Converting an image from color to black and white is a fairly easy and straightforward process in many post-processing programs like GIMP, Photoshop, and Lightroom. But to get the best results, rather than converting any old image to black and white, it’s important to learn how to see in black and white and choose subjects that will be enhanced with a black and white treatment. Therefore, the process of getting a stunning black and white image begins well before you ever press the shutter button, let alone begin the editing process.
In this week’s free, in-depth lesson, we offer up some advice on how to see scenes in black and white and outline the elements of a photo that will make your black and white image really shine.
Learning to See in Black and White
Developing a photographer’s eye and learning how to see a scene in terms of how it will translate into a photograph is a key skill. But that skill is even more important for black and white images because not only do you have to envision the composition, but you also have to understand how the color scene laid out before you will translate into a black and white photo.
Visualizing a scene in black and white means you have to set the colors aside for a moment and look at other factors presented to you, such as textures, shapes, and tones. Each of these elements will provide depth and dimension to a black and white shot while also helping to differentiate the main subject from the rest of the image, which is what will really set your photo apart. Having a subject that will render in a shade of grey that is much different than the rest of the details in the shot is crucial for the success of a black and white image.
Have a look at the images above and below. Note that in the image above, there is a lesser degree of tonal range, and the image is dominated by neutral greys. This gives the image a bit of a washed out look because there is less contrast.
Conversely, in this image, there is a greater tonal range with very deep blacks in the background that contrast nicely with the lighter greys of the model’s skin and hair. When we say the primary subject in a black and white photo needs to be of a much different grey value than the rest of the shot, this is precisely what we mean. Although it can be argued that both images are successful, the second one is more successful.
Elements to Include in Black and White Images
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of how contrast impacts a black and white photo, it’s time to explore a few other elements that will make your image really pop.
Texture and Fine Details
First, look for elements in a scene that have texture and fine details. When an image is converted to black and white, these elements will give the image a much greater visual depth, which, in the absence of color, is necessary to create a dynamic photograph. If shooting landscapes, things like rocks, grasses, or the fine textures of sand dunes are a good target; if shooting a portrait, texture can take the form of wrinkly skin, hair or facial hair, clothing, or even the way in which the person’s fingers, hands, and arms are arranged.
Regardless of the subject, if you really want the texture and fine details to jump out, utilize side lighting to emphasize them. Again, in landscapes, orient yourself such that the natural lighting comes across the scene; in portraits, utilize natural light or a flash to get the side lighting you need to highlight the textures in the scene, as was done above.
Other elements that help give dimension to a black and white shot are shapes, lines, and other forms. Because black and white images rely so much on contrast, it’s necessary to have shapes present in the scene because they create areas of light and shadow that serve to enhance the contrast in the image. The photo above is a prime example of this principle. The stairs and railing catch the light and appear as a brighter shade of grey than the rest of the shot. The stairs additionally serve as a demarcation between the lighter greys on the left and the darker blacks on the right, making this a highly interesting image to view.
Not only that, but shapes can also help lead the viewer’s eye deeper into the shot, as the wooden jetty does in the image above. Imagine this shot without the jetty; the chances are that your eye would get stuck in the expanse of the water in the foreground and not move toward the background. But the inclusion of the strong lines extending deeper into the frame helps move your eye toward the horizon and up into the sky above.
As mentioned above, a wider tonal range is often the most pleasing level of contrast for a black and white image because of the sharp differences between blacks, greys, and whites. The range of contrast makes for a richer viewing experience. However, that doesn’t mean that images that tend toward more whites (high-key), or more blacks (low-key) can’t also be very visually stimulating.
The trick when creating a high-key or low-key image is to include the elements discussed above - texture and shapes - to ensure that there is enough visual interest in the shot to overcome the lack of contrast. The image of the golf ball above works as a low-key shot because it has distinct shapes and textures that catch the light and create a more appealing visual space, even though there is a relative lack of medium greys and bright whites in the frame.
The same principles apply to the high-key image above. Unlike the previous image of the golf ball, there is an abundance of whites and medium greys in this shot. However, as was the case in the previous image, the presence of shapes - the stairs and the person, in particular - help provide the visual interest that would otherwise be lacking in this image.
Who knew that there was so much involved in seeing in black and white?! While it might initially seem a bit overwhelming, with practice, you will get to a point where you can easily identify the textures, shapes, and tones that will turn any scene into a gorgeous black and white shot. As a final piece of advice, avoid using your camera’s monochrome preset for creating black and white images. Instead, shoot in color, shoot in RAW instead of JPEG, and process the files into black and white using your favorite editor. The results will be far superior, and you will have a color version of your image to work with too!