There’s something in the simplicity of Black and White photography that speaks to the art of the medium. Maybe the removal of colors accentuates the composition? Maybe the monochromatic tones show more than initially captured? Maybe it’s an act of getting back to the roots of photography? Whatever the reason, there is a simple charm and stark boldness in Black and White photography.
Over the years, I’ve been able to train myself to see which pictures are best suited for the Black and White conversion. Back when I was photographing with a point-and-shoot Olympus C770, I would occasionally take pictures with the “Black and White” filter. At the time, I didn’t have the post-processing tools I needed to create stunning Black and White photographs, so I relied on the simple (and limiting) in-camera filter. Now, with the help of Photoshop, I have much more control in the creation of my Black and White images through manipulation of two parameters: contrast and saturation.
Before I start converting a picture to Black and White, the first thing I modify is the contrast. Because Black and White photography is very binary (only black and white, with shades of gray in between), the contrast between these two extremes is very important. Sometimes the best Black and White photos I’ve taken are during sunrise or sunset, just because it automatically gives a very sharp distinction between light and dark. You can also make shadows darker and highlights brighter in Photoshop to add to this effect. Once the contrast is to my liking, I will delve into the color saturation for the image. This is where a wide variety of Black and White options are open to you.
In controlling each of the different, individual colors of the image (usually Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Cyan, and Magenta), you can reduce the saturation of each to zero to create a gray color, or you can leave it alone and desaturate everything else. Either way, once you’ve made your choice of saturation, you can play with the brightness to increase the contrast even further. By controlling each color individually, you can turn blue skies black, yellow sand white, and green leaves gray. You can even choose to leave your subject in color to make it pop out against a desaturated background. Sometimes this requires creating a layer of Black and White on top of the original image and “erasing” out your subject, but sometimes just the color modification is all you need.
While composition is always important in all photographs, it is vital in Black and White. Rule of Thirds, Framing, Depth of Field, and Leading Lines all contribute to great pictures, but these concepts are somewhat more enhanced in Black and White photography. With the removal of color from your picture, these techniques are what will set the image apart from the others, since it’s practically all that’s left. Even with great composition, sometimes you just need to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. Play around with the sliders on Photoshop, and don’t be afraid to see what’s possible at the extremes!
As always, have fun!
– Benjamin M. Weilert