I guarantee you there is a scene with some black & white potential just a few feet from where you are sitting right now, writes Andrew James. In fact, all the images I am going to use as examples in this article were shot in my garden or garden shed.
Please note there is an accompanying Lightroom tutorial at the base of this article.
The key to consistently successful black & white images is not simply taking a shot and then afterwards thinking ‘ooh that might be good in mono’ (although this can work sometimes too). Instead, it’s going out and looking for things that will work specifically in black & white better than they might do in colour. One of the things I know for certain is that often it’s the most mundane and everyday things that make the best black & white photos. This is because monochrome has a way of taking something ordinary and turning it into something arty. This doesn’t mean that you can convert any old colour image into mono and have an instant winner. Far from it. You’ve got to work hard with your eye – and the brain that links to it – to imagine how those colourful things you’re looking at can be made much more interesting in black & white.
If your black & white ‘eye’ is relatively untrained, you can get help from your digital SLR or mirrorless camera. First of all, make sure you are shooting raw files. We want all the data that a raw file captures because processing the file has equal importance here. There might be occasions when you take a shot, do a basic mono conversion and think ‘job done’. But I think this is a rarity. More often than not, to get the best from your finished black & white, you’re going to have to work it a bit in post-processing, just as those of us ‘old’ enough to have been around in the film days, did in the darkroom. But we’ll come back to this in the accompanying video.
So you are shooting raw files, right? Good. Now go into your camera’s menu and look for where you can change the Picture Style. Picture Style is Canon-speak, Nikon call this Picture Setting, Fuji call it Film Simulation and so on. Find out what your is called and go and change it to Monochrome/Black & White, exactly as I am showing you on the image below on my Canon DSLR.
With the camera setting to a black & white Picture Style, when you view the LCD screen if you are using Live View and if you take a picture then review it on the rear screen, you will see it in mono. Those of you with Electronic Viewfinders (EVF) on your mirrorless cameras will also be able to see it through the viewfinder.
Remember, what you are looking at isn’t your final black & white image at all, it’s only a monochrome rendition that your camera’s in-built computer has generated for you. But it’s a good starting point. With this setting, the colour information has been stripped out and you can look at how the scene appears in mono. There’s nothing wrong with ‘colour’ of course, but it’s a distraction. We want to look closely at the shape and form of the scene without colour causing any confusion!
So what are we looking at? Mainly we are looking at tonal relationships and how they complement or contrast within the frame. There are other elements to consider but let’s just think about tone first. People have devoted chapters to writing in-depth waffle about tonal black & white relationships. I can’t be bothered with all that, so let’s look at it on a more superficial, practical (and ultimately more useful) way.
The mono tonal range is simply a brightness value from white to black. Two areas within the frame that might be different colours can potentially be more or less the same tone and this can make a big difference to whether your black & white image works or not. What you want are tonal differences that accentuate the shapes, textures and patterns. It’s this that gives your photo the contrast it requires to make what you’re photographing interesting.
When you look at the scene you are photographing, this is what you need to be thinking. How are the colours I’m seeing working as only tones? Is there enough difference between them for the viewer to make sense of what they’re seeing? To some extent, we can play around a bit with these tones in post-processing. In old money terms we call this Dodging and Burning but essentially this means lightening and darkening different areas. We might not need to do much, but a little bit of contrast control within selected areas can make a big difference.
If you look at the monochrome image showing on the back of the camera above, this is how it’s helping to interpret the scene as black & white. I can see at a glance the areas of light and shade, texture and pattern and decide whether, with a little extra processing later, it’s going to work successfully as a mono image. Below you can view the colour image and a straight black & white greyscale conversion side-by-side.
Interpreting the scene
For this all to work we need to be able to interpret the scene we are now viewing in grayscale…
1 The whole scene is window-lit and this small area of lighter tone in the background contrasts well with darker toned objects. In fact, the left corner could be brighter still to add atmosphere and more contrast.
2 There are some interesting textures in this garden twine. The lighter tone of the top and left side means it separates well from the rest of the objects.
3 This out-of-focus corner has enough light and shade to show interest and the two pots below are ‘just’ about separated tonally so we can see their shapes – but we might need to enhance this by separating them further in post-processing.
4 The soft light on this metal watering can rose is great because it gives us a beautiful circular pattern that contrasts really well with the objects behind.
5 The area below the rusty shelf isn’t really that interesting so we could darken this area to bring it tonally inline with the darker bottom-right corner. This will help to frame the still-life, act as a base to the composition, and act as a tonal counterbalance to the lighter area across the top of the frame.
You don’t need to be quite as detailed and prescriptive as our 1 to 5 list suggests. With practise and experience you can do this with a quick glance either at the mono image showing on the camera screen or even just looking at the scene itself. If you shoot a lot of black & white, you’ll develop a good feel for how colours convert to grey tones. How a scene is lit will also always make a huge difference. The found still-life was taken in soft window lighting. Stronger window light would have made a difference to the scene and would probably have forced a change in the composition.
How much post-processing you need to do will change from one shot to another. Some images are more ‘naturally’ black & white in their tonality, while others need more manipulation to help the tonal range work effectively in mono. Remember, what’s always important is that you recognise the potential of a scene, running a quick checklist in your mind of how the shapes within the frame are working when stripped of colour.
Go out now and look around the house or the garden. Keep your eye open when you are on your next walk. Have the camera on raw but set to Black & White Picture Style so you can get a quick ‘polaroid’ to help your thinking. Look at everyday objects and scenes and think – ‘how could black & white bring out the best in them?’
Lastly, watch my quick and simple video using Lightroom to create the finished image of my garden shed still-life.