I unabashedly love black and white photographs. I can trace this love affair to my high school years. At the time my older sister was studying photography, shooting artistic shots of our hometown with an old Minolta SLR. I only had a dingy 35mm point and shoot, a plastic Vivitar affair with minimal controls. I also could only get colour film at the Drug Mart, so I gazed enviously at her grainy, atmospheric snapshots.
Today, thanks to the digital revolution, any camera can capture a black and white image. Incredibly, mirrorless and compact cameras allow us to preview the world in monochrome, an invaluable technique for composition and inspiration.
Even with these tools however, some skill, or forethought is required. I find my monochrome photos are often well received, and at times other photographers express their own difficulty capturing them. With that in mind, I would like to go through three recent photos I captured with my trusty little G5X that made, in my mind, beautiful monochrome images. I will briefly touch upon the thought process behind each and share an observation on the process of capturing and creating black and white images.
I quite enjoy the image above. It was taken in the last hours of daylight near the Niagara Escarpment in Eugenia. Astoundingly, there is a beautiful, massive waterfall nearby that I photographed, yet the humble cedar trees around it stole the show. These white cedars can be quite old, some over 1000 years! Few other trees can grow in the hard rock of the Niagara Escarpment. The cedars however, drive their roots into the rock, often clinging tenaciously to cliffs in defiance of gravity. The last sunlight in the west lit these trees on one side - I shot quite dark, knowing that at iso 125 I could recover any shadows I needed.
One of the great mistakes that I see is people shooting black and white retroactively. In other words, they do not intend to take a black and white image at the time. Even worse, I see many (I am also guilty of this) attempt to 'rescue' an image by converting it from colour. Occasionally, this may work, but bad light is bad light, and the rules of composition and atmosphere apply to monochrome and colour equally. In this case, I envisioned a black and white image from the beginning, recognizing that the textures, as rich as they are, would really pop in grayscale. The image has a depth and drama to it, and I certainly intend to print this one large - or as large as the 20mp from the G5X will allow. Thankfully, I had to do very little cropping in post.
The image above offers a few lessons. The first is that just because you have shot a scene, does not mean you cannot return and do it better justice. In fact, I did shoot this tiny church in Schutt years ago. The image I captured that time was acceptable, but the light was significantly less than ideal, resulting in a flat, patchy image.
This time around, I was driving back to work after the weekend. As I passed through the eerie, empty Opeongos, I realized that the light was spectacular, albeit transitory. As I neared this church, I was compelled to get out and give the building another go. This time I opted to include the road in the photography, which I feel adds to the sense of scale and space.
I first created a colour version in Lightroom, and felt very pleased. However, I decided to check the monochrome version, and I liked what I saw. Several potentially distracting colours were erased, placing more focus on my central subject, and the cloudy skies appeared to explode with drama. I finalized the image within minutes, thanks to a roughly accurate initial exposure.
If you find that an image doesn't quite sit right in colour, be sure to check the mono version. If the image is fundamentally sound, removing distracting colour elements can strengthen it further.
Above is an image that is not fundamentally different from its colour counterpart. When I stopped at this abandoned house near Orillia, I was instantly faced with the age old 'dynamic range dilemma.' Simply put, the G5X is no D850, and simply would not capture both the blue of the sky and details in the shadows. I decided to expose for the sky, accepting that the image would be a dramatic silhouette, confident that I could recover SOME detail from the building.
Before I even imported the photo, I knew that this image might end up in grayscale? How? Simply put, I have rarely seen silhouette images that look better in colour. Silhouettes are all about simplicity - stark highlights and deep shadows. Monochrome perfectly complements that ethos in a beautiful way.
To sum up, there are many reasons to choose black and white conversion. It's important to realize however, that shooting in monochrome is a skill in itself, one that I try to continually develop. Over time, you may find that you begin to 'see' in black and white. I do not mean that you are colour blind, rather that you develop a sense for what makes a strong monochrome image. The conversion itself is of course, a vital process as well, but that's a post for another day.