Long gone are the days when photographers shot with black-and-white film and developed it in a darkroom or waited for the technicians to send our rolls back so we could see once and for all what magic our lens wrought in that tricky, elusive medium. Because digital cameras capture in color and black-and-white is done in postprocessing, in order to master this medium, we no longer practice in real time. Instead, all of the refinement of our skills happens in the editing suite where, with a click of a mouse, whatever is on our screen becomes black-and-white and we find out in one fell swoop whether we’ve got the goods or not.
Because of the ease of editing, it’s easy to forget to practice how to work with black-and-white. For many of us, we choose black-and-white as a last resort when things aren’t working in color. While some may take issue with that approach, I’ve found that it’s actually the very best introduction to the medium. You find out, after the fact, what works (and what doesn’t), and before long, you start to recognize the signs of when you have a black-and-white masterpiece on your hands. Not only that, you start to be able to see the perfect black-and-white image when you’re out there shooting in the first place, whether you’re lugging your big camera around or tapping away on your smartphone.
How can you tell when you should edit to black-and-white to get the most out of a photo that isn’t knocking your socks off in Technicolor? Here are a few tips for uncovering the black-and-white treasures that are sitting on your hard drive, just waiting for your special touch.
MAKE A COPY
You can always “undo” your way back to an original color photo, but why bother? Before you begin, give yourself the luxury of a clean slate with a copy that you can play around with to your heart’s content. This way, you can really feel the freedom you have to experiment with an image without worrying about ruining it. Every photo-editing software has a “create a virtual copy” option. Find yours before you start.
LOOK THROUGH YOUR NEVER-EDITED PILE
In every editing session, you have images that you never bothered to edit because you could tell from the get-go that something essential was missing for you to create a strong final edit. Now is the time to go back through those old images in search of something that might look better in black-and-white. When scanning this way, there are four kinds of images that I seek out first:
Images that have strong light and shadow. Maybe the contrast was too much for color that first time around. Maybe the shadows were distracting. Maybe the light fell in the not quite right place. These are the images that you might feel very differently about when you hit the B&W preset button.
Images that feel vintage, old or historic. These are the images that you can imagine on a postcard from the 1950s or ’60s, where the details of modern life somehow got left out of the frame. Sometimes these images, which feel outdated or dumpy in color, get all the magic back when you bring them into black-and-white.
Images that have a timeless feel. You want to scan for portraits or architecture that may be completely modern, but have an old-timey feel. Certain faces hold this classic appeal. Same goes for cabins, cathedrals, cobblestones and other artifacts that could be placed in another context and transport you to another time or place. You want to consider images that have a tiny edge of imperfection and have a weathered feel.
Images that are a technical disaster, in general, but capture an emotional moment or exchange. Sometimes it’s just really hard to get your settings right when things are moving fast, emotions are flying high or a special moment is passing. Sometimes bringing things into black-and-white can narrow down the focus of the image and help highlight the parts of the image that actually do work. You’ll be amazed at how emotion becomes a primary player when you remove color and let the gesture and available light in an image speak for itself—especially when composition is strong.
START WITH YOUR PRESET EDITS
Whether you’re using Lightroom or some other editing software, you have at your fingertips a set of actions that already will automatically create for you the black-and-white image that has the just right balance of contrast, highlight and shadow. By starting with presets, you also learn your unique preference for black-and-white editing. With your handful of chosen images, notice whether you like the smooth matte feel of low contrast or the dramatic highs and lows of a high-contrast image. Check out exactly what changes specifically in the program when you apply different edits. Eventually, you can play a little more, from a position of strength that the preset gives you, and develop your own unique style.
BRANCH OUT WITH YOUR OWN EDITING STYLE
With the presets as your starting ground, you can begin to edit to your own preference. You’ll want to focus on the editing functions that alter highlights and shadows, whites and blacks. For flatter matte looks, play with saturation. For more definition to lines and shadows, adjust clarity. In all cases, especially if you’re starting with a photo that’s fuzzy or has been shot too wide open, apply a little noise reduction. As you experiment more and more, with the presets as your baseline, you’ll begin to see which adjustments create the feeling you like best, whether you love the high drama of high-contrast black-and-whites or the smooth, soothing aspects of less saturated images.
READY TO TRY?
Upload your best and brightest experiments in black-and-white on Instagram with the hashtag #dpmagbw. We can’t wait to see what you’ve got!
Jen Lemen is an award-winning photographer and nature-based coach working with people in transition. Her images have appeared in The New York Times, the Huffington Post and on PBS.org. In 2008, she won the Name Your Dream Assignment contest, sponsored by Microsoft and Lenovo, which allowed Jen to photograph stories of hope and elemental courage from around the world. She’s a coauthor of “Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters’ Guide to Shooting from the Heart” and the founder of hopefulworld.org.