Shooting in B&W

December 29, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Digital cameras and any photo editing software provides us, as photographers, the ability to shoot in black and white or to covert the images to B&W later.  The option is yours to express your creativity and to convey the message you wish to audience to receive.  I have read recent blogs where the author cites B&W images as a manipulative measure.  

I have one reply:  EXACTLY!   

Painters will select a brush or a substrate to convey the texture and depth of color they wish their audience to see.  Photography is no different.  You should feel free to express your message using any tool or technique.  Saturate color, soften color, increase shadows, decrease highlights, or convert the image to B&W.  With a digital file, you have the option to revert, copy or change.  So, why not?

 

1.  Why shoot in B&W?  

In some conditions, I find that actually "shooting" in B&W helps me compose the image.  By using the Nikon setting for monochrome I find it easier to see the contrast and sharpness in the LED view screen.   I can quickly discern the highlights and depth of shadows.  When I combined that with a quick review of the histogram, I believe I have a well rounded method that works well for me.  Plus, I shoot in RAW (Nikon NEF).  So, all data is retained, and the images actually upload in standard color when I view in Adobe Lightroom anyway.  Does that work in all conditions and all subjects?  -- No.  I do not use this approach for shooting nighttime, sports and wildlife.  

In other instances, you may want to shoot in B&W for the simple reason that you expect the image to be conveyed in Black and White.  

a.  the subject may be best suited for B&W to capture the drama and emotion

b.  the subject may have an object that contains a distracting color

c.  there may be other subject distractions in the photo that do not become the focal point when viewed in grayscale.  B&W combined with a shallow depth of field can make for a potent combination.

d. timelessness.  Review street photography or portraits.  Sometimes the only differentiator in time is image quality; and even that can be influenced.

e. contrast and definition.  Often times, you can find abstract creations that are really nothing more than the artists view of shadow and light on a subject.  It does not matter if it is a flower, a stairway or a face.  B&W can drive the eye to seek contrast and sharpness.

 

2.  How do I shoot in B&W?

For starters, use the camera and tools in the same way that you would if you were seeking a shot in color.  It is digital, after all, so, you have the flexibility and creativity to execute any vision.  But, if you know that you want to compose an image in B&W, it is important to recognize a few rules of thumb (but, remember, rules are meant to be broken!)

Remember, B&W is all about contrast.  Work on different angles to compose your image in a way that drives clear lines of contrast!  Never shoot once unless either your subject is gone or you are unreasonably confident.  Digital files are free; you're not wasting film or slides by trying another angle!.   Think of this another way:  a silhouette is just a blob of black unless it has a clear separation and clear shape.  B&W is not always a silhouette, but, the same principle often applies.  

Create or push contrast by managing your exposure values.  If you know you want a fairly shallow depth of field, opening the aperture to a value under f/5.6 to f/4 or even f/2.8 or lower conversely means that you are allowing more light through the lens.  To retain the depth of field afforded by the lower aperture and still capture the desired shadows and contrast, increase your shutter speed.  Just like the suggestion above, try a few different recipes.  An EV combination of ISO 100 and f/4 and 1/60th shutter speed might work great on slow or still objects;  not so great on movement.  The same combination with 1/200th or 1/320th shutter speed may have increased success at capturing movement and shadows.  Viewing your image and your image histogram will provide immediate visibility.  

So, start by first working on normal exposure values, compose your image to clearly delineate subjects.  Next, adjust your exposure values to magnify the effect of shadow and light.  The more you correct now, in camera, the happier you will be with your skill, with your product and with your audience.  Yes, Adobe products can resolve almost anything, especially RAW, but why force yourself to a corrective action?  

 

3. You judge:  How did I do?

I was walking through the Old Market in Omaha, Nebraska on Saturday morning looking for light, looking for images.  Some were architectural, some were abstracts.  Then, I cam across a musician that was just setting up on the corner.  I immediately knew what I wanted to capture.

Time to create an image !

 

My first few shots were from the artist's left side (right side of this image).  Clearly, the sun light was all wrong.  Plus, there were cars immediately behind him from that angle.  I moved to this view and immediately saw two things:

  1. the light that contoured his face
  2. the ability to clearly separate the artist from the background by centering him between the poles under the roof.  (Yes, that is intentional)

What else do "I" think I got right in this image?

  • I like the way the line of light trails in from the lower right side of the image.  It tells the viewer this is real light, real life
  • The signs on the post behind him are both out of range of the shallow depth of field and B&W.  Remember, above, I said this is a powerful combo?  If the signs were in color and sharp at f/8 or f/11, they would have been a distraction.  The same is true of the woman in the background behind the guitar player.
  • I like the shadow and lines in the wrinkles of his coat sleeve.  The basis of that is natural light, but I have exaggerated it in LightRoom
  • The artist's face and the guitar are clearly separated and stand out as the clear subject matter of the image.  The rest is just a setting for the story-- the way it should be.
  • Emotion is captured

Now that I have explained what I saw and what I liked, here are the technicals:

Nikon D800, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 lens.  The image was shot at 52mm at ISO 100, f/2.8 at a shutter speed of 1/400th 

This EV combination in that condition produced a well-spread histogram that is higher in shadow/black (at left) than light/white (at right).

What else do the technicals tell you?  Well, first, this is roughly a 50mm shot and every manufacturer makes a very high quality, fast lens at f/1.4 or f/1.8.   Even a kit lens at 50mm could capture similar at 50mm at f/4 and shutter 1/250th.   

Did I get it right?  What would you do differently?  


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