Black and White photography in the traditional sense has really faded into the background these days. The digital revolution is all about color after all – bold, saturated, intense color. Unless you still shoot film, I would venture to guess shooting, or processing, for B&W hardly enters your mind. Well, maybe it does, but I’ll bet the recurring issue is that you are probably unsure which of your color images will convert well to B&W. I think it goes beyond gaining this insight. You have to approach this question when your camera is still in your hands and not when you are back at home reviewing and processing your photos. I’ve come up with a few pointers to help you evaluate the lighting and your subjects specifically for black and white imagery.
GET A GOOD B&W CONVERTER PROGRAM
To begin with, I strongly suggest investing in a top-quality black and white converter software program. While you can do very good conversions using Adobe Photoshop, it is time consuming and I’ve always had to make a lot of complicated layer masks to get the depth and drama that I like in my B&W images. Currently I use NIK Silver Efex Pro and I do not care to try anything else. It is an excellent program. If I had to choose a close second it would be The Plug-In Site’s BW Styler. Let’s get on with some pointers.
SHOOT DURING MID-DAY
I know this sounds counter to everything you read and hear about outdoor color photography, but consider this. B&W photographs taken under natural light mostly look best when there is high contrast present. Now, I don’t mean ALWAYS, I mean usually, because absolutes have no place in photography in my opinion. Look at the old black and white masters, particularly one individual with the initials A. A. Adams’ photographs almost always have a contrasty character that is universally appealing. I’m sure some of this had to do with film processing decisions on his part, but in reading his books he talks about the light not in terms of seeing beautiful sunsets but seeing the light fall on the subject in strong and commanding ways. So my first tip is to use the usual down-time of mid-day to shoot images that you intend to convert to B&W.
The images above illustrate what I mean. This was taken at 3:10 PM on a recent trip to West Texas. The color image on the left is an unaltered raw conversion. The B&W image on the right was converted using the unaltered raw image in Silver Efex Pro. Because of the time of day, and the sun being overhead, there is not a lot for the color photographer to work with. Washed out sky color and deep shadows in an otherwise flat (light-wise) foreground. When I saw this scene I new immediately that this could have the potential for a nice B&W conversion. The single cloud was racing across the sky so it had a interesting shape and character that could be enhanced against the clear sky. There was some shadow on the mountains that I was sure could be enhanced in the conversion as well. There was contrast although the daytime haze was getting in the way. In Silver Efex Pro I played around with the presets until I found one that darkened the sky, brightened the cloud, and increased the contrast and tones in the foreground. Notice how the terrain in the B&W version now has distinct layers of texture (desert brush), and then recurring layers of light and dark all the way to the mountain ridges.
LOOK FOR PATTERNS – LOOK FOR JUXTAPOSED TONAL VALUES OR TEXTURES
While naturally recurring patterns are a great find in any type of photography, I think they are especially suited for fine B&W conversions. In a color image there can be the distraction of the various color hues exploding off the printed page, while in a black and white print those same patterns are given a chance to grasp viewers and force them to concentrate on the beauty of repetition and detail.
I also look for the juxtaposition of tonal values or textures. Whether it’s dark to light, smooth to coarse, or any other ranging values, the idea is to have a syncopated visual beat of ups and downs. In the example above you see both examples. The thin trunks of the bamboo, while so fine and stick-like, give that repeating change in tone and at the same time provide a recurring pattern. Now look at the leaves. They fade in and out of a dark background and when in full light reveal delicate details – expressing the smooth to coarse objective.
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