Imagine photography sans color. It is unthinkable. Ever since we started our journey in photography we have always shot in color. When I say we, I mean of course, photographers who had picked up a camera in the last couple of decades. If you have a grandfather who was a photography enthusiast back in his days, he would probably resent the fact that everything is so dominated by color these days. I know mine would, if he’d been alive. Can’t argue with that. He is coming from a school of thought that is fast becoming a rarity these days. It is unthinkable in the world of instant photo filters, Instagram, Facebook and the instant post-processing bliss known as filters, that black and white images could still wow you. If you are a social media freak, fitting the above description, you would probably think that way. And you can’t be blamed for thinking that way.
The thing is color is so dominating, so rich and so vibrant that it is unthinkable to envision any form of photography without it’s overbearing presence. Yet there was once a time just like that. It was before the advent of color film and definitely before the advent of digital sensor. Black and white was the order of the day. People back then would shoot black and white and capture an amazing amount of detail and tonal range that’s unthinkable even with the best of modern gear. The results are there for everyone to see. Photographers, like the legendary Ansel Adams, have created some of the most magical landscape images ever to have been produced. And he shot black and white on glass plates.
Such is the power of black and white compositions that there is an undying love for that format even today. A section of photographers, connoisseurs really, would still judiciously shoot in RAW and post process in black and white. There are some who would even shoot straight in monochrome. We will shortly come to which is the better approach among the two.
Shooting in Monochrome In-Camera
The easiest way to produce B&W images is to shoot in the monochrome mode on your camera. This mode uses a proprietary algorithm as installed on your camera to produce a black and white representation of the colors in a scene. This is an easy, quick-fire way. However, it rarely produces anything that is close to your creative satisfaction. You have absolutely no control over how the colors will render as tones in the final image. You can no longer control whether the blues will be darker or the reds will be lighter or whether the different hues of green in the foliage and the grass will represent different tones. Mind you, the term creative satisfaction is a relative one. Something that which satisfies me may not satisfy you.
Using Post-processing Tools
Thus, the next best option is to use a software like Lightroom to post-process your RAW frames and create a creative black and white image. Even here clicking the Black and White tab under Basic panel is the easiest way to convert your color images to Black and White. One click and Boom! You got yourself a perfect monochrome image. Or is it? Look closely, Lightroom’s proprietary algorithm dominates over your creative freedom. You don’t call the shots, Lightroom does. You will notice that the image has suddenly become grey and lifeless. That’s not what you had intended when you shot in RAW and decided to post process in B&W, did you? I doubt it.
So, what’s the right option? I’ll explain. But before that remember this. When you convert an image into monochrome, the colors red, blue, green etc. becomes tones in monochrome. If they are all in the same ballpark intensity your image will appear flat and lifeless. Something that quite often happens when you take the ‘Auto’ route. By the way this is the original image, SOOC that I will be using to demonstrate the power of post-processing.
The option that I personally like to take is the B&W tab under HSL / Color / B&W. Clicking the B&W tab in HSL / Color / B&W converts the image into black and white, but the difference is that you have all the 8 color sliders representing the color channels (now tones) intact to fine tune the exact look.
To recap – the reason we prefer shooting in RAW and then post-processing in monochrome, than to shooting directly in monochrome, is so that we can have a better control over the tonal range of the image. I personally believe that certain images are better suited for the monochrome effect compared to others. But the first rule of a good monochrome image is that the color version should be a strong composition itself. Once you strip down the colors all that you are left with is the composition. Thus, if the composition isn’t strong the image will not survive the process.
Let’s say that you have captured an image of an old man sitting on a chair. The freckled face and age-lines bring a sense of age and character to the image. However, the color information captured in the image is too distracting to bring through those age / character lines. When we give monochrome effect to an image we strip away that color information. By doing so the distractions are gone and the character lines come through.
A good work ethic and a learned approach to black and white post-processing can lead to a better treatment of certain types of imagery. This would be black and white landscapes. Black and white landscapes thrive on high contrast, which is something that is only possible when you understand how to tweak the color channels in the B&W mode.
I love playing with the Exposure, Contrast, Dehaze and Color sliders. Contrast allows me to add an extra bit of spice to the image and a greater dynamic range than is otherwise possible. I fine tune that by adjusting the color sliders finally. The dehaze feature, explained how to use elsewhere on this website is also a neat little tool. It adds to the overall sharpness of the image by reducing atmospheric haze. A bit of extra sharpness wouldn’t be unreasonable either in B&W images. That can easily be achieved by dragging the sharpness slider. You can always drag the noise reduction slider to smoothen out any artefacts. Ideally I would not like to drag the sharpness slider too much to induce artefacts in the first place. Certain images can do with some special touches. I am referring to post-crop vignetting and grain. I use both from time to time when post-processing but they are used sparingly.