Have you ever taken a photo with the intention of converting it to black and white but it just ends up being a cluttered and confusing mess? While black and white photography seems simple on the surface, there’s a few things to consider over colour photography that makes black and white photography the powerful art form it is.
Don’t panic, you don’t have to start learning photography from scratch again, there’s just a few things to keep in mind when you’re out in the field if you intend on coming home with a solid black and white shot.
Look for contrast in light, not colour
On average, the human eye is capable of observing 7 million colours (this number is actually up for debate, but it’s currently most agreed upon.) The RGB spectrum on our computer screens has over 16 million colours. Comparing that to the greyscale spectrum, which has 256 shades, it’s easy to understand why images with a lot of colour contrast can look messy in black and white. Even contrasting colours, such as red and green, often become the same or similar shade of grey.
Photography is a game of light, whether it be in colour or black and white, but BW relies on contrast in light to create compelling images. By allowing light and light only to create separation in your scene, your BW images will be much stronger and easier to understand.
Tip: While overcast skies are great conditions for BW images, don’t be afraid to shoot in the contrasting light of golden hour. This will help shadows have defined lines that can make for very striking and unique images.
Less really is more when it comes to black and white photography. Because we don’t normally see in black and white, BW images can be difficult for our brain to process. Filling the frame with different textures that make sense in colour quickly become cluttered and confusing in BW. When our subject clearly stands out from the background we get a much stronger and intentional image. Because of this, minimalism and BW make the perfect combo.
What does a minimal image mean? The least amount of distractions as possible. Try not to include too many different textures in your frame. It’s also best to keep your subject either dark or light, and have the rest of your frame the opposite shade so everything stands out – giving your image a clear focal point.
Tip: Try placing your subject in the centre sector of the grid and filling the rest of the frame with as little detail as possible. This could be a jetty surrounded by water or a lone tree in an empty field. A wide angle lens (24mm or wider) will really help execute this.
Very long exposures
If you’re familiar with the long exposure technique, you’ve already seen how it can completely transform the feeling of a scene. Not only does it create a surreal and dreamy effect, it’s great at reducing unwanted textures in areas like water and clouds. You can use this effect to your benefit in so many ways – as not only does it look damn good, you can emphasise the emotion in your work more than a still frame would. Create the illusion of time passing by, highlight stability and endurance, calm an angry ocean – the world is your oyster.
An exposure time anywhere between 1-3 minutes is a great starting place, but every scene is different so experiment and see which one works for you. Most cameras will only allow a maximum 30-second exposure time, but you can expose for as long as you want in Bulb mode with the help of a remote shutter.
Tip: Long exposures during daytime require neutral density filters, usually 6 stops or stronger. Use manual focus to focus on your subject before putting on your filters, because once those dense filters are on you’ll have a very hard time focussing.
True blacks and whites
Just like colour photos, post processing is where your black and white images really come to life. A common mistake I see in beginner black and white photography is the editing – there is a world of difference between desaturating your image and editing in black and white. Simply desaturating your image will result in muddy greys, but we want true black and white. This means we want our whites to be white and our blacks to be black.
If you’re editing in Lightroom, select the ‘BW’ toggle under the histogram. This way you can see your edits in black and white as you’re editing, rather than editing in colour and hoping for the best when you convert it to BW afterwards. Using your whites and blacks sliders, hold down Option on Mac or Alt on Windows to see when your whites and blacks start to clip (meaning they become pure white/black and lose detail.) This will give you the most control when adding contrast and will give your image a very pleasing punch.
You can then use the Luminance sliders to adjust the brightness of each colour channel, allowing you to lighten or darken particular colours. Why does this matter in BW? Some colours look darker in BW, and vice versa, so those sunlit greens on your tree may need brightening up in BW to bring back depth into your image.
Tip: Allow your whites and blacks to clip slightly when editing to make everything pop. Just don’t go overboard, as clipping does destroy detail.
Dodge and Burn
Taking the time and care to use selective editing tools can turn a good photo into a great photo. Some of Photoshop’s most powerful tools are the Dodge and the Burn tools. They are essentially the brush tool and exposure slider combined; dodging to lighten areas and burning to darken areas. Each tool will allow you to select either highlights, midtones or shadows and the opacity/strength, which gives you full control as to which areas you want to lighten and which areas you want to make darker. This gives you the power to light paint after you’ve taken your image, so you can make those focal points pop even more and create further separation from the background.
Tip: Keep your opacity at around 10% so you can be gentle with the effect and layer it on as needed. If you make a copy of your photo layer, you can also be heavy with your dodging and burning and then change the opacity of the layer itself.