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Photography Tips 9 – Black and White or Colour?

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This is the ninth in a series of articles discussing some of the photography techniques I’ve learned and employ when I’m out on a shoot.

Black and white photography can be amazingly powerful. Flickr’s Explore is filled with highly-saturated, strongly coloured pictures and these tend to be extremely popular. But it takes a lot more than strong greens and reds to make an interesting picture in my book, which is why I find a good black and white photo much more impressive. To produce a compelling photograph without the aid of colour takes no small amount of skill in my book and is something I try from time to time with varying degrees of success. I just want to stress here that I’m no expert on black and white – I’m just putting down some of my thoughts on the subject!

In the pre-digital days you’d load your camera with black and white film and go looking for shots. You’d have to try and imagine how the scene you’re viewing (in full colour) would come out in black and white, take your shots and hope for the best. Well, a decent photographer would have a better idea of what they were doing but I’m talking about me here! When looking at your prints you’d only be able to see them in black and white and appreciate them for what they were. But in these digital days, there’s little point shooting in black and white.

I always shoot in RAW mode on my camera. If you take a photo in one of the JPEG modes, the camera processes the picture for you and stores it. If, when you get home and look at it on the computer, you want to make some changes (maybe lighten it up a bit) then you’ve already shot yourself in the foot (ahem, pun intended) as some of the detail will have been lost when the camera processed the shot. Shooting in RAW mode however doesn’t give you this problem. The camera won’t process the picture, it will simply store all the information it captures on the sensor and when you get home you can process the picture as you like – perhaps into a JPEG image. This means you can make more changes such as increasing the exposure, changing the white balance and rescuing any photos you screwed up. There’s no notion of shooting in black and white – for your camera to do that it would have to process the image, discarding the colour information and like I said, with RAW you do that yourself.

With digital, I find myself deciding which photos are going to end up being black and white after the effect and in front of my computer. Quite the opposite of the film days. Take the following example:

Lead Out To Void

This shot was taken after sunset in Ilkley last year and I really liked the colour version. I found it hard to go mono with it (mono’s quicker to say than ‘black and white’ so I’ll stick with that moniker if you don’t mind). The trouble is that when I compared the same shot in colour to mono, I ended up concentrating on the lack of colour in the latter. The colour shot works for me because the stepping stones are dark and yet there’s the reflected light in the water giving you something to focus on. But when I stopped thinking about the orange light I realised that the mono version was much better as it concentrated you on the fact that the stepping stones lead you into the darkness. The lack of colour makes you use your imagination more.

One shot rescued by a mono conversion is the following, taken near Whitby:

Point to Point

It was a pretty grey, dull day and the light was flat. When I looked at the shot on my computer I was tempted to delete it but started experimenting with mono conversions (it doesn’t always have to be black and white) and finally came up with this one. The dullness of the scene didn’t matter once I’d gone down the sepia route.

I guess my take-home point about black and white photography in the digital world is to take a colour photo, play around with it and see what you like but try not to let the original prejudice you against going mono. It’s very easy to not bother trying a mono conversion and move onto your next shot but quite often it’s worth lingering a bit longer and giving mono a go. One really handy tool (which is free) is the Virtual Photographer plug-in for Photoshop (although sadly it’s Windows-only). This allows you to try a list of pre-canned conversions quickly to see what you like and then you can fine-tune it all you want. The key – as always with photography – is to experiment.

When converting to mono, there are myriad options other than simply opting to ‘gray-scale’ the image – you can decide how much of each colour to use when you remove the colour. If you want to go for a grainy look you might opt to go mono using predominantly the blue channel (which you can do with the ‘Channel Mixer’ in Photoshop) – looks great on portraits as the skin tends to look much more rough and aged. Alternatively using the red channel will make it look softer. Look at the following examples of using the channel mixer to go mono with different results:

In Colour This is the original colour picture (obviously).
Blue By choosing the blue channel her skin looks darker and grainier.
Red Using the red channel gives her a softer and lighter look, much more sympathetic!

And of course there are countless other ways you can do a mono conversion, which is what makes black and white photography so interesting. You may be theoretically restricted to two colours – black and white – but there are so many shades of gray in between! Heck, you can even mix colour and black and white like this to good effect:

The Door Is Blue

Anyway, that’s some of my random thoughts on black and white photography, I hope you’ll give it a try the next time you’re looking at some of the photos you’ve taken! And if you need some inspiration as to what you can achieve with black and white, have a look at these photos on Flickr taken by ‘dooda‘ – one very talented photographer – they certainly inspire me.

Next: Always Keep Your Eyes Open.

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

12 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Another excellent installment! So viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses really does make everything seem better, or at least softer.

    Reply

  2. I hadn’t thought of it that way but yes, there’s your scientific proof of the rose-tinted spectacle effect!

    Reply

  3. The first comparison shot at the top is great! I still can’t decide which photo looks better, the ‘mono’ is definitely beautiful, but the colored one is also mysterious!

    Reply

  4. Thanks Amanda! 🙂 I still can’t quite make my mind up either, I preferred the mono for a bit but I’m starting to like the colour one again…

    Reply

  5. I have to agree with the first example.
    the whole grayscale path of unknown darkness is intreging but then the colour one has that mystic air about it.

    no matter the case they are both very good pictures, I just wish you would do more wallpaper sized ones 😛

    also, your “Isoloated” picture is another great black and white one
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnconners/451075754/

    Reply

  6. wow, I just noticed after posting the comment the background for your title bar at the moment 🙂

    Reply

  7. Thanks murdats! Yeah, I seem to have a habit of not uploading the full sized pictures – my apologies!

    And I decided the banner needed a change and ‘Isolated’ seemed to fit in rather well! 🙂

    Reply

  8. it would be great if you did, or maybe offer some sort of “wallpaper pack” 🙂

    as you may remember I make a hobby of collecting wallpapers, one of my themes of interests is scenery shots (CG or otherwise) and you do have some impressive work, that if higher res would defiantly get added to my collection (some sort of wallpaper pack would be extra convienent for me because then I could get them all at once and sort them later, but either option would be awesome)

    Reply

  9. That’s a good idea, I’ve been thinking about putting a portfolio together of my favourite shots (mainly so I can create a calendar or something out of them). When I collect them all together I’ll make the full-size versions available!

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  10. Thank you for putting together this superbly-written series! I’ve read a lot of similar guides, but they all lack your clarity. Looking forward to your next article, -b

    Reply

  11. You’re most welcome Bill! I was waiting for the start of autumn before continuing with a few more articles – I’ll get on it! 🙂

    Reply

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