In an oversaturated world, the elegant, timeless appeal of black-and-white is in its simplicity. To get frame-worthy results, with a beautiful range of tones, you don’t have to be a student of the Zone System—but you do need to start with a proper exposure and then use software tools to perfect the final image.
CAPTURE IN COLOR?
When shooting for a monochrome image, it helps to visualize the end result. You may be tempted to shoot using your camera’s black-and-white mode, if it has one. These modes, some of which are available with toning effects, are great for previewing images in black-and-white.
Most pros agree that you sacrifice a lot of potential by using in-camera black-and-white capture modes, however. Essentially, these modes throw away information when they desaturate the image, making it impossible to return to a color image if you ever want or need to.
Perhaps more importantly, when you shoot in black-and-white mode, you lose control over how specific colors are converted to gray tones. For some photographers, the convenience is worth the price, but in general, it’s accepted that black-and-white conversion with image-processing programs is the best method. So use your camera’s black-and-white mode to visualize the end results, but shoot again in RAW for your final image.
While shooting, most of the same principles that apply to color also apply to black-and-white photography. Pay attention to sharpness, exposure and especially the contrast in your scene. Shadows should have detail, and it’s important that brights aren’t blown out. Black-and-white photographs don’t have the advantage of color to distract viewers, so good tonality and luminance become more important than ever before.
Learning what works and what doesn’t will come from experience more than anything else, and thankfully, there are so many adjustments that can be made “in post” that you’ll be able to adjust the image to your liking as long as you get a decent exposure.
Black-and-white photography can have some color, too. Even in the wet darkroom, special developing methods allow you to tone prints with blues, browns and any number of subtle colors for adding touches of coolness, warmth, antiquity and more.
With digital, these methods and many, many more can be replicated and improved upon with the touch of your keyboard. Filter effects, for instance, replicate the traditional optical filters that photographers use in the field to restrict or enhance colors. A red filter is effective for increasing contrast in a black-and-white image and making clouds dramatic against darkened skies. A green filter is good for skin tones in black-and-white, and an orange filter lightens oranges and reds while darkening blues or greens. Play with these options, available in most imaging programs, to see the dramatic effect a subtle change can have in black-and-white.
CONVERTING COLOR TO BLACK-AND-WHITE
There are many different ways to get a great black-and-white image. In general, the more complex the method of black-and-white conversion that you choose, the more control you’ll have over the final image. At the same time, there also are many convenient, easy-to-understand conversion methods that provide wonderful results. Here are a few of the most popular choices.