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While every image has the potential to convert to black and white, it is no secret that some translate better. Whether you shoot in color (and convert) or shoot monochromatic, black and white photography is an art form from capture to post-processing. If you see black and white/monochromatic photography as a creative choice though, here are a few tips to consider to achieve great black and white photos.
Before delving into some of the simpler ways to edit black and white images, three things to consider when capturing (and processing) are contrast, texture, and composition.
Note: While the terms “black and white” and “monochrome” are used interchangeably they are not identical. Monochrome means a single color, so may contain a tint (of one color). True black and white imagery have no coloring at all, thus is essentially black, white and gray.
Thinking with the end result of black and white in mind means thinking in contrasts. Thus look out for high contrast scenes when capturing your image. The interrelation between the light and dark areas allows you to create and emphasize shapes, edges, and forms. These include strong or interesting shadows and extremes between areas of brightness and shadow within your frame.
When you choose monochrome, texture is that element that takes your image to the next level. It gives your image added dimension by providing a variance in the tonal range. Texture lends more realistic detail to your frame when it evokes a sense of touch. Some textures that work well in black and white images include dirt, stone, metals, and wood. Trees, water and aged skin also translate well.
Oftentimes you may find it difficult to pre-visualize your scene without color. Your camera (DSLR or DSLM) most likely allows you the option of shooting both RAW and JPEG images simultaneously. By choosing the setting on your camera for black and white (also called monochrome), the images on your camera’s LCD will appear black and white, so you can revise your composition while shooting. In this scenario, you still maintain your color RAW file for processing later on, but can “see” what you will be working with.
As you work more with black and white imagery, you start to see differently. When color is absent, the other compositional elements of the image become more important. Some of these include lines, shapes, framing, and perspective.
One of the strongest compositional elements is leading lines that pull your eyes into the frame. Any line or elements that make up a line, that recedes towards the horizon is called a leading line. There are numerous examples of these and they include rivers, streets, coastlines, railway tracks, and even buildings.
Sometimes when you convert an image to black and white, this compositional element becomes even stronger, which makes you reconsider your final crop or presentation of the image.
When shooting color images to later convert to black and white, you have many options. The simplest is desaturating all the color and ending up with varying shades of gray. This is sometimes the ending point for high contrasts scenes as it may need nothing more.
Do not be so quick to desaturate everything though! Depending on what you want to achieve, these captured color ranges can be used to your advantage.
The HSL Panel can be found in Adobe Lightroom and Camera Raw and comparable to using a Black and White Adjustment layer in Photoshop. It is widely used and thus highly probable to find these three adjustments in other editing software as well. These adjustments are worth learning and are not as daunting as they first appear.
As the name implies, HSL adjusts the hue, saturation, and luminosity of the color in your image. There are individual color sliders for red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue and magenta. So why exactly is this a factor when the topic is black and white processing?
With the HSL panel, when you convert to black and white, you still have access to the color information of the image. You are now able to adjust these using the sliders and can end up with a drastically different image. You can control how light or dark each color is and achieve greater separation in your tones.
Where complementary and analogous colors bring the image to life in a color photo; in a black and white photo, tonal contrast can take that image to the next level.
Unlike color photography, black and white has traditionally been a “contrasty” medium. Contrast is the difference between the light and dark areas in your image. Tonal contrast is the difference in the brightness (light intensity) among the various elements in an image. Thus in a black and white image, it is the difference in the range of white to gray to black.
Tonal contrast is one of the main benefits of shooting black and white HDR (high dynamic range) images. HDR refers to the difference between the brightest and darkest areas of your image, thus it is only fitting that it will translate well as a black and white image.
You can easily take control of your contrast though using the various tools available in your editing software. There are a number of sliders and tools to adjust contrast available in the more popular ones like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. In Lightroom, these include the contrast slider, which adjusts the global contrast of the image. There are also black and white specific sliders and the HSL panel above. In Photoshop, you can use either the Levels or Curves tool.
The thought process of what will help you achieve great black and white photos, to capture and processing them is a great journey to take. Look for contrast and texture and try to visualize your end result. If you captured your image in color, you can maximize the color range for your black and white post-processing.
Feel free to share some of your monochromatic takes below.