Black and white (or monochrome) is underused nowadays. Yes, colour is great–I love colour, as you see in much of my work–but “mono”, as in the picture below of a cyclist on Gouda, the Netherlands, has something going for it in several ways.
The colours do not distract from the subject. Unless the colours are the subject, avoiding this kind of distraction is a good thing.
Mood can be enhanced: mono can be a storytelling device. Mono can also evoke the past. Mono is thus used in much photojournalism.
But there are also great technical benefits to using mono, and that is what I want to briefly talk about today.
You should shoot RAW and set the camera’s “image type” to monochrome, so you see a preview that at least looks somewhat like what you will get in monochrome, but the RAW file contains all the colours.
First, white balance is unimportant. Whatever you set it to will be fine.
Second, quality of a converted file will be better; or rather, deficiencies will be less noticeable. And third, you can make changes afterward by emphasizing or de-emphasizing individual colours. This is like using coloured filters in film photography (e.g. a yellow filter to make the blue sky darker); with the difference that you can do it afterward, so you can try different “filters”.
Take model Khoral:
If I do a standard B/W conversion in Lightroom’s DEVELOP module, using its “HSL/Color/B&W” pane, I get this weighting of colours:
..which gives me:
Which of course looks fine.
But if I turn down Magenta and turn up orange (= skin colour) a little, I get:
Can you see how powerful a tool this is? You can try any combination of colour weighting to get the results you want. A distracting colour can be made as bright as the surrounding area so it no longer distracts. Skin can be improved (making orange a little brighter makes skin brighter, which looks clearer).
I hasten to add, of course, that if you are actually doing photojournalism, you should not mess with the original other than a standard conversion, unless your photo editor allows you to use standard colour filters, say – but this would have to be a very explicit agreement, and any edits should not alter the appearance of the scene materially. Why? Because we need to trust that what our media show us is in fact “what there was”. That’s one reason I am not a great fan of “citizen journalism” taking over the news.
But if you shoot art or commercial or family portraits, go wild. OK–maybe no going wild, but you get the idea.
One more thing. Lightroom also allows you to add “film grain”, and that can be very nice in B&W too, to give that old look – and it smooths out skin imperfections. Film grain, unlike digital “noise”, can look good.
OK – lesson over: go shoot some B/W!