Seeing in black & white

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You have reached the archive of articles posted on my personal blog. This blog is no longer updated, but you can read my latest articles at my new website The Creative Photographer and find my photography ebooks at my new store.

Thanks for reading! Andrew.



Black and white portrait comparison
One of the challenges of black and white photography is learning to see in black and white. For me, this is more of an issue with digital cameras because even if my intention is to convert the photos I’m taking to black and white, I’m still actually shooting in colour. This is partially because I use the Raw format, and partially because you get a better black and white conversion from a colour image processed in Photoshop or Lightroom than you do if you switch your camera to black and white mode and let the camera do the work.

Even when I’m ‘thinking’ in black and white, part of my mind knows that I have a colour image too and is looking at the possibilities the subject holds in colour. Nothing wrong with this – some subjects look great in both colour and black and white. This didn’t happen back when I used to shoot black and white film – the image was most definitely going to come out in black and white, and not colour, so there was no point in considering the colour side of things at all.

Abbey

I’d like to share with you some photos I took of Abbey, one of my favourite models, in the last week that I was in Auckland. My intention was to shoot in black and white, but as you will see the images work nicely in colour too. I’m going to explain what was going through my mind as I took the photos, so you can understand how I was ‘seeing’ the subject. The whole time I was previsualising what the final image would look like, mostly in black and white, but sometimes in colour. I’ll show a colour and a black and white version of each photo side by side, so you can see the difference. Each photo was taken with an 85mm lens on my EOS 5D Mark II in natural light without reflectors or portable flash, so there is very little to separate them in terms of technique.

I wanted to take some portraits that reflected Abbey’s personality, so I asked her to wear choose the sort of outfit she would normally wear and we went to Herne Bay, one of Auckland’s wealthier inner city suburbs, to take the photos as I knew I would find some good backgrounds there. Abbey turned up dressed in black (I guessed she would – she likes black) which worked well in black in white.Black and white portrait comparisonThis is one of the first images that I took. I was attracted by the texture of the stone wall. Texture normally works well in black and white, but in this case, while I like the image, I feel the the light tones in the wall distract from Abbey, the main subject of the photo.

Black and white portrait comparison

Next, I found a white fence, and this is the best of the images I took using it as a background. You can probably see what I’m doing here, I’m contrasting Abbey’s black jacket and dark hair against the white fence. At this stage I was only thinking about the image in black and white terms. The shapes in the design are interesting here – I like the jacket’s round collar and square shoulders. I’d also picked up the buttons on Abbey’s jacket were creating bright highlights and trying to use those to good effect.

Black and white portrait comparison

There was a black fence nearby and this is where things started to get really interesting and I took some of my best photos from the shoot. These images make use of the tonal contrast between the lightest areas in the photo (Abbey’s face, her shirt, the buttons on her jacket etc.). There’s a a lot of subtlety in the dark tones, it was important to make sure that there was detail in the dark tones and that they weren’t just black (which could happen if you underexpose the image). The photo works really well in colour too, largely thanks to the same tonal contrast. You’ll see that the colour version has a very limited palette – most of the image is black and the splashes of colour against the dark background gain impact because they are not competing with other bright colours.

Black and white portrait comparison

When you find a good background it’s worth taking a variety of images (this is called ‘working the subject’). I moved in closer here to take a head shot. The buttons on the jacket are an important part of the composition. Notice how I’ve given the image space around the buttons – I didn’t want them cut off by the edge of the frame.

Black and white portrait comparison

Abbey had also brought a red handbag with her, and this is the point when I started to think about the composition in colour. With a beautiful red handbag like that, how could I not? I knew the handbag would look really nice against the dark background. I was still ‘seeing’ in black and white at this point, but with half an eye on that beautiful red handbag.

Black and white portrait comparison

A littel bit further down there was some green ivy growing against the black fence. Perfect – the texture made a nice black and white image and it just happened to work well in colour too. The colour palette is still limited, and a little bit of red always works well against a large area of green.

Black and white portrait comparison

Herne Bay is one of Auckland’s wealthiest suburbs and the owner of this house obviously has enough cash to splash out on this beautiful wooden entry gate to their property. It made a great free background for our photo, and I darkened the gate down in Lightroom as, like the stone wall earlier, it has enough texture and contrast to pull the viewer’s eye from Abbey. The red handbag made an appearance again and I warmed the colour temperature of the colour image right up in Lightroom to bring out the warm, natural tones of the wooden gate and Abbey’s skin.

Black and white portrait comparison

I moved in for another close-up, again making sure that I didn’t cut Abbey’s buttons off at the edge of the frame.

Black and white portrait comparison

This one’s even closer, with a splash of green in the background. I’m still using the wooden gate as a backdrop here, it’s just that because I’m close to Abbey, and using a wide aperture, it’s gone out of focus.

Black and white portrait comparison

Moving on, I took this photo using the sea as a background. Not that you can see the sea is behind Abbey, as the sunlight reflecting off the water’s surface means the background is very bright. I used this difference in brightness to create this image by exposing for Abbey and letting the background overexpose. This is bit of a hit and miss method as sometimes the edges of the burnt out areas are too abrupt, or pixelated, and it doesn’t look right. That’s just a limitation of the digital medium that we have to work with, but in this case it worked out okay. Like the earlier photo where I used the white fence as a background, I was visualising Abbey’s dark clothes against a bright, almost white background. I was back to ‘seeing’ in black and white here and not even thinking about how it would turn out in colour.

Black and white portrait comparison

This final image was taken using the trees lining the street as a backdrop. I placed Abbey in the centre of the frame because I liked the sense of balance created by the trees either side of her. Again, I exposed for Abbey knowing that the brightest parts of the background would burn out.

Quick tip

A quick tip for helping you visualise images in black and white is to shoot in Raw and set the Picture Style (this is Canon’s term, Nikon’s is Picture Control – check your instruction manual if you have another make of camera) to monochrome. When you playback your image on the camera’s LCD screen you’ll see a black and white version generated by the camera using the Picture Style settings that you have entered. These tend to look flat, as the default setting is designed to capture as much detail as possible so that you can increase the contrast in post-processing if needs be.

You can always enter the Picture Style settings and increase the contrast setting yourself, so that the image looks more like you would expect to see it after post-processing. Just be aware, that when you increase contrast in the Picture Style settings it affects the histogram and highlight alert functions of the camera, which are based on the contrast settings in the Picture Style the camera is using. This means the histogram (and highlight alert) may show that you have clipped highlights when in fact you don’t, and all the detail is there in the Raw file.

The Magic of Black & White

If you liked this tutorial and found it useful, why not check out my Magic of Black & White series of ebooks that I’ve written for Craft & Vision? The links are in the sidebar on the right.

Exposure and the histogram

Speaking of histograms, you may also like to check out an article I wrote for Peachpit on their website about the relationship between exposure and your digital camera’s histogram, and how the two work together. You can read it here.

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