Black & white photography has a certain romance to it. A mediocre image can be immediately improved with a black & white conversion. But using black & white conversion to cover up poor in camera technique is lazy. Today we will discuss how to shoot for black & white for the best results.
Monochrome and Black & White Photography
Monochrome and black & white are often used interchangeably. They are not the same, but they are related. Monochrome is the parent of black & white, but it also includes any other treatment that includes tones of a single (“mono-“) color. Sepia and cyanotype are two other standard monochrome treatments, one using a coffee/espresso tone, the other a cyan/blue tone. For our discussion today, we will focus black & white which includes the various tones of black (e.g., deep black, warm black, flat black).
Black & White Photography Principle 1: Narrow your tonal range
Many color photographs have poor color control throughout the image. Photographers fail to respect color theory rules and create images with conflicting colors and distracting color elements. Converting to black & white is a quick fix to narrow the color town and eliminate the poor color control.
Instead, take the time to extract distracting elements from your frame. Select your foreground, mid-ground and background to reinforce the color theme you want to render throughout your image. When you convert to black and white, you will have a more uniform canvas to push and pull your exposure.
Black & White Photography Principle 2: Control exposure using the Zonal System
The zonal system focuses on exposure levels through the captured image. Your camera is limited by the range it can capture: current digital single reflex cameras (DSLR) can render about eight stops of range. This means that if you expose for a shadow, and your highlights are greater than eight stops of exposure above the shadow exposure, your highlights will lose information (they will be clipped).
The Zonal System is a framework that breaks the full exposure range into 11 zones (0 to 11).
The system describes tones through the image as moving from pure black (Zone 0) to pure white (Zone 10). Ansel Adams, creator of the Zonal System framework, was renowned for capturing images that existed between Zone 1 and Zone 9, rendering incredible detail and contrast without blowing out highlights or losing shadow detail.
He did this by assessing the scene and waiting for the right time of day to capture his exposure. Without the right level of patience and commitment to get the shot, black & white conversions will struggle to reach their full artistic potential.
Black & White Photography Principle 3: Master your Histogram and Curves
The histogram (graphical representation of the data contained in your image) is the king of black & white photography. Photographic sensitometry is the science of light-sensitive materials and the histogram is the measurement tool. Controlling contrast with the manipulation of curves is the best way to render your final image.
The s-curve in your histogram will define the depth of your shadows and the punch of your highlights. Manipulating the mid-tones will control how quickly transitions from highlight to shadow progress.
Focus on these three areas to improve your black & white photography. The result will be images that were created for maximum black & white impact, as opposed to using conversion as a crutch for sub-par images.