Black-and-white (monotone or greyscale) photography can have real impact - it's certainly no poor relation to colour. In fact, removing the colour from a photo can sometimes be the making of it, as the revival of black-and-white wedding photography and the appeal of monotone posters prove.
Many of the most famous and perpetually popular photographers - not least celebrated landscape artist Ansel Adams - worked in black and white. In his case, the subtle colour we enjoy today had yet to arrive, but it's safe to say his dramatic photos wouldn't have had the same impact in gaudy hues.
It seems strange, then, that so few of us experiment with black-and-white photography. Most digital cameras can shoot in monotone, but you can also get great results by shooting in colour and converting your photographs later on. In this workshop we'll cover both approaches. We describe various methods of converting colour images, and we'll show you how to set up your camera to shoot in monotone from the outset. We also assess which method offers the most pleasing results.
Not all subjects look great in greyscale, however. We'll help you decide which are the best examples to practise on.
In the 1870s, Frank Sutcliffe shot photos of sailing ships in Whitby harbour. Some 130 years later, those timeless photos are treasured pieces of art history. While we can't teach you how to take the sort of photos that may one day go on to inspire others, the advice we offer here should give you a good grounding in how to capture memorable shots.
In this workshop we've used Corel Photo-Paint X3 to process the images. This is bundled with CorelDraw X3 (£199 inc VAT, scan.co.uk), but earlier versions may be picked up more cheaply. In any case, you'll be able to replicate our results with almost any photo-manipulation package.
Convert colour photos to black and white
1. Photo editors provide various methods of converting a colour photograph to greyscale. There's usually a ‘Convert to greyscale' function. If not, turn the saturation down to 0 in the HLS channel mixer. Remember to save a copy of your photo so that you can always revert to the original.
2. Blue skies will often end up a pale grey colour, indistinguishable from clouds. Black-and-white film photographers use red filters to block blue light and darken the sky. Reducing the blue and green channels to zero in the RGB channel mixer before converting photos produces the same effect. Adjust the brightness to compensate.
3. For a more subtle effect, orange or yellow filters darken the sky to a smaller degree. Emulate this using the RGB channel mixer. An orange filter is equivalent to reducing blue to zero and green to 50 percent; for yellow reduce blue to zero. For portraits you could try reducing the red channel to enhance skin tones.
4. Monotone photography emphasises shape and texture. Since this is enhanced by increasing the contrast, black-and-white photographers often used high-contrast paper in the printing process. Adjusting the contrast digitally is much easier. Simply adjust the brightness and contrast sliders until you're satisfied.
5. You might also like to try converting some shots to sepia. Your camera can probably shoot in sepia, but it's better to convert a colour image to greyscale, then sepia. If your image editor doesn't have a sepia mode, convert your image back to colour and increase the red and green channels until you're happy with the result.
6. Turning black-and-white photographs into line art can produce some startling results. This used to take a lot of elbow grease in the darkroom, but the Edge Detect or similar function in a photo editor can make light work of it. For the best results use high-contrast photos with plenty of straight lines.
>> NEXT PAGE: Think monotone from the start
Think monotone from the start
1. We recommend shooting in colour and converting the images later, which will give you more control over the process than if you let your camera make the decisions. But you might be tempted to cut out the hassle and shoot in black and white (monotone) from the outset.
2. All photographs should be sharp but a crisp shot is even more important when you're working in black and white. Black-and-white landscape photographers usually strive for the ultimate in sharpness and this involves selecting a low ISO rating to reduce image noise. Ideally, use ISO 100 or lower. Our first image here uses a high ISO; the second, a lower ISO.
3. The snag with using a low ISO rating is that you'll need a large aperture and/or a long exposure time to get a correctly exposed photograph, especially if the light is poor. You may be unable to achieve pin-sharp results with a handheld camera, so consider taking a tripod with you on your photographic trips.
4. In landscapes, subjects in the distance can often be marred by haze. Since we're aiming for the ultimate in sharpness, this is to be avoided. An improvement can be achieved by preventing ultraviolet (UV) light from entering the camera using either a UV or a skylight filter.
>> NEXT PAGE: Choose suitable subjects
Choose suitable subjects
1. Rather than working out which subjects will make good black-and-white photographs, you should identify those that won't. Rule one is to avoid scenes in which only colour differentiates between elements. A shot of coloured pens, for example, would become a dull line of grey in monotone.
2. Consider what losing the colour emphasises. Texture and patterns are good examples - although not all patterns lend themselves to this sort of presentation. Look out for texture and patterns in nature and elsewhere. What is it about the bark of the olive tree in our example that makes it work?
3. Shape is another element to look out for, but break the mould of looking only at postcard-type scenes. Instead, think about areas of detail that would make an interesting shot. Often, colour and shade can distract from the shape - search out bold shapes and be prepared to increase the contrast significantly.
4. Landscapes are ever-popular subjects for black-and-white photography - indeed, Ansel Adams' shots of US national parks are immensely popular. Don't expect to take dramatic landscapes from the side of the road. If you want to emulate the old masters you'll need to put on your hiking boots.