Black and White photographs have a magical quality to them. I find them pleasing to look at. So, what exactly makes them look good? A philosophical question – Would Ansel Adams have used Black and White film for his landscapes if good quality color film would have been available since the beginning? How about Henri Cartier Bresson using color films on his Leica? Paul Simon sang about how Kodachrome gives us those nice bright colors (and also further in the song- Everything looks worse in Black and White).
We see the world in color. The color photographs obviously look closer to reality but as an art medium somehow our brain interprets Black and White images in a different way. It has to do with the conditioning of our brains too. Since our school days or whenever we see the photographs of the great masters, a lot of them are in Black and White. The Black and White removes the effects of colors and so there are no color theories in action to act on our subconscious. Everything assumes the same color (from white through various shades of grey to extreme black).
Black and White is beautiful. Someone has rightly said that if there is nothing specific that the colors are contributing to the photograph then it may well have been in Black and White. Some photographers use Black and White to remove the distractions of color. Once the color is removed, the light becomes important. Shooting with Black and Mind in mind, forces photographers to see things differently. It improves visualization skills. Compositions become stronger. Photographers who get used to perceiving things in monochrome develop the skills easily to identify shapes, textures, relationship between various elements of the picture and use of negative spaces.
(Towers – Nikon Df with Zeiss 135mm, f/5.6, 1/500 sec, ISO 100 with a deep red filter in front of the lens. The deep red filter darkened the sky uniformly.)
In the digital world, almost all the Black and White photographs are created after post-processing. Image editing programs are now the new darkrooms. Photographers capture the images using the sensors which are capable of colors and then these are converted to Black and Whites. Dedicated Black and White digital cameras exist but are expensive and are also difficult to find. I use regular ‘color’ sensor cameras for all my Black and White images but use post-processing to convert them.
I feel that the creation of an image starts from the stage of visualization. Once I see an image, I see the interplay of light and shade, colors and various components. I move on to composition next. Usually before pressing the shutter release button, I know if the image is going to be a Black and White or not. I use indicators to remind me about the images when I sit down for post-processing. Sometimes I even write in a notebook which I carry in my camera bag (Inside my camera bag). I have set custom image settings and use Black and White processing as one. The images I click are saved as raw, with all the color information intact but when I view them on the camera preview screen, they appear monochrome. Even on opening these files on some of the supported image editing programs, I am presented with a Black and White image. In cameras that permit changing the file name extension with every profile, I use letters like TRX (from Tri-X, a favorite Black and White film among old photographers). All these help me quickly post-process the files to get the Black and White image that I had in mind, when I pressed the shutter release button.
All these things work but the photograph rarely turns out the kind I had visualized. The conversion used by camera or programs is very simple and just coverts each and every pixel to gray scale equally. Not at all my kind of images.
When I used film cameras, I quite frequently used colored filters (Nostalgic – Missing Film Cameras!). The color filters had two things to be considered. First was the color itself and second was the intensity of the color. The color filters permitted the colors they were off to pass through and absorbed/reflected the colors falling on the opposite side of the color circle. A red filter lets in red light but prevents blue light from passing. A red filter when used in front of a blue sky, make the sky really dark. If there are any clouds or any white-grey buildings in the composition, they stand out. In fact, I recommend using color filters for darkening sky (yellow, orange or red) rather than polarizers while using Black and White film or dedicated Black and White cameras. More about polarizers – (Polarizing Filters). The intensity or the darkness of the color filter governed how effective the filter was in cutting the opposite colors. Usually these filters were sold in three levels of intensity or darkness.
The same filters are now available in the image editing softwares. The principle behind them is the same. Use them to reduce the intensity at one end of the spectrum. The digital filter also has the option to vary the intensity. The control which is possible in the post-processing is the only reason and a reason which is big enough to make me use this method of converting my images to Black and White and not just relying on what the camera or the program does on its own. It is like working in my darkroom too. I can also work on specific color layers too. Apart from the color filters with their varying intensities, most of the programs also provide various other tools also to replicate the darkroom. The usual Burn and Dodge tools along with the ability to change contrast, brightness, shadow and highlight details replicate the pain-taking darkroom procedures and that too with instant results.
(Chimneys – Nikon D200 with Nikkor 50mm, f/5.6, 1/160 sec, ISO 100, medium strength orange filter used in post processing. The chimneys were yellowish in color and the roof was bluish-grey.)
Tips for Seeing in Black and White
- Purchase an inexpensive deep dark red filter. Use it as a visualization aid rather than as a filter for your lens. For a few seconds whenever the dark red filter is raised to the eye level, the scene appears in monochrome. This can help you develop your visualization of black and white photographs.
- Start looking for textures, shapes, lines, patterns, difference in brightness and contrast of the various elements in the scene.
- Strengthen your visualization. This is important for any kind of photography and not just Black and White. (Learning to Visualize)
- Minimalism looks beautiful. As is famous, anything that doesn’t add anything to a photograph, takes something away from it. Keep your compositions simple.
- Polarizers, ND filters and Colored filter are great for getting what you actually want to. One of the essential colored filters for B&W photographers is the red filter. Purchase one for your lens! (Red Filters (and other colors))
- Set your camera to monochrome and then all your previews will look Black and White even though the raw files will capture the photograph with all the color information. This will also act as a reminder when you open the image in the camera manufacturer’s raw converter or any of the good conversion programs that support the camera profile.
- Post-process your images using proper B&W conversion techniques which include using the correct filter color and strength, exposure compensation and use of proper film grain. Do keep an eye at the threshold levels. It is very easy to go overboard in post-processing and loose details in dark and bright areas.
- If you like Black and White photography, ditch the in-camera conversion and move on to post-processing. Even the most basic programs have powerful tools to assist in getting the desired results. There are some advanced programs too available in the market which have presents and some that even replicate the results of various film rolls.