Secrets Of Black & White

In recent years, black-and-white has gained new attention and appreciation. Software makers are offering increasingly capable tools for custom black-and-white conversions, and most photo printers address the unique needs of black-and-white printing with special inks and settings. Use the following tips to help you create distinctive black-and-white images.

Shooting In Black-And-White

Black-and-white is so different that sometimes you have to forget what you know about photographing in color. It isn’t simply changing the camera to a black-and-white setting or removing color in Photoshop. When you want the best in black-and-white, you need to start thinking in black-and-white (this also applies to choosing images for conversion from color to black-and-white).

Here are some things to consider when shooting:
1. Look for tones and their differences, not color. Finding distinct differences in brightness of tones really is key for black-and-white images.
2. Forget color.
3. Base your composition on tonal differences. Contrasts between tones will define and structure your composition.
4. Ignore color.
5. Work with dramatic light. Too often, dull light gives muddy-looking black-and-white images.
6. Did I mention that color can easily distract you when you’re working with black-and-white?
7. Try squinting. If you squint, you see less detail in a scene and more of the distinct tones that will become blacks, whites and grays.
8. Watch out for big areas of blank white. This is especially a problem with skies. Blank white in black-and-white scenes can distract from nice tonalities in the rest of the photo.
9. Be cautious with large areas of pure black. You often can get away with a dramatic photo with a lot of black in it; however, these areas also can just look visually dead to a viewer.
10. And, of course, forget about color. I know, it may seem like I’ve overly stressed the color bit, but it’s so easy to be distracted by color and to forget that the viewer of your black-and-white final image will have no reference to the colors of the original scene.

Getting To Black-and-White

You have two excellent ways of going black-and-white: shoot black-and-white directly or convert from a color shot later. Here’s why you may want to shoot black-and-white in the camera:
1. You see what you get.
If you haven’t shot a lot of black-and-white, there are big advantages to shooting in-camera because you can review and revise what you shot based on what’s on the LCD.
2. The experience is more direct.
When you shoot black-and-white for black-and-white, you begin to work in a creative space that’s not the same as shooting in color. It definitely gives a different creative challenge and experience.
3. You can adjust filtration effects.
By using the camera’s built-in filtration effects, or by using filters made for black-and-white shooting, you can immediately see how black-and-white tonalities can be changed and adjusted for a scene.
4. The image is close to finished.
When you shoot black-and-white, you don’t have to do any conversion from color.
5. RAW+JPEG black-and-white gives you flexibility.
When the camera is set to shoot black-and-white, you’re locking in the JPEG files to black-and-white. RAW files aren’t converted to black-and-white. Shooting RAW+JPEG gives you the best of both formats.

Here’s why you may want to shoot color for black-and-white prints:
1. You aren’t locked into one black-and-white image.
A big disadvantage of shooting black-and-white directly is that it can’t be changed to color or any other black-and-white tonal interpretation of the scene.
2. Filtration after the fact.
Filters strongly affect contrast in black-and-white photography. You can filter the color image in the computer to translate the scene into preferred black-and-white tones.
3. Interactive filtration.
With the digital darkroom, you can try different filter effects on the same scene and instantly see how they change it.
4. Totally variable filtration. In the computer, you can fine-tune the filter colors to subtly adjust grays in the black-and-white image.
5. Multiple, yet separate filtration.
With the computer, you can use multiple filters on the same shot, something not possible when shooting black-and-white directly.

Translating Color Into Black-And-White

You easily can convert or translate color images into black-and-white in the digital darkroom with an image-processing program. Translate is exactly the right word, too. You need to be able to make the shades of gray respond well to the original colors. Just as translations in language can be good or bad, so can black-and-white translations.

In general, I can’t recommend the straightforward “grayscale” or “desaturate” commands. These are quick and easy ways of dealing with images that don’t need a lot of adjustment, but on many photos, they may tend to make the image look too gray without enough contrast. Grayscale discards all color information, and Desaturate gives a black-and-white image in a color space.

Here are several good ways of making the color translation to black-and-white tones—not an all-inclusive list, but a group of programs that have worked well for me:
1. Photoshop
Photoshop includes an excellent black-and-white conversion under Image > Adjustments > Black&White, but I recommend you do this as an adjustment layer for more control. The neat part of this is the ability to go right to the photograph and adjust there. You can move the cursor onto the image, click on something, and Photoshop automatically finds the right color to adjust to a gray. Then you move the cursor right or left to make that tone lighter or darker.
2. Lightroom
In the Develop module, Lightroom has a similar control to the Photoshop Black & White adjustment. In the Grayscale section of the right panel, click on the small button to the top left of the Grayscale Mix slider panel to activate the cursor. A great feature in Lightroom is the ability to create virtual copies where you can do all of your black-and-white conversion and still keep the color version.
3. Photoshop Elements
Elements has a simplified black-and-white conversion that does work, but you may be better off using the plug-ins below.
4. Nik Software Silver Efex
If you’re serious about black-and-white, check out this software plug-in from Nik Software. It will function as a processing plug-in for Photoshop, and as an export plug-in for Lightroom and Aperture. This is one of the most advanced and versatile black-and-white programs I’ve ever used.
5. Nik Software Color Efex
This plug-in offers several excellent conversion tools. It’s available in the Color Efex Pro complete collection as well as in lower-priced bundles of effects. It has some features that Silver Efex has (though not nearly the range or ease of controls) along with a whole group of well-designed color adjustments.
6. Selections
Using selections (or layer masks) can really
set your black-and-white adjustments apart. Select parts of the image and make the black-and-white conversions separately. For example, you could use one translation on the bottom of the photo that had flowers and grass and something completely different for the top sky and clouds. That’s impossible to do when shooting directly to black-and-white.
7. Grayscale versus RGB color for black-and-white
A grayscale image is a photo without color except black, white and gray. It’s a smaller file than a color image. All of these techniques can be converted to grayscale, if needed. Having a black-and-white photo in RGB color, however, allows you to color or tone the image with a color-toner effect such as sepia or cool selenium tone.

Visit Rob Sheppard’s website at for more helpful tips and techniques.

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