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Photography

It's Not a Black and White World: How To Imagine Pictures in Monochrome

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This post is part of a series called Black and White Photography.
100 Awe-Inspiring Black and White Images

There is something magical about black and white photographs, but unless you suffer from an extreme form of colour blindness, you don’t see the world in black and white. To capture the best black and white images, you need to understand how a scene is recorded and rendered as a range of tonalities, without colour.

In this tutorial you'll learn how to overcome the limits of black and white and take advantage of the nature of the monochrome image. You'll learn how to think in black and white.

triptych
A triptych of black and white images. Model: Rebecca Dionne.

It's All About Shades of Grey

Cameras are limited tools and cannot capture all of the information in a scene. The quality of your sensor, lenses, and lighting all determine the kind of image that you'll be able to create. You must decide what the most important information is so that you can protect it in your exposure.

Reducing an image to shades of grey abstracts and emphasizes in a special way, a way that colour photography does not. It puts all the weight of the image on tonality. Black and white makes texture, contrast, and graphic composition central to the image. A black and white photograph does not pretend to be anything else.

There's also an intangible emotional aspect to black and white photography. When you stop trying to capture reality faithfully and instead try to represent the feeling, mood or moment your images become much more emotionally potent. While, in some ways, black and white photographs are a less-truthful depiction of the world, they have the power to transmit emotion in a profoundly immediate and human way that other mediums cannot.

1. Identify the Important Details in the Scene

The first thing to decide is what you want to capture; what your ideal image is. This doesn’t need to be a super-specific technical decision but instead should be something like, “the tranquility of the scene” expressed in softly flowing water or “the intensity of the man’s gaze” in the worn lines of a face, or any other facet of the scene that evokes the emotion of the picture you want to make. This might not even be something you can even put into words in the moment; just a compulsion or an inclination. Trust your gut feeling. Your are having a sensual and empathetic reaction to the world in front of you. That's good!

zarima mask
The most important details in this image are the mask. Anything else is secondary. Model: Zarima McDermott.

The decision about what emotion you want to convey will drive a lot of creative and technical decisions later, but don’t worry too much about specifics at this point. Don't agonize about it, just decide generally what details and emotions are the ones that are most important to the final image. These are what you want to protect in the final exposure.

2. Understand the Limits of Your Tools

Black and white photography is all about tones. This means proper exposure has a critical role in creating good black and white images.

Unfortunately, even with a modern DSLR shooting RAW files, unless a scene has very low contrast you will struggle to capture all the details present. The way a camera’s sensor responds to light means you get a lot more detail captured in the highlights areas of the scene than the shadows areas.

It was possible to keep a lot more texture in the model's jumper than in the shadow areas in the image by exposing to the right. Model: Laura Cunningham.

Expose to Protect Important Details

By deciding, however, what the most important details are you can expose your image to protect them.

Ideally, a digital photo should be exposed to retain maximum detail and tonality in the image file. That is, when possible, you want the tonal values of the important parts of the image to be slightly brighter than middle grey. This creates an image that takes advantage of the nature of digital sensors and retains as much information as possible. The exposure is then corrected and adjusted back in post-production.

Exposing to the right, as this technique is called, requires balancing some creative considerations which we’ll address in the next step. How much to compensate in your exposure depends on your camera and the scene, but it might be as much as two stops. In any case, you do not want to do so at the expense of losing detail in the highlights. A spot meter is a big help.

Practically speaking, a realistic working method is to find proper exposure for your subject and let the rest fall where it may. If you're working in an uncontrolled environment, a fast-changing situation, or fooling around with exposure is just out of the question for whatever reason, try to get the best exposure you can without blowing out the highlights.

For the in-depth technical background on this subject, see Diana Eftaiha's article on Tonal Range and Exposure Considerations.

3. Consider Light, Style, and the Images Available to You

With the important details decided on and an idea of what you can capture, it’s time to start considering how you want the final image to look. There are plenty of different styles of black and white images to choose from. You make grainy, high-contrast, low-key black and white or silky-smooth high-key black and white, or anything in between. Which direction you want to go has enormous implications for how you decide to expose the scene and what your images communicate.

The options available to you will partly be driven by the circumstances of the shoot. For example, it is next to impossible to create a high-key image if your subject is against a significantly darker background. You’ll need to asses the scene to identify what the options are and select the one that best fits your vision.

zarima night
It would have been impossible to shoot a satisfactory high-key image using a streetlight at night as I did here. Model: Zarima McDermott.

Once you’ve identified how you would like the final image to look, you can choose your exposure settings. Remember, the idea is to get the best-possible available image for post-production, not to make the final image in-camera. Some of the things to think about are:

  • What highlights are going to blow out or shadows clip?
  • Is that going to add or detract from the image if they do? Do I have to expose less to-the-right than I’d like?
  • Could I use high dynamic range techniques to extend my camera’s dynamic range? Will it work with the image I want to capture?
  • Is there a way to move my subject or myself in the scene to create a more pleasing image?
  • Can I add or subtract light to change the scene to my advantage?
  • What do I lose by focussing on the tones I want to protect?

To capture the important details and the rest of the scene, you may need to compromise slightly on how you expose the image, use a tripod or use HDR to get the capture you want.

4. Assess How Colours Will Be Rendered as Monochrome Tones

Another key to successfully recreating the black and white image you envision is to accurately assess how the colours in the scene will be transformed. An image that looks good in colour might not make a nice black and white image if there is not enough difference between the tonal values in the scene.

Converting an image to black and white using software like Photoshop or Lightroom gives you a lot more control over the process than was available to film photographers. To a degree, using film locked-in a set of conversion parameters based on combinations of film stock, filter, developer, and printing methods. Digital photographers have significantly greater latitude to make creative monochrome conversions after the fact.

Before getting to the actual conversion, however, you must first capture the image. Even with the extra freedom allowed by software you still need to consider how the colours in the scene will be converted to monochrome.

colours conversion
As you can see in the monochrome image below, a wide range of colours get converted into similar tones in the final black and white. Model: Kat Clinch.

colours transform

Every colour has three components: hue, saturation and luminosity. A colour's hue is the specific tone, it’s saturation how much of the tone is present and the luminosity how bright it is. Two reds that have the same hue and saturation but different luminosities are different colours.

When converting to monochrome, the hue information is removed while the luminosity and saturation information is retained. This means that while in a colour image a red and a green with the same saturation and luminosity but different hues will appear very different, in an unmodified monochrome image they will appear very similar. When thinking in black and white, try to see the intensity of tones rather than their values. A darker or more saturated colour will appear as a darker tone than a lighter or less saturated colour in the final black and white image.

When viewing the scene, ask:

  • What colours in this scene have similar tonal values? Are they going to be similar in the final image?
  • Is there a pleasing range of tonal values in the scene? Will they work with the idea I have in my head?
  • Do two distinct colours with similar tones overlap in a way that is detrimental to the image? Might the subject blend into the background if I’m not careful?
  • What tonal values do I want the colours in the image to have? Do I want the greens to be dark or light? What about the blues? Do I want a deep heavy sky or a light one?
  • What can I do now to make that happen now? What must I do in post-processing to make that happen?

Depending on what conclusions you come to you may have to adapt your framing, exposure or vision in order to create a strong black and white image.

bw kat clinch
Shooting this image required some compromises in order to get the dark background. Model: Kat Clinch.

Previsualization

Black and white images are special. They aren’t just desaturated colour images. To shoot great black and white images you must think in monochrome. And you must do it intentionally.

That's not easy. It takes a lot of practice to integrate all of the questions that we've gone through in this tutorial. With practice, though, thinking in black and white will become second nature. You will cultivate the frame of mind to see in black and white and it will feel completely normal. Your brain will start to answer all of those questions and do the calculations automatically.

Working through each photographic scenario with the same systematic process adds repeatability to the process and helps integrate black and white thinking, so try to build up a routine. Take it slow. If you deliberately assess each scene in the same manner you’ll be able to recreate the images in your mind time and time again.

Post-Production

We've touched on post-production in passing in this tutorial. Understanding how to process digital black and white pictures is an important part of being able to previsualize when you are making images. In order to use your imagination you have to know how things might turn out!

Unlike film photographers, digital photographers don’t have to make the conversion from a colour scene to a black and white image in-camera. We have the advantage of being able to create RAW files and make a conversion to black and white afterwards. While each individual black and white film had its own characteristics and responds to light in a unique manner, digital photographers have a lot more freedom to develop their files in different ways.

However, a little too much freedom can be a hinderance. It’s very possible get lost in the post-production process. While there’s no longer a need to make the conversion in camera, you should still be thinking about it while you photograph. You can convert a frame into an unlimited number of variations, but none will be as good as if you’d deliberately exposed to produce a specific type of image to begin with.

There are lots of great black and white post-processing workflows, more than can be covered in this piece. We've covered some, and we will continue to cover more in follow-up tutorials.

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