One of the most captivating qualities of photos is the impressionistic quality of the medium, and this is more poignant and potent with B&W imagery (mainly because we don’t see monochromatically, so inherently we’re in an imaginary space). Yet in today’s digital age, pure monochromatic photographic work requires more than just switching a setting to “B&W.” There is an extensive amount of post-processing that you’ll need to do with a digital color image to get a quality B&W image.
The thing to remember is that everything starts with the original “negative” (even if we’re no longer shooting film, that RAW image is the negative for all intents and purposes). You want to make sure that your histogram displays divergent doses of RGB, so when you’re in Photoshop and adjusting the sliders, you have a lot room to work with to increase the output of certain tones.
The temptation with digital photography is to review your image just after you’ve snapped the photo — and normally this is a great thing, but I want to ask you to put that self-gratification instinct on pause for a second. When I was shooting film, I loved the Ilford B&W stocks because of the velvety blacks. Once I was aware of how that film stock reproduced darker tones, it became part of my routine to seek out contrast in tones, which is different than contrast in colors… a bright red and a bright yellow look unremarkable side by side in a monochromatic image, but a deep red and a pale yellow actually produce a distinctive demarcation. Therefore, it’s crucial to look for patterns, seek out shapes, scan for sharp discrepancies in tone, in illumination and how light (or the absence of light) establishes tonal shifts, tonal imbalances and symmetry (which contradicts everything I’ve just said, but there is a sublime nature to symmetry in photography that is more apparent in B&W, IMO).
It’s hard to “ignore” the color in the world around us, because even with B&W film you couldn’t escape the color. So with the digital camera, it’s most important to understand that you’re not just desaturating the image, but that you’re going to be work on a different scale — the tone scale. In fact, it might be easier to work with the digital camera set to “B&W” because then you are functionally ignoring the color. But this brings me back to my point about the RAW negative, you’ll be manipulating the image in Photoshop anyway, so the true conception of your image must take into account all these other factors excluding the crutch of seeing the world in the viewfinder in B&W. You want to think about hi-lites and shadows more than anything else, and take these into account as those are the elements that will add the most punch to your B&W photos…
Top image by David Humpohl
Chris Derrick is a writer, photographer, screenwriter and director living and working in Los Angeles. He studied film production and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and continued to expand his photographic knowledge through classes at the Art Center College of Design.