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Mission: Monochrome

Think and shoot in black-and-white to add depth and beauty to your black-and-white photography
Mission: Monochrome

Using natural sunlight coming in through a window, and the texture of the wall behind the subject, it’s possible to create a range of tonality and shape, perfect for monochrome photography.

In the bright and vibrant digital world, we all find ourselves in today, it can sometimes be an exciting change of pace to choose to explore the world of black-and-white photography. To many people, this process is a choice simply made during the processing of the image, but to truly take advantage of the black-and-white medium, one should really go into the shooting process with the intention of creating black-and-white imagery.

To that end, I’ll review some techniques I recommend for shooting and producing better black-and-white images. In the monochrome world, you won’t have the benefit of flashy colors to engage your viewers, so your primary tools for holding their attention will be contrast and emotion.

Shoot In Black-And-White

Most modern digital cameras these days have the ability to shoot images in some sort of black-and-white or monochrome form. Now, this may seem like an obvious thing to do, but one of the best ways to help yourself shoot better images for black-and-white is to, you know, actually shoot them in black-and-white. If you shoot in RAW, your image file still will have the color information should you decide to change your mind and process in color, so you should have no worry about limiting yourself by shooting this way.

If you’re shooting with a mirrorless camera, then you can even set up your EVF to show you the scene in black-and-white. This is an optimal experience for shooting black-and-white images. It allows you to skip the step of visualizing your scene in black-and-white because there’s no need—you can just see it right there.

On a DSLR, you won’t be able to see your scene in black-and-white through the OVF, given that you’re viewing the world directly through the lens. However, you can still set up your camera so your image previews are in black-and-white, and you can always shoot with the rear LCD in Live View, if you want to.

Many times, depending on the level of customization available with your particular camera, you can set up your black-and-white picture profile to pretty closely mimic the look you’re trying to achieve with your black-and-whites after processing. This is why shooting in black-and-white can be so helpful; it can allow you to see 90 percent of the final image you’re going for right out of the camera. This is game-changing for people who have a hard time visualizing and who work better in a WYSIWYG workflow.

Use The Contrast Of Your Environment To Draw Your Viewer’s Gaze Where You Want It

Contrast, or the difference between the brightest and darkest points of your image, is a key tool of black-and-white photographers. Our eyes are naturally drawn to bright points in an image, but they’re also drawn to points that are different from those around them. So, if your scene is mostly bright, then something dark will likely draw the most attention, and likewise, in a darker environment, things that are bright will stand out and attract attention.

Mission: Monochrome
The eye is more cognizant of textures and patterns when viewing monochrome images, so this chainlink fence becomes part of the composition.

If you understand this and understand how to use it to your advantage, you can create black-and-white images that will easily draw the attention of your viewers to the point in the image that you desire. This doesn’t have to be all that complicated, either; it can be as simple as taking your environment into account and placing your subject in front of a background that contrasts the most with what they’re wearing.

You certainly can go further with this, taking the time to scout locations and choose wardrobe based on the environment you’ll be shooting in. But it doesn’t have to be that intense. Even just the example noted above can make a huge difference in your black-and-white work, helping it to stand out more in a sea of vibrant color images.

Shadows Are Not Your Enemy; Use Them As An Ally

There’s a common misconception out there that shadows are bad and that they should be minimized or avoided in your images. First off, get that nonsense out of your head. Shadows are a vital piece of every image, color and black-and-white. They’re what give your image depth and dimension. There are certainly bad shadows, and those should be looked out for, but not all shadows are inherently bad. In black-and-white, specifically, the shadows can be used to hide aspects of your subject or environment that you don’t want the viewer to see.

In addition, the gradient of a shadow can be an essential tool for sculpting your subject’s body, exaggerating some features or minimizing others. This can be hard to visualize, but it’s all about positioning your subject in relation to your light (if shooting natural) or your light in relation to your subject (if shooting with strobes). For curves or features that you want to exaggerate or enhance, you want the shadow to feather off across that part of your subject with a long gradient. This is what tricks the viewer’s eyes into perceiving those features as larger than they truly were.

On the flip side, if you’re trying to minimize the look of a feature, then flat light directly hitting the feature will prevent any shadows from drawing attention to it or causing it to look larger than it actually is.

In Black-And-White, Light Is Light. Use That To Your Advantage

When you’re shooting images for color, you need to worry about mixing light. For example, if you were to shoot some portraits indoors near a window, but also wanted to have the lights on, chances are, the light coming from the window would be this bluish color, while the light indoors would most likely be much warmer, yellow, even. Our eyes naturally adjust for this, and we don’t notice this as much, but our cameras can’t make that adjustment, and so an image ends up with this odd combination of colored light that can be cool and is used on purpose, but generally is really distracting. As such, when shooting in color, you generally need to be careful about what lights you’re bringing or using on a shoot, or you have to remember accessories to modify their color.

When you’re shooting in black-and-white, this isn’t as big of a concern. In the monochrome realm, blue light looks white, and yellow light looks white; since there’s no color to worry about in the final shot, the only thing left is the brightness and intensity of that light. So, while in color you’d probably avoid utilizing a fluorescent light in a room, in black-and-white you can still use that light to your advantage without having to worry too much about it negatively affecting your image with an odd color cast. There are exceptions to this, as some colors of light will appear more intense than others, but generally, as long as no filters are used, this is a great way to light your image in black-and-white that you’d normally avoid when shooting in color.

Mission: Monochrome
Latourell Falls, just east of Portland, Oregon. This shot is an example of how you’re drawn to the contrast of the waterfall to the dark foliage, as well as the use of a digital red filter (to darken the greens).

Color Filters Physically And Digitally Can Improve Your Images

These days, it seems like lens filters are a thing of the past; beyond ND filters and polarizers, chances are that many of you haven’t even touched a filter in some time. But in black-and-white, the world of color filters is actually a great tool at your disposal for affecting the look of your image in a variety of ways. But, since you may not know how this works, here’s a brief overview.

A color filter in black-and-white photography will show its color lighter (i.e., more gray) and darken the color that’s opposite to it on the color wheel. So, while a red filter will display lighter reds and darker greens, a green filter will show lighter greens and darker reds.

As you can imagine, this can have a profound effect on the look of your black-and-white images, from fairly subtle (a yellow filter) to much more blatant (a green filter). You can still buy lens filters for this, and they come in various colors and intensities. But, thanks to the wonderful world of modern digital sensors, you can also skip that and somewhat mimic the look in post-production by playing with your black-and-white mix and adding your own “digital filter” to the particular file.

There’s an advantage of using the lens filter over the digital one. Since the light is being filtered through the lens, rather than after being captured by the sensor, you can sometimes capture information in your RAW file when using the lens filter that you wouldn’t be able to display with the digital filter because the information simply wasn’t captured.

As always, the rule of thumb should be to get it right in-camera if you can, so if you have access to the lens filters we suggest using those. That said, the digital filters will still get you pretty far.

These are just a few easy techniques for you to implement and try when you next go out to shoot black-and-white. The chaotic simplicity of a monochrome image is a thing of beauty and a joy to capture.

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