Way back in my film days I shot a lot of black and white photos, not because I was tapping into my artsy side, but because it was cheap. Back then developing and printing B&W photos was less than half the cost of printing in color. For a poor boy learning the ropes of picture taking, it really was the only way to go, and even that consumed nearly all of my meager disposable funds.
Back then I saw the world in far more than 50 shades of grey and the resulting pix looked good because of it. You pay attention to different things when you shoot B&W film.
Today anyone can take sweet color shots with no concern for the cost of developing, and if you don't intend to print on paper the cost is just your time. Unfortunately, in the rush to digital color, B&W photography has become marginalized. There are few options today to shoot solely in B&W. Some cameras offer monochrome as a switchable option, but no one seems interested, especially since it's so very simple to change any color photo into a B&W shot. The problem is that not all color photos are good candidates for B&W conversion, and that's likely because the shooter wasn't thinking in B&W if that was his or her intent.
There's a lot to cover if we're going to talk about Black and White photography so I'm going to do this in two parts. This article will be about how to "see" in B&W so that you make the subtle changes in the way you shoot. The next article will be about converting a photo to B&W so that what you print is as close as possible to what was in your mind's eye when you snapped the shutter.
Lots to cover so let's get to it.
A Grey World
Imagine there's a big, beautiful rainbow in front of you. It's bright and full of rich, deep colors. Now imagine draining away all the color. What you have left is a big rainbow with various shades of grey where the colors used to be. The band that was red is darker than the band that was green, which is darker than the band that was yellow.
Without color objects around us can be pretty boring, but color can blind us to details we might normally overlook.
Peace Lilly. There was a black tablecloth nearby that I used for the background and I positioned the potted plant to catch the sunlight just so.
(Photo Vern Seward. iPhone 5, Pureshot, Snapseed)
Take a gander at the photo above of a peace lily. There's a certain serenity in the composition, yet it forces you to focus on the flower. Once there you see details in the petal and stigma that you might not have noticed had the photo been taken in color and with the flower's natural leafy green background. It's the composition and the detail that makes this a nice photo, but also the lack of color.
To do this you have to imagine your subject without color, but in shades of grey. Where are the shadows falling? What shades are next to each other? Will the shades contrast or blend?
It's true that you'll need a bit of experience to know how colors affect the final photo, but don't let that sway you. It's likely that if you can see it in your mind's eye, you can get really close to your vision in reality.
A Filtered World
I talked about lens filters in an earlier article, but then I focused on two types, polarizing and neutral density filters. To recap, polarizing filters reduce the affects of glare while neutral density filters cut down the amount of light that gets to your sensor. Both can add a lot of options regardless of what you're shooting. But with B&W photography color filters gives you even more options. You may be wondering why anyone would want to use a color filter if he or she is shooting B&W. If you'll recall my rainbow discussion then you'll know that certain colors produce certain shades of grey. Color filters work the same way, but they affect the entire photo, often in ways you may not think it might. A yellow filter, for instance, lets the yellow light from the rainbow come through, but it will reduce the light from other colors. It's a bit to wrap your brain around, I know, and it becomes especially tough if you can't preview your shot in B&W while using a color filter. (few smart phones and dedicated cameras offer that option, though they should)
Driftwood on Playalinda Beach, Florida. (Photo by Vern Seward, iPhone 5, polarizer (sunglasses), Pureshot, Snapseed)
In this beach-scape the deep blue in the sky was due to a polarizing filter.
Look what happens when I use a simulated green filter on the photo.
Same as above but with a green filter.
Weird, huh? There isn't much that's obviously green in the original photo, but the effects of the green filter is still quite pronounced. Why? As I said, filters allows light for that color to pass through, that color will appear lighter while other colors are inhibited to various degrees by how much of it is made up of the filtered color, and they produce the shades of gray. In the example above if there is not much green in a certain object then the object will appear darker. The lighter green the object is the lighter grey it becomes.
Snapseed offers a selection of simulated color filters in its Black and White filter. It's a good place to see how certain filters affect a photo. You can find an excellent chart that can help you visualize the results of converting to B&W here.
And that brings me to a good place to stop because the next installment is where I'll be discussing software and other options for making that perfect black and white photo.