After working hard to improve your color digital photography, a foray into the world of black and white photography could be considered either a “step down” or an easy “no brainer” type of transition. It isn’t necessarily so.
With only shades of gray to fall back on, black and white photography depends on the photographer’s ability to communicate. With a limited palette at one’s disposal, more attention must be paid to composition, lighting, perspective and context.
The colors of black and white
Interestingly enough, traditional black and white photographers must play close attention to the types of colors and their distribution through an image. That’s because different colors register differently on black and white film. To create contrasts and drama in their photos, photographers rely on color filters to control the amount of the various colors of light striking their film.
A quick rule of thumb is that in black and white photography, a colored filter will tend to lighten similar tones while darkening opposite tones. For example, a yellow filter will lighten yellow to orange tones while darkening tones such as blues and purples. A red filter will lighten reds and oranges while creating dramatic contrast between blue sky and clouds, often to the point of surrealism. Green filters accentuate skin tones in black and white portraits.
So why is it important to know the role of color filters in black and white film photography when you’re shooting and processing digital images? Because digital imaging technology allows a photographer to apply color “filters” after an image has been shot.
Understanding how colors translate to grayscale will aid in the creation of black and white images with more impact.
Shoot in color, then convert to black and white
To make the most of the available technology, photos destined to become black and white should be shot in color, and then converted in an image editing program. While most digital cameras offer a black and white mode, you’ll have more control of your final image if it is shot in color.
Tips for shooting color intended for B&W conversion
Keep these things in mind when shooting with the intention of creating a black and white masterpiece:
- Shoot with the lowest possible ISO. While important in color photography to retain image clarity, it is even more important in black and white since high ISO “noise” becomes more apparent. You can always add “film grain” effects later in post production, but it helps to start with the cleanest image possible.
- Low contrast lighting situations, like dark or overcast days, are ideal for black and white photography. While your color shooting comrades are bemoaning the lack of color in the scenery, you don’t have that issue since your images won’t rely on color.
- Since you can’t rely on colors to lead a viewer’s eye into your shot, make the best use of shapes, tones and textures to create points of interest. Pay particular attention to the placement of shadows and highlights.
- Even though you’re going for grays, pay attention to the color balance of your original images. If your whites show hints of color, they may be adversely affected when adjusting color channels or hue.
- Shooting in RAW format preserves more color information and allows you to fine tune color balance prior to conversion of the photo.
- Levels and Curves can be used in conjunction with or after the two conversion methods above to further adjust tones and contrasts.