Monochrome images have a power that color images lack. It’s the abstraction in black-and-white that I think makes it so special—removing color from a scene allows the brain to perceive it differently. While color images stand out thanks to what they have, monochrome images stand out because of what they’re missing.
It’s possible to take any color digital image and simply desaturate it, resulting, technically, in a monochrome image. That makes the creation of monochrome’s signature tone and depth up to chance. It’s better to create a monochrome image with a clear sense of purpose and with appropriate technique.
As with all things photographic, it also helps to have the right tools for the job. With these accessories and programs, you’ll be able to create monochrome images with full detail, excellent tonality and great contrast.
The gear needed to capture a great monochrome image should already be in the camera bag of every photographer, but many of these items are overlooked, even by some pros. Pack these items and you’ll be able to improve your black-and-white shots, and color images, to boot.
Filters help modify incoming light, changing the tone, contrast and exposure of your images. For the monochrome photographer, filters are a must.
Red filters are a mainstay in monochrome photography, especially for landscape photographers who use the filters as a powerful tool to deepen and enhance the tones of a blue sky. A red filter will also reduce haze, increase contrast between blossoms and foliage, and make clouds pop.
Orange filters also decrease the effects of fog and haze, and also will darken a blue sky, but in a much subtler way. For urban shooters, orange filters are particularly good at increasing the contrast between materials like brick, steel and concrete.
Yellow filters are pretty subtle in their effect. A yellow filter will darken skies in a subtle way and will separate green tones, making it nicely suited for photographs at botanical gardens or landscapes where you want trees to stand out from grass.
Green filters are a mainstay for landscape shooters, but many shooters overlook them. A green filter is great at boosting the contrast between grass and trees even more so than does the yellow filter. Green filters will have the opposite effect with the sky as the red, orange and yellow filters, lightening the sky and reducing the look of clouds.
Blue filters are very widely used in black-and-white photography, as a blue filter will lighten the sky and darken “light” colors even more than will green, but a blue filter is great for increasing the look of fog or haze, making it great for creating images with a certain look.
Neutral-density filters are one of the must-have accessories (sadly, many photographers do without), allowing a camera to shoot at higher ISOs or in bright light without changing the tones of an image. For monochrome photography, the effect is the same; ND filters help you adapt your photography to the various conditions faced when shooting, especially outdoors.
Polarizing filters are another must-have photographic tool, allowing the photographer to adjust incoming light to boost contrast, reduce reflections and change the appearance of various colors when being captured for monochrome.
There are numerous manufacturers of photographic filters, but since the filter acts as the first optical layer of your lens, the better the quality of your filters, the better your results will be. HOYA, LEE Filters and B+W are among my favorites.
Getting exposure correct when shooting black-and-white is key because so much of a monochrome image is about tonality and exposure. Getting the photo right starts with proper metering.
Gray cards are the most basic form of metering. Pack a neutral gray card with you and take an exposure reading with your camera’s spot metering mode, and you’ll know exactly what the light levels are for your shot. Place a gray card in your scene, and you can better adjust images in postproduction, as well, using the gray card as a sample point to balance your exposure.
You can also never go wrong with a light meter, the most overlooked tool in digital photography. It’s always better to capture an image with the proper exposure than fix it later, and there’s nothing that replaces the exposure meter for determining exposure. While the built-in direct metering in cameras is better than ever, it still can’t beat a good incident meter reading.
If you’re planning to shoot a monochrome image with a digital camera, you’re likely going to start with a color image and convert it later. That’s fine, though there are some things to keep in mind. If you want to visualize in-camera in monochrome, you’ll want a camera that has a good monochrome preset, but it’s best to capture RAW images, as well, so you can have more detail to use for adjustments.
Best is a camera that allows for adjustments to the monochrome images—which channels to emphasize, how much sharpness you want, the contrast range, etc. This will give you a good in-camera look at your scene, and give you a reference point if you want to adjust your RAW files instead of sticking with the JPEG. Mirrorless cameras, with their electronic viewfinders, are particularly good for black-and-white photography, as you can set the camera to display the final image in the viewfinder, seeing the world directly in monochrome and seeing the effects of your adjustments in real time.
For the purist, you can pick up a Leica M Monochrom (see our review in this issue), which can only capture images in monochrome, as it lacks the color filters found on just about every other digital camera ever made.
Once you’ve captured your images, you’ll want to adjust them to create a monochrome masterpiece. Many photographers look no further than Photoshop or Lightroom, and for good reason. Adobe’s raw conversion tools and postprocessing features yield excellent monochrome images with little fuss.
While Lightroom provides slider-based controls for monochrome adjustments, as well as a brush to paint on effects, it lacks the deep-dive functionality of Photoshop and the program’s multiple approaches to monochrome conversion.
With Photoshop, you can adjust images in any number of ways, from simple (convert from color to grayscale with a single, nonadjustable menu selection) to intermediate (the Channel Mixer) to complex (blend channels with the Calculations mode). You can create the exact same look with each of these tools, but the more complex the tool, the more precise of a final image that’s possible.
For high-end black-and-white imagery, many people turn to plug-ins. These tools work with various software programs and provide a visual interface for adjustments. Many plug-ins provide film simulation, as well, allowing a photographer to add grain, borders and lens-simulation effects.
Alien Skin Exposure X. The newest version of Alien Skin’s adjustment suite, Exposure X ($149) includes a host of new features for adjusting both color and monochrome images. The program also works as a stand-alone editor, with tools for importing images—including RAW images. Exposure X is a nondestructive image-editing environment, and includes analog “looks” for film-emulating adjustments. alienskin.com
Macphun Tonality Pro. Tonality Pro is available as a stand-alone app for $70 or as part of the Creative Kit 2016, ranging from $100 to $160, depending on the number of bundled apps. Tonality provides hundreds of presets, grain simulation, toning control and more. macphun.com
Nik Silver Efex Pro. The package started life with Nik Software, and was purchased by Google. Silver Efex Pro is now part of the Google Nik Collection and provides a full range of tools to adjust brightness and contrast, preset filters for more than a dozen film types, and a wide array of toners, borders and vignettes. The plug-in also allows users to create their own presets and share them with other users. The Nik Collection can be downloaded for free. google.com/nikcollection
ON1 Photo 10. ON1 took the stand-alone monochrome tools previously under the Perfect B&W name and added them to their excellent all-inclusive editing tool, Photo 10. The new version uses a preset browser for previewing any of the numerous effects available in the package. With Wacom support, it’s possible to “paint” contrast and exposure changes onto an image and adjust images with both the built-in effects and their stackable filters. The price of the app has dropped to $110, making the suite of color and monochrome tools more affordable. on1.com
Tiffen Dfx v4. Tiffen, the legendary maker of physical filters, has a line of software designed to simulate those filters and to creatively adjust images. Dfx v4 provides adjustments for color and monochrome images alike ($129 as a stand-alone editor, $149 as a plug-in). The editor has 130 filters, thousands of presets and a huge array of film stock simulations. tiffen.com
Topaz B&W Effects. The Topaz B&W Effects plug-in ($60) from Topaz Labs is designed to emulate film processing from the black-and-white era. Each filter and look can be tweaked, adjusting the color and intensity of the effect. While you can dodge and burn your images as in the days of old, you can also use the plug-in’s Adaptive Exposure tool, which uses HDR technology to boost contrast and detail. topazlabs.com
For photographers taking their images from screen to print, there couldn’t be a better time to output monochrome images. Both Canon and Epson have stepped up their printer offerings recently, with new models that excel not only at color output, but black-and-white, as well. The array of papers available is staggering, with many new (and improved) substrates for printing and several companies creating silver-coated paper, which is perfect for many monochrome images.
We recently covered the latest papers and printers in the January/February issue of Digital Photo Pro, and that article can be found online on the Digital Photo Pro website: digitalphotopro.com/gear/printers/high-tech-studio-the-golden-age-of-printing.
Like vinyl records and film cameras, monochrome image capture has seen a resurgence in recent years. With the broad array of tools available, now is the time to dive back into photography’s past.
You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram at @davidjschloss.