Taking a good black and white photograph is difficult, it’s not about desaturating and that’s it. You have to take into account the contrast, the luminosity and above all that it makes sense to forget about the color. Today we are going to see the best workflow for striking black and white.
Black and white has been with us since photography was invented. Color arrived early, but its high costs and the difficulty of achieving good results meant that its explosion did not come until the 1970s. Black and white did not triumph for its beauty or anything like that, stood out because it was cheaper and its development only required three baths.
The key, and the most important thing, is to take a good photograph, with a Good composition and an interesting message. But here we are going to focus on the technical aspects to be able to focus on the shot and not get lost with the technical aspects.
Always photograph in color
You should never take a black and white photograph by shooting in black and white. It seems incongruous, but no. Color photography should always be taken to capture as much information as possible. Then on the computer or on the mobile we can remove the colors.
Simplifying a lot, the cameras pick up the luminosity, that is, they see in grayscale. Subsequently, that information is processed to generate the color, the RGB mode. Each color channel has its own light, and the combination of all three is what allows us to achieve different versions of our black and white. If we stay with only one, we limit our work.
An interesting option would be to work with cameras with a monochrome sensor, such as the Leica Q2 monochrome. The image quality of these cameras is overwhelming, since the information is pure, without interpolation. You don’t have to invent anything like with regular cameras, where color is entirely invented by the processor. But they are minority models.
There are many methods, as many as photographers I would dare to say. I can recommend this personal method. But if you want it faster, Snapseed has the tool. black and white. And in Photoshop we can go to the menu Layer> New adjustment layer> Black and white, where we have all the effects imagined.
When shooting in black and white, it is important to think that we are going to convert it to grayscale, because that way the color will no longer be just another reason and we can focus more calmly on the shapes.
Correctly expose the highlights by keeping an eye on the histogram
Today we rely on automation to forget about the exhibition. We need the photograph to look good and that’s it. But in black and white it is necessary to take extreme care of the exposurebecause the viewer will applaud the image if they see detail in the highlights from black to white.
The easiest method to achieve perfect exposure is to always look at the histogram, both on mobile and on camera. And if we can see it live, even better. At the moment we can decide the changes that need to be made to achieve our goal.
With the histogram in view, we have to bring the right end as close as possible to the right side of the graph, without hitting it, it just needs to brush against it. This ensures that the lights are not burned out and become a white spot on the photo.
It is essential not to shoot in Automatic mode. Then with the button Exposure compensationthe one that is represented with a plus and a minus, we will move it until we see how the histogram approaches the right if we take it to positive points.
It is the best way to ensure details in the lights, something that will mark the final result of our photographs. Look at the great black and white photographs of the masters and dwell on the shades of white…
Control contrast with the help of Curves
A good development is, as I said Ansel Adams
, the one that gives us absolute black and white and then a whole range of grays. I would add that this range of grays depends on the lighting at the time of shooting.
The contrast can be adjusted at the moment of shooting, but where we will have all the control will be in the digital laboratory of our favorite app or in our reference program. And the key to everything is to play with the curves.
Is a two dimensional graph. The horizontal axis (X) is how the image is at that moment from black to white; the vertical axis (Y) represents how it will look from black to white. If we click on the curve and raise the point, that tone is lightened. If we lower it, it darkens.
The key, to achieve a good contrast, is to create the famous S-curve. You just have to click on a point of the upper section and move it up; and another click on the lower section and lower it. And that the central point of the curve continues to pass through the center of the graph.
What we’re doing is brightening the highlights (by moving the far right side up) and darkening the shadows (by moving the left side down). This is how we separate the whites from the blacks and gain contrast. Most importantly, don’t make the curve too exaggerated.
Reveal by zones to direct the viewer’s gaze
Here is the most important step of black and white photography. The color is not there and we have to adjust the light in the different areas to get the viewer to see how we want. Here we do not have the strength of red or the tranquility of green. It all depends on the shape and the light.
Here Adobe Photoshop or Capture One are the kings, but a good app like Snapseed can do it just the same without any problem. It is more comfortable to do it on the computer due to the size of the screen, yes.
We have to identify what is most relevant in photography. Then look around you and see if it has more or less light than the main object. To begin with, we have to make the main object stand out more due to light or contrast. There is no choice but learn to select.
The way to do it differs depending on the program, so I’m going to explain how to do it with Adobe Photoshop because with GIMP it’s done exactly the same, and we kill two birds with one stone. The important thing is the concept, not how it is done:
- With the Lasso Tool (L) we select the object. You just have to go around it, making mistakes inside.
- Next we go to the menu Layer> New Adjustment Layer> Curves
- We modify the information as we have learned with the curves.
- We open the Properties window and look for Fade. We raise its value until the edges of the selection are no longer visible.
- And we continue this routine until the main object stands out and everything else follows.
look in black and white
For the end I leave a more personal advice. Taking a black and white photograph is not about removing colors. It does not work like that. You have to think differently than in color. Before shooting you have to know what the final copy is going to look like.
In black and white the shapes are essential. And also the play of light. Therefore you have to take care of these details to the extreme. All elements have to be separated by light and shadow so they don’t mix. Color can no longer do that function.
From this moment on, we only have to play with creativity and master, as we have commented throughout the article, a few steps within the world of developing. It’s easier than making a good color, yes, but it’s not easy at all. After all, you are interpreting reality.
These steps will help us improve our black and white photographs. The great open secret is that you have to practice tirelessly until you get a good picture. But if it’s well exposed, there’s detail in the highlights and shadows, and the main object stands out, you’re on the right track.