The Monochrome Madness challenge has been wonderful, yet I am finding many people feel their own work is not good enough, or they don’t really know, or think they don’t know, how to do monochrome images. I offered to write a post about it. I thought why not, but I don’t feel like I am in any way an expert on monochrome images, or black and white, so I am going to get the discussion going, and like we did with other discussions, like common mistakes newbies make, I will talk about what I do and give some ideas and hopefully other people will keep adding to the discussion. What happens, I will start the conversation. The first part is how to choose an image, and the second part will be about how to convert them to black and white. The post will remain open and as people, you, make suggestions I will add them to the post. So please leave what you want to say in the comments, I will cut and paste them. Remember this is about helping people who have trouble creating monochrome images. Shall we get on with it.
Textures and Patterns
Not every photo you take will be a good monochrome image, sad but true. There are things to look for when you are going to convert an image. Images with lots of textural elements or patterns are great for monochrome, the patterns and textures can really stand out.
Really what a great monochrome image needs is lots of contrast. I am going to try and explain contrast because I know a lot of people say they know what it is and they don’t. I used to be one of them. People say to me it doesn’t have enough contrast and it took me years to work out what they meant. So contrast is about the difference between the whites and the blacks. If you have ever used the threshold on an image, and converted it to just blacks and just whites, then you will find an image with a lot of contrast. Though the image would look crap, but a good image would have blacks, and whites and lots of shades in between. What you are looking for are lots of tones, or greys from light to dark. Often images that don’t have a lot of contrast just look grey and not very good.
If you want to know if an image will be good for black and white, look at the tones in the image, the lights and darks, is their enough of a difference. Remember that some colours will have the same tones when converted. For example red and green will have the same tone, and when you convert they may look the same. Dramatic images often lend themselves very well to monochrome as well.
A couple of people have mentioned how you can take photos in Black and White with a setting on your camera. One way is to take Black and White photos, but then you loose the flexibility of your image because you can’t make it colour again. The other option is to make your screen show you the preview in B&W. The images are still colour, but you get an idea of what it looks like in monochrome. I don’t do either, but I know people who do. To be honest, I just don’t think of it. If you are new to this and learning, then changing your screen to give you the preview could be very beneficial.
The zone system that Ansel Adams developed has been mentioned. I’ve never been able to work it out, but there are others who have read it and used it to get better images. If you are really stuck, could be good to look at.
It has been suggested that if you have the intention of getting images in black and white, then when you set out to take them, remember that, and look at what you are taking. Think about whether it will be a good image for monochrome.
From Merilee, her point of view.
The best way to learn the language of black and white is to work only in black and white. And I don’t mean allowing the camera to take black and white images for you. You must go out and take the photograph in color, and really LOOK at what you are shooting. Before you shoot it, you need to train your eye and brain to convert the image from color to black and white in your mind first. After awhile it becomes automatic. You can be looking at a sign that’s in bright colors, but you know instinctively that when you convert that color photograph into black and white, that the colors on the sign will all turn the same shade of grey. You must do this and do it a lot to learn the language. Also, when composing for black and white, it will be different than composing for color. Because your color becomes part of the composition itself. When shooting for black and white you need to SEE the large, dark areas and the large light areas while you are composing. Work like this for two or three years. I’m not talking about a few weeks. This takes years. I know. It’s what I do. All the time…
Chris had similar views as Merilee
Have to agree with Merilee, to some extent. it does help to convert to black and white completely . I did this about 4 years ago and only shoot for black and white images as an end product, unless some one asks me to do specifically colour for family shots or something like that.
I shoot with a Nikon and preview only in black and white when out and about, I use the histogram a bit when out . The images a raw colour images though. Lightroom is the program I use for conversion, just my preference, presets are good to get a starting point, then the B&W sliders , contrast and lights and shadows sliders used a lot, and the tone curve box fro very subtle changes , lights out – to isolate the image on the screen , then export to PS for resizing and a little sharpening maybe .
Sometimes I use PS for doging and burning using layers.
As you know, I “convert” several of my seascape images to B&W. Seascapes are difficult due to lack of contrast in water. I find that adding other elements (clouds, sand, rocks, people, etc…) to be very effective. The key is the light… the sun’s direction and height specifically. Midday sun can be too flat, but early morning and late afternoon (just after/before golden hour) can be a great time to shoot. Look for clouds to add drama, shading on rocks, and wet sand for some glimmer. Here in San Francisco, I like to go out in the early morning. It’s typically overcast which softens the light. Remember that the sun is still shining through those clouds adding that much needed contrast. You just have to figure out its direction.
My final tip is to know what your goal is “before” you push the button. Visualize your final image in B&W. It becomes easier with practice, but an important goal, nonetheless.
Converting to Black and White
There are so many ways of converting images, and it really is an individual thing. There is no right way or wrong way of doing it. You can do what works for you. The most common thing to do is to reduce the saturation and take out all the colour in the image. You can go to the menu and find where you can convert it to greyscale. They are the two most common ways that I can think of to convert your images.
Black and White Adjustment Layers
Photoshop has an adjustment now that allows you to convert them, you can click that and your image is monochrome, then you can adjust the individual tones in the image to make them darker or lighter, according to how you want them. It is one of my preferred methods of doing the conversion. I will often give the contrast slider a little push as well for extra effect.
On choosing what to convert, I am not sure I do. I think the picture choses. Crazy I know but I just see it and must convert!! For me using Photoshop or taking advantage of such software as Silver Efex, I find the starting point of color very powerful. Once you are in a neutral black and white stage, you can use sliders to lighten and darken various colors in the scene. For example green leaves with lighter yellow areas can be separately lightened or darkened to give highlight and interest to the leaves. Once I like the look of the image, then I can take that composite as a black and white with no more help from underlying color and adjust lighting and contrast in various ways so the final image has a nice mood. If you love nuances of light on just about anything, water, rocks, leaves, trees, birds…then a black and white treatment will always be a wonderful temptation.
However the photographer goes about the conversion, don’t forget that when all is said and done, you can still use one more ‘trick” from the old days of printing on paper – specifically: Do you want a warm tone or cool tone image? Often this final step (by using a photo filter in PhotoShop) really gives a nice finishing touch to a monochrome image.
There is also lots and lots of software that will help you get that black and white effect. You simply open your image in them and hey presto there is your black and white image. There are many around, with the most popular one being Silver Efex from the Nik Collection. I know Topaz Labs also have one, but I have never used it, so I don’t know what it is like. They usually have a heap of presets, to help you decide exactly how you would like your image to look.
I have also seen some actions that when you apply them they will make your image black and white, however you need Photoshop to use them, though I believe you can also use them in Elements, but I’m not positive about that. You can often pick up an action quite cheaply or a bundle of them. I am experimenting with doing them, perhaps I should do one for people.
Another piece of software for Mac uses is MacPhun’s Tonalality. It’s got lot if bells and whistles that make it easy and fun to use.
Conclusion and Photos
I am leaving it there, so I am hoping those that are much better at monochrome will help add more information. What little tips can you give people who want to get better at doing them? For those of you who want to learn how to get better images, try looking at more monochrome and if you don’t like an image see if you can work out why, or why the black and white doesn’t work. I am not going to put everything in the article, so you should also read the comments, as people might add information to what I’ve already said. All the images today are ones I’ve done in monochrome. I am fairly certain they have been on the blog before, some for monochrome madness, and some just, well just because I wanted to. If you look at the file names and see SEP in it then it usually means that it was done in Silver Efex.