Black and White Photography (It’s Not as Simple as Black and White!)

Shooting in black and white can force you to stretch your art muscles in new ways. When you subtract the color from an image, you subtract an element of drama and emotion. Black-and-white photography makes you look at the composition of your photograph more closely, reconsider your subject matter, find ways to evoke mood without the aid of color. But I’m not going to tell you to shoot in black and white today. What I am going to tell you is that I’m not a fan of the black-and-white setting on most digital cameras. The setting simply doesn’t create true black and white.

Have you noticed that the black-and-white setting too often produces images that are drab, gray, and flat? They are often missing the two most basic elements of black-and-white photography: deep, rich blacks and stark, pure (not blown-out) whites. That’s because a camera’s sensor has trouble accurately converting the range of tones found in a color scene. Hence, a medium-blue vase holding a ruby-red rose can end up looking like a medium-gray vase holding a slightly darker-gray rose. In other words: blah.

There’s more than one way to get better black and white photos, but today let’s talk about shooting in color and converting to black and white using a program like Photoshop. To start, I suggest you shoot in RAW or HDR to get a good range of tones, from black to white and everything in between. The more information your photo-editing software has about the colors and tones you were photographing, the better.

Now you just open the photograph with your software and click “convert to grayscale” or “desaturate” and voila! You’re done!

Okay, I’m pulling your leg. That is not the way to do it. Don’t you wish it were that easy? This one-click approach takes the least amount of effort but gives you pretty much the same results you’d get just using the black-and-white setting on your camera. Desaturation gives equal weight to the reds, greens, and blues of your color image and the result is a lie. It’s better to pick an element you want to emphasize and create a black and white from the color of that element.

One way to accomplish this is with your software’s channel mixer. After you open it, check the “monochrome” box. Then switch the slider for your chosen color to 100% and the sliders for the other two colors to 0%. (You can actually get success with different combinations of the colors, but make sure that whatever combination you choose greatly emphasizes your preferred color, and that the sum of the combined percentages is always 100%.) Last but not least, try adding a contrast layer to emphasize different elements in the photo to your liking.

I took a quick photo to show you how the different techniques stack up against each other here:

Black and white photography Lawrence Camera

Original photo shot in color

Lawrence Camera Black and White Photography

Same image shot using camera’s black and white setting instead. Ho hum.

Black and White Photography Lawrence Camera

One-click conversion of color original to black and white using photo-editing software. Ho hum again.

Black and White Photography Lawrence Camera

Conversion using channel mixer (100% green, 0% red, and 0% blue). That’s better.

Black and white Photography Lawrence Camera

Conversion using channel mixer (100% green, 0% red, and 0% blue) plus a contrast layer. Best of all!

This is just one way to easily take better black-and-white photographs. Give it a try. You’ll be surprised how much better you can do when you don’t bother with “one-click solutions” that aren’t really solutions at all!


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