Monochrome (aka B&W)

Color is a recent arrival to the 180 year old history of photography. Practical color wasn’t achieved for nearly a century. And – it wasn’t until the 1950’s that easily usable, affordable color was available and adopted by ordinary photographers. Did that make the work of the first 100+ years poorer? No. To this day, monochromatic photos are prized (my wife to the contrary ;-)).
Fast forwarding from 1829 and the Daguerreotype to 2010 and digital, how do we make monochromatic images today – black & white or otherwise? As far as in-camera image capture goes, we do it the same as color. The major difference between digital color and monochrome is in the post processing. Yes, some cameras – such as my Nikon D300 – have a monochrome option, but don’t use it. (Of course, if you shoot in RAW, using the in-camera option or not makes no difference. Color vs. monochrome can be undone during the RAW conversion process as can most – not all –  in-camera options.)
Post processing – conversion to monochrome from color. I am not going to go into conversion in detail except to say the technique varies and depends-

  • On the post processing program used (most tutorials assume Photoshop), and
  • Within any program there are many different ways to do the conversion – all not equal in the quality of the result.
  • I use Silver Efex Pro (SEP; disclosure – I am a beta tester for its developer, Nik Software; no financial involvement)
    • SEP is a plug-in for Photoshop (including Elements), Lightroom & Aperture; try the 15 day free trial
    • The quality of my monochrome work improved significantly with SEP

An internet search will provide 1,000’s of hits on color to monochrome (B&W) conversion. As I’ve said numerous times, there are no shortcuts (although SEP is close). You have to spend time trying various options until you find something that fits your style and needs. There is no “one size fits all”.
When a colored image is converted to monochrome the colors become shades of gray (including black & white). Instead of color, other factors become important such as shapes, lines, textures, contrasts and tones. Thus, a good subject for black and white is one rich in these five factors and not one that depends on color for success. There are several options for finding a good black & white subject-

  • Trial and error – simply try a conversion and see how it looks
    • This is one case where using a D-SLR’s monochrome option (if it exists) may be worthwhile
      • Just be sure to use RAW so that it can be undone if needed
    • This is a cheap, easy digital option – not so with film
  • Learn about how different colors convert.
    • For example, red & green convert to similar gray tone.
      • Thus, an image with predominantly red & green color will have very little contrast.
        • Since contrast is one of the five important feature of B&W images, this probably isn’t what you want.
    • A suggestion – you should learn (roughly at least) how colors convert to monochrome.
      • Select a subject that contains the colors of the rainbow like a color wheel.
      • or maybe a box of crayons – you’ll think of something
      • Take pictures of the color wheel
        • Do this using both your camera’s normal color mode & B&W mode (if available)
        • Convert the color to B&W in post processing
        • Observe which colors contrast with one another and which do not
          • Hint – pay close attention to complementary colors
          • These are the colors opposite one another on the wheel
          • Tie this hint to my earlier comment regarding red & green
      • Next – find a “real” subject
        • Based on what you learned from your color wheel tests
          • Try to envision the tones & contrast in the resulting image of your “real” subject
          • Capture the scene in-camera
          • Compare the results with what you envisioned
        • This may be an opportune time to use an in-camera monochrome option
          • The instant feedback (trial & error) is helpful
      • A factor often cited with regard to B&W photography is
        • The ability to see in B&W
        • The above tests will help develop that ability
        • STOP reading, get your camera and experiment

Here’s an example, I just made, of what you might see with the color wheel experiment. Click to enlarge. Compare red at the top with green at the bottom. See much difference in gray tones (contrast)?

I’ll finish with examples from my archives. Click all examples to enlarge.

Each of the above pairs are intended to illustrate-

  • There is no single (nor correct) conversion, and
  • What you think is good still may have room for improvement
    • Both images were competition winners in their original form
      • The barn was the B&W print of the year at a large club
    • After discovering SEP, I found that both had room for improvement
    • I’m not saying which is before & which is after SEP
      • Hopefully you can tell by considering the five factors mentioned earlier – especially texture, contrast and tone
      • Much easier to tell when viewing them in large print form

Monochrome doesn’t have to be all B&W (although purists will object). The original color is on the left. One B&W conversion possibility is in the center. In looking at this one, it appeared drab at best and so I spiced it up with what’s called selective color. The right hand image used yet another B&W conversion possibility (of the near infinity available) and came back again with the selective color (albeit a bit more saturated). Center & right were both made with SEP – including the selective coloring. The possibilities are endless. Go forth and – have fun.
In the next section we’ll consider infrared (which is how the gazebo example was done – the white foliage is not snow) – stay tuned.
An amusing, at least to me, post script. When I started this section on monochrome I thought to myself there really wasn’t a lot to say once the decision was made not to duplicate the color to B&W conversion tutorials already on the web. Figured this would be complete in 2-3 brief paragraphs. Maybe it means that I don’t know how to be brief – or that I was wrong in my initial assessment 😉 Whatever.

0 thoughts on “Monochrome (aka B&W)”

  1. Travis, I don’t recall the exact SEP settings. Having said that, it’s all pretty straight forward with SEP- even the selective color. Maybe at some future club meeting I can demo this program and you can see for yourself.
    Just guessing but I suspect that the right hand image was made using a “Solarization” preset and the center with something straight forward like a Kodak Tri-X film preset. The selective color is done simply by using SEP’s “Brush” option which allows you to selectively put color back into the image using a Photoshop brush. Harder to describe than to actually do.

  2. Ed, Really impressed with the flower conversions. Is there a link describing how you did this? Lacking that, any simple (?) hints.

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