Being intentional with my photography is always in the forefront of my mind. My creative process, like many artists, often includes careful consideration and a lot of forethought. In my professional work, that can translate into plotting, planning and time-consuming setup. I can recall working in the studio, capturing portraits with a medium-format camera mounted on a huge and heavy rolling monopod. I wouldn’t even have considered shooting until all of the essential elements were in place and the test Polaroid reflected technical perfection. Over the years, my shooting setup has changed drastically. From film to digital, medium format to SLR, DSLR to iPhone, darkroom to Lightroom, my gear, approach, style and even subject matter have shifted and evolved. The intentionality I put into my work still remains, but not quite with the intensity it once was. As for my own personal, day-to-day work, I’ve been known to admittedly rest on the laurels of digital darkroom editing, enhancing and improving when all else fails.
Regardless of the how or why, no photographer is immune to the occasional hiccup in the creative process. Mistakes are made, oversights happen, mechanical glitches occur, and sometimes there’s just no controlling the light, the weather or the ever-unpredictable subject. Often working with said subjects in the uncontrolled setting of everyday life and not in the studio, there are unplannable, unforeseen circumstances that I regularly just have to adapt to. Sometimes I can pull off the seemingly impossible through ISO adjustment, creative framing or even by pure (happy) accident, but not always. There’s nothing more frustrating than capturing a shot that’s just shy of stellar because one element or another just doesn’t work for the greater good of the end image. Whether it’s bad light, color confusion or wacky wardrobe, I’m not always willing to give up on an image because of mishaps (technical or otherwise). Instead, I turn to the digital darkroom for possible solutions, many of which are monochromatic options. There are a number of issues that can be dramatically improved just by transforming a color image into black-and-white.
Reduce The Noise. What might be considered digital “noise” in a color image can look more like glorious grain through monochromatic magic. Grain isn’t every photographer’s preference, but I love the look it gives some images. I’d always shoot at least one roll of 1600-speed B&W film at all the events I’d shoot to add some interest to the accent shots. These days, if there’s a color image that’s too noisy due to improper exposure, I see what that noise looks like in black-and-white. More often than not, the image is greatly improved by the conversion.
Help That Hue. When certain lighting scenarios cast an unflattering hue on an image, consider casting off the color through desaturation. Colors converted into black-and-white not only can make the colors less distracting, they can help create a totally unique visual interest. Experimenting with color filters in the conversion process can offer endless options in the ways the cast of color is transformed into a gray palette.
Quell The Competition. When shooting wildlife, the natural surroundings can often pose the problem of camouflaging your subject. Although I don’t go out into the wild, I do still struggle with the chaos of the foliage in my own backyard. Because I’m drawn to the birds that show up seasonally in our yard, I keep my lens at the ready. Depending on the season, the leaves in the trees can compete with my tiny subjects. I find that the competition can be quelled by turning the lush (but loud) green leaves into gorgeous gray tones. There are so many instances where elements in the frame compete with your subject for attention. A black-and-white conversion can work wonders to help get the focus off of the clutter and back on the main subject within your image.
Tempt The Texture. I find that black-and-white edits lend themselves greatly to architectural images. There’s nothing better than using light and shadow (lights and darks) to help accentuate the kind of texture that’s present in so many visually interesting architectural elements. I notice that often my color images of facades or interiors can fall short or feel lackluster, but when converted into a more contrast-y black-and-white treatment, the best of the image is coaxed out and the shot not only is enhanced, but also improved all the way around. Upping the texture interest through monochromatic conversion can work equally as well in other types of photography, such as with skyscapes and landscapes.
Calm The Clash. When shooting ordinary people (and not styled models), you can’t control wardrobe. Although the trend, at least for a while, was to wear matching outfits for photo sessions, I’ve had a number of clients dress children in clothes that although looked fine when standing alone can clash with the outfits on siblings. Even worse are busy, branded T-shirts. I also know that when shooting candid portraits of my own children, there’s not always an opportunity to ensure they’re dressed photogenically, which can make for some very challenging color clashes. There’s no better solution for this distracting dilemma than dialing all of the color out—a quick and easy fix.
Turn Timeless. Even when an image looks fine as a color photograph and doesn’t need editing, per se, sometimes trying a monochromatic option can elevate it to a whole new level. Transforming the image from color to black-and-white can add a lovely air of nostalgia. Between clothes, toys and surroundings that can feel dated, choosing to strip away all the evidence of the time period helps to ensure your fleeting childhood moments are captured with a classic, nostalgic flair. Even the basic snapshot can be improved by a flip of the monochromatic switch.
TRACEY CLARK is the founder of Shutter Sisters, a collaborative photo blog and thriving community of female photo enthusiasts, shuttersisters.com. Learn more about Tracey and her work at traceyclark.com.