Summer seems like an odd time to look at the world in black and white, but it really is a good time. Digital photography has changed many things, including an ongoing resurgence in black and white photography as an expressive art form.
Black and white photos have always been popular. In the film days, access to a darkroom was essential, often requiring some home restructuring to practice your craft. Darkrooms are fun but often messy and used chemicals that became more and more difficult to dispose of properly. For most of us, high school graduation marked the end of our darkroom days.
The digital camera and the proliferation of easy-to-use software have now made black and white photos both easy and eco-friendly. However, don’t mistake the newfound ease in creating black and white photos as a replacement for the considerable skill needed to create good black and white images – that has not changed.
The creation of black and white images is easier mainly because of the many different editing software programs. Programs like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom and Photoshop Elements are most popular. Plug-in software titles such as Google’s Silver Efex Pro, OnOne Software Perfect B&W and Topaz’s B&W Effects are some of the more robust made to work within your host editing program.
Before you start with any of these programs, you need to give some thought to the basics of what makes a good black and white image. In digital photography, most black and white images start as color photographs. Your camera may let you shoot photos as black and white images, but removing the color information from your digital file will limit your editing options. The color information will allow for greater tonality adjustment after you have converted your image. Adjusting the red parts after the photo has been converted to black and white will adjust the tonality of only the red parts of the photo, for example.
Learning to see different tones is essential to good black and white photos, as is the ability to see highlights and shadows as important design elements in your photos. Most people will use the automatic convert to black and white button in their software/camera; that often yields a contrast-lacking grey photo. A grey photo is not back and white photo; grey is just a shade of black. You need your blacks to be black and whites to be white. You will have to learn to use the color filters, the buttons and sliders that control the red, green, blue, yellow and others. They are the digital equivalent to the color filters used in darkrooms.
Good black and white photography also requires the proper use of the dark and bright values, also known as contrast. Most consider black and white photos with strong contrast pleasing, and all editing programs give you plenty of contrast control. Sliders and controls named contrast, levels and curves will help you add or subtract contrast. Look for scenes that contain strong elements of both lights and darks. Sunsets and sunrises with their long shadows and directional light are excellent subjects to photograph for strong black and whites images.
When you remove the color from a scene, you lose what is the most “recognizable” part of your subject. If we view a photograph of a sunset, we expect to see a scene very saturated with color, mostly orange and red. Remove that color, and the viewer is forced to see the scene in another light – literally. A sunset becomes about long shadows, shapes and lines creating that strong contrast between the light and dark. A bucket of apples with its familiar red color removed becomes a study in shapes and lines. When you remove what is most recognizable (color in most cases) from a scene, you are starting the process towards more creative and artistic photographs.
There are times and scenes that work better for black and white, so learn them and be on the lookout for them. Look for dramatic and active skies; clear blue skies do not often work well for black and white. The clearing skies following a late afternoon thunderstorm are my favorite. You can also look to be creative with shutter speed – try slowing it down if your camera allows you to control it. Blur works well in black and white, especially when working with subjects such as water, shadows or clouds.
Make this the summer one in which you look past color. With some pre-planning and thought, you will be able to channel your inner Ansel Adams and create summer photos that are both unique and timeless. In the process you may find a new and different aspect about photography that truly has endless possibilities.