even more impact in the right conditions. If your camera allows you to customise the monochrome setting (and it probably does), I’d suggest you experiment to see what appeals to your eye.
On the whole in-camera monochrome gives an instant and okay result so if you don’t want to spend extra time on the computer converting and processing images then it’s an option worth considering but you’ll get better results from a raw file and manipulation.
Option 3 – Shooting raw
Pros: This gives you the most amount of information and greatest tonal range possible ready for you to process in your software. Plus, if you set the JPEG Picture Style to monochrome you view a mono preview of your image on the LCD when you take each shot, even though you are capturing a colour raw file.
Cons: It requires the most amount of post-capture work because you need raw conversion software such as Lightroom or Camera Raw.
If you can shoot in Raw, this will give you the greatest control over the whole creative process, from the moment you press the shutter to the point you print the image. It adds extra time at the computer as you tweak and perfect your black & white image – but this is all part of the fun. It’s simply the modern equivalent of sloshing a print around in developer!
When you work in Raw there is a little trick you can do to help you see in black & white. With the camera set to Raw go into Picture Style (or your camera’s equivalent), and simply set JPEG shooting to monochrome.
When you take a photo you’ll review it on the LCD screen as a black & white. This gives you an instant and very useful reference to how the colour scene in front of you translates to monochrome tones. When you get home and save your Raw files, they will instantly revert to being an untouched full colour digital ‘negative’ – giving you the maximum amount of data and tonal range to play with.
When it comes to converting your images into black & white from RAW, everyone has their own favourite way of doing it. Whatever you do, don’t just do a Grayscale change in Photoshop or take the saturation slider all the way to the left in Lightroom, as this will give you really flat results.
Make sure the option you choose has good control of individual channels. Both Photoshop and Lightroom have excellent Black & white options and controls that will allow you to make precise tweaks and changes But there are Plug-ins, such as Silver Efex Pro 2, that are designed specifically for the task that you may want to play around with if you want to develop your Black & White processing further still.
6 things to remember about mono
1 Set your camera to record Raw files but change your Picture Style to monochrome so when the image appears in the LCD it will be black & white and give you a useful preview of how your scene will look stripped of colour.
2 Don’t rely on finding good black & white images simply by trawling through your old images. Go out shooting with
3 Look for scenes with good contrast because when a scene is stripped of colour it is the differentiation in tone between one area and the next that will give your mono image its structure.
4 Don’t be afraid to tackle everyday subjects in black & white because even the most mundane object can be given an arty monochrome look.
5 Texture and shape are really important components of black & white images so always keep an eye out for simple images that feature these two ingredients.
6 If you want a good result with your black & white raw conversions then take time with your processing and play with the individual colour channels to get the best tonal effects possible.