Photography masterclass: The art of black & white
Creating the perfect monochrome image takes more than just an adjustment of your camera settings. You need to find a subject that works, says Peter Cairns
Have you seen those old VW camper vans? You know, the 1967 fume-pumping, ear-rattling, moss-gathering things that top out at 50mph? With the greatest respect to any owners reading this, why would you buy one when there are more efficient and comfortable modern camper vans available? I suspect it’s a nostalgic hankering for a simpler life on the road, perhaps even a refusal to conform to modernity. VW camper van owners must see themselves as a bastion of motoring tradition.
And so it is with black-and-white photographers. Modern cameras and software enable us to do almost anything with our photography, but some prefer to strip their images right back to basics. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Now, before we go any further, I can drive a VW camper van, but I couldn’t repair one. In the same way, I can have a stab at a decent black-and-white image. But the art – and it is an art – of finely optimising monochromatic images in either the traditional or digital darkroom is not my thing. (It’s a patience issue – as in, I haven’t got any.) So I’m going to keep things simple.
Clean shapes and shadows
There are some images of nature that need colour; they cry out to have their colour celebrated. Poppy fields, sunsets, brightly marked birds or insects – all of these subjects rely on colour. It’s what they’re about, and removing it would clearly detract from the image created. Other subjects are all about mood, drama, texture or graphic simplicity, and these are the ingredients for the black-and-white treatment. It’s often a case of discerning what doesn’t work in black and white, rather than what does.
I look for clean shapes, straight lines, contrasting textures and shadowy curves – subjects that not only don’t need colour but actually benefit from leaving it out. These are subjects that rely on form to bring them to life; they need to be monochromatic in the same way that a rose needs to be a super-saturated red or pink.
The great thing with modern technology is the myriad options available at our fingertips. So for the modern black-and-white photographer, there’s no need for a specialist camera or a trawl around the darkest corners of the internet for black-and-white film. Anyone can create effective images in post-processing. OK, it’s a bit like the 1967 camper van owner having air-conditioning fitted to his vehicle, but I prefer to be outdoors rather than sitting behind a computer.
The image above was taken in the depth of winter when it was almost completely dark. Only the black lines of these Caledonian pines in the Scottish Highlands punctured the stark white of the snow. The low light resulted in a heavy blue cast falling across the frame. But although I quite liked it, I wanted the image to be all about the shape and texture of the trees – it was crying out for conversion to black and white. I used Adobe Photoshop to do this, which many people have on their PC or Mac, but there are lots of different software packages and methods to turn your standard colour image into simple monochrome. Just remember, though, that a computer can’t correct for a badly chosen subject or a poorly composed shot. That’s a black-and-white rule in photography, no matter what the colour.
STEP BY STEP
1. To change any image from colour to monochrome, open the image in Adobe Photoshop.
2. On the tool bar across the top of the screen, go to Image and scroll down to Adjustments, then Channel Mixer. Then tick the Monochrome check box in the bottom-left corner.
3. Now go to Image, then Adjustment, then Curves and use the crosshairs to fix the line at the centre point of the graph.
4. Then move the top right and bottom left ends of the plotted line for different contrast effects.
5. Be sure to use the software in moderation – remember, subtlety is key.
• Train your photographic mind – look for shapes and textures that would work well as a black-and-white photograph. Or, conversely, check out colours that would work as colours.
• Study the work of top black-and-white photographers – why do their images look good? More often than not, it’s to do with a discerning eye rather than any post-processing black magic.
• Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can turn a weak image into a perfect one on your computer – you can’t create a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Much better to get it right in camera, so look, discern and execute to the best of your ability.