Home How-To Image Processing Seeing In Black-And-White
Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Seeing In Black-And-White

How to identify the elements that make for better black-and-white photographs

This Article Features Photo Zoom
Knowing that light tones advance and dark tones recede will further help you visualize what will draw a viewer's eye in the finished black-and white photograph.
The best black-and-white photographs often have a timeless quality to them. To that end, try to target subjects that lend themselves to being considered timeless. If the age of the image isn't readily distinguished, it has a good shot of being a "timeless" black-and-white photograph.

One technique that can be helpful to physically see the world similarly to black-and-white is to wear rose-colored glasses. Or, more commonly, to wear sunglasses with a strong tint of brown or amber. The shift to a more monochromatic view helps simplify a scene in much the same way that a black-and-white image does, even without the total elimination of color. In fact, they say that yellow and amber glasses (often used for safety) improve visual acuity in terms of sharpness and contrast, further emphasizing important elements in black-and-white scenes and allowing you to concentrate on differences between tonal values, texture and details—everything, essentially, other than color.

The sunglasses approach is a takeoff on a common film-era technique used to see a contrast range that more closely resembled what film could record. A quick squint of the eyes accomplishes the same sort of thing by providing a brief mental snapshot of how much detail the sensor will throw out of a scene. The squint test works simply: Looking at a given subject, briefly squint your eyes and notice how you eliminate some of the detail, particularly in shadows and highlights, leaving only the basic form of the scene. Because squinting also temporarily emphasizes strong forms and bolder contrasts over color information, it's a great way to physically begin to see the world more like a black-and-white photo.

There's one technique for literally seeing the world in black-and-white that was unavailable to previous generations of black-and-white photographers. It's the use of a monochrome JPEG preview in conjunction with a DSLR's Live View mode. JPEG shooters who adjust their cameras' picture settings to black-and-white will generate a black-and-white JPEG straight out of the camera. This isn't necessarily the best idea because capturing a full-color image and converting it to black-and-white in the computer offers much more control. But for a RAW shooter, setting the camera's picture style to black-and-white will only render the JPEG preview (what's shown on the LCD after capture) in black-and-white, while maintaining all the color data in the original RAW file. Better still, set the picture style to monochrome and switch on the camera's Live View mode, et voilá—you'll literally see the world in black-and-white, courtesy of the camera's LCD. There's probably no better way to previsualize an image in black-and-white than to let your camera preview the image in black-and-white for you. It's a powerful and easy approach.

Another great way to find scenes that will work in black-and-white is to keep an eye out for the most dramatic types of light. Look for edges of light where strong shadows meet highlights—the transition from full sun to open shade, for instance. This not only is a great way to find contrast, but it's also an ideal approach to create a pattern or to set off a bright subject against a dark background. Raking light is also ideal, as it does a great job of bringing out texture and detail. Backlight, too, is a good scenario for creating graphically strong images, as it tends to create contrast and simulate depth. Plus, when you're looking directly into a backlit light source, your eyes tend to throw out color in favor of simple luminosity, so you're sort of seeing in black-and-white that way, as well.

Ultimately, it could be argued that the most likely way to find success in black-and-white is to look for the same compositional elements that are important to every photograph, regardless of color—the basic rules of composition. Things like S-curves, leading lines and the Rule of Thirds are the perfect place to start. Place your isolated subject, with help from the Rule of Thirds, or focus on a pattern that might create strong leading lines, or allow a texture to provide a minimalist composition that's inherently compelling. They're all great ways to get down to the fundamentals of what makes a simple and compelling photograph, and that's especially effective when working in black-and-white.


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