Black and white photography as a genre is a personal favourite of mine. The overabundance of colours can, sometimes, take the focus away from the real picture, the composition and the underlying story. Colors can sometimes blind the eye and divert your attention. Even if you don’t get a very good image, composition wise, the overabundance of colours can make it slip through. With black and white photos, there is no hiding if you don’t get it right. Black and white photography is, thus, less forgiving.
So, the question is why do it? Why spend time and energy and money in doing something where you are likely going to have to deal with a lot of heartburn and have lesser chances of success compared to other genres of photography? A simple answer is – because it is more difficult and thus more challenging.
A more 'likeable' answer is black and white photography is real photography; the 'pure' genre. More than half of the photography stalwarts that we admire today have shot black and white all their life. Even after colour became affordable and more readily available, black and white continued to dominate the photography scenario. It was only after newspapers and magazines started to show an inclination towards colour photos, which black and white saw the spotlight shift.
But even today, there is a noticeable interest in black and white photography. Especially in the fine art segment where professionals still pursue the art of making photos the 'old-fashioned' way. Fine art black and white photography are highly sought after. And this is where I think this genre has continued to live on and will continue to live on for years to come.
When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls! Ted Grant
When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!
How to shoot Black and White Photos
There is only one way to shoot black and white photos. I mean straight out of the camera. But there is more than one way of converting a regular colour image into a black and white one. This, of course, makes use of the countless number of image processing options that are available. And it would help significantly if the image was shot in RAW.
Thus, one way of doing this is to simply switch to black and white mode on your camera and shoot and produce beautiful images which you can share instantaneously. The other way is to shoot in colour and then process them to produce a black and white image that is completely custom made as per your preferences.
Then there are smartphone camera systems like the Huawei P9 which has a dedicated black and white sensor. Though not designed specifically to shoot black and white images, this sensor can shoot them regardless. A black and white sensor, traditionally, will pick up more ambient light detail from a scene.
This is because the pixels on a colour sensor has to filter out some wavelengths of light to 'sort' different colours into different 'buckets' (light pixels). For example, a red filter will only allow red colour light to pass through filtering every other colour. Similarly, a blue filter will only allow blue light to filter through filtering every other colour.
The thing is with digital technology; you have way too many options to produce a black and white photo compared to what was available to film photographers several decades ago.
Shooting B & W straight into camera
Shooting black and white straight into your smartphone makes sense. That way you can look at a scene through your smartphone and decide whether it is 'good enough' to be captured. You will develop a habit of looking at things from the perspective of your smartphone LCD screen. After a time just by looking at a scene you can 'see' an image, the way it will be captured by your smartphone camera.
To see in colour is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul. Andri Cauldwell
To see in colour is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul.
So, should I only shoot in black and white?
Yes and No. Again, this depends on what you plan on doing. With complex two or three step switching from colour to black and white mode on smartphones (it is worse in digital cameras), once you are in the black and white mode you might miss a moment of colour while trying to get back. Thus, if you are a habitual colour photographer with interest in black and white, I would recommend shooting in colour all the time and then process your selected images in black and white.
On the other hand, if you are a dedicated black and white photographer, who doesn’t care much about how the world looks in colour, then leave your smartphone camera on black and white mode all the time. That will help you save a considerable amount of time going back and forth between the two modes. Plus, you will capture a lot more ambient light information as explained above.
One more thing to consider. If you plan on shooting black and white straight into the camera, it is probably not a bad idea. Except, however, for one thing. And that is, you have no way of going back to the colour information because you have already discarded it.
What about losing the colour information?
Good point. The colour information in your image is actually very important here to note. The thing is, the individual colour channels can be tweaked to play around with the individual luminosity and saturation levels inside the black and white image.
A majority of photographers prefer to use this colour information. I mean photographers who shoot RAW and mainly process their black and white images from a colour image. They play around with the Curves and HSL adjustments on their favourite photo editing tool, and that gives them the advantage of imparting a particular look and feel to their black and white images.
Shooting black and white has its advantages too
When you shoot in black and white mode, the pixels on the sensor don’t have to segregate the different colours. Usually, when the pixels do that, they accept one of the three primary colours and disregard the other two colours. The result is some loss of luminance information. When shooting in black and white mode, the individual pixels accept just the luminosity information without regard to the colour information. Thus, one argument for shooting black and white straight into the camera could be that your camera receives more luminosity information for the whole scene, which is ideal when extracting details from the shadows.
The best way to get a good black and white image is to pay careful attention to the fundamentals of good image making, i.e., good composition. Paying careful attention to the basic rules like symmetry, leading lines, Rule of Thirds, contrast and framing.
Look for scenes that will appear great in high contrast black and white image. Portraits of old people are one type of image that I can recommend. Then, look for old buildings. Old dilapidated buildings and if they are right next to a tall skyscraper (yes I know it is hard to find something so juxtaposing in real life) makes a great image. Street scenes are also a great place to try black and white photography. For those who have reservations about aiming a camera at a complete stranger, the smartphone gives you the advantage to shoot without drawing too much attention towards yourself.
The above is an image that I made right after the golden hour. This is the time of the day that is also known as 'Blue Hour'. The sky was blue, and there was still a bit of ambient (not much) light around.
This image was then converted to black and white using Adobe Lightroom. This is what I got.
A strange ghostly shadow of the Second Hooghly Bridge is looming ominously over the James Princep memorial. The stark contrast between black and white is what attracts me the most in this image.
Image Editing Apps on the Smartphone Platform
There are many different smartphone apps for post-processing your images and giving them the kind of final look that you want. Lightroom, Snapseed and VSCO are three photo editing apps that we recommend for your Android and iPhone platforms. But there are much more beyond these three.
How do you select the best photo editing app for your smartphone platform?
The best photo editing apps will let you play around with HSL and support editing RAW. However, not many smartphones can shoot in uncompressed RAW format. Adobe Lightroom mobile comes with full RAW image support. Thus, if your phone can shoot in RAW, it can be processed using Lightroom mobile straight into your phone.
Black and white photography is truly quite a 'departure from reality', and the transition from one aspect of visual magic to another was not as complete as many imagine. Ansel Adams
Black and white photography is truly quite a 'departure from reality', and the transition from one aspect of visual magic to another was not as complete as many imagine.
Editing Guideline on Smartphone Photo Editing Apps
Here is a quick editing guideline for post-processing your colour photos on a smartphone photo editing app. I am using Adobe Lightroom Mobile. But these steps are replicable on the other two photo editing apps that I have mentioned here, as well as on most other photo editing apps.
This photo was originally shot in colour, as you can see from this screenshot which was taken after the image was imported to Lightroom. There is an option to capture images in Adobe Lightroom mobile as well. But it was not used for this particular image.
After importing the image, I did quick cropping to make the image comply with the Rule of Thirds.
The flower in focus has been isolated from the rest of the bunch and held in contrast against the rising sun.
This is where you will find the options to tweak the HSL (Hue, Saturation and Luminance) of the individual colour channels. My next steps would be to pull down the saturation sliders of all the colour channels individually.
I prefer to work in this way rather than switch to black and white and use the automated option.
Now that the saturation sliders are set to -100, I can finally get down to tweaking the luminance sliders to change the individual tones inside this black and white image. This is what it looks like after the 'tweaks' have been made.
I did a further crop to adjust the frame. Then, I added some contrast and played around with the shadow slider.
Another thing I love about Lightroom is the Curves Adjustment tool. This is very easy to work with and gives you a quick option to tweak the luminance in the shadows, highlights and mid-tones selectively and very quickly.
The final image is more like what I had envisioned. A cold winter morning with dew drops drenching a little flower in the bush. Of course, you are free to choose your editing preference. Happy Shooting!
To some extent, the cult surrounding black-and-white photography is based on nostalgia. Rene Burri
To some extent, the cult surrounding black-and-white photography is based on nostalgia.
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