An underestimated mode

One mode is underestimated today – black and white.

As I have pointed out here before, black and white can make your images much more powerful by allowing the eye to concentrate on your subject – not on coloured objects.

This image works better in black and white:

Because in colour, the red chairs draw the eye towards them instantly. You do not see the forest for the trees:

So when your subject is not the colours in your scene, consider using black and white. When colours would distract, use black and white. When you want to convey a certain mood, use black and white.

And when you use black and white, convert afterward, in Lightroom. That way you can tune the relative brightness of colours – this is like using filters in the old days.

So by using the HSL control to tweak the red colour, you can, if you wish, make it look light like this, say:

Or dark like this:

And the same goes for all other colours.

All those reasons are why if you are not yet using B&W, you should start. Shoot RAW and do the conversion later. And have fun.


B&W tip

Have you ever thought that a nice black and white photo was very worth looking at?

That is because in B&W we do not get distracted by colour: we see the pure image. A photo is composition + moment + light, and in some cases colour just distracts from that.

So this one-light image, from the other day, is fine:

But this image is simpler, and, I think, more powerful:

Plus… there are fringe benefits. Doing a B&W conversion I can selectively increase or decrease colour channels. And by slightly, every so slightly increasing red, orange and yellow, I can:

  • Fill in shadows;
  • Make skin even smoother;
  • Increase the brightness of teeth.

Now of course a teenager needs none of these, but you can nevertheless see this is a better image:

And this only took a few seconds in Lightroom, which has en excellent B&W conversion tool.

And we do this in Lightroom, not in the camera, because  that way:

  1. It saves time;
  2. We can change our minds;
  3. We can do a selective per-channel conversion as described above;

When you shoot B&W, do feel free to set the image style to B&W on your camera if you shoot RAW (because in that case you are still saving all colours; it is only the preview that is shown in B&W), but see that preview just as a rough idea and convert properly in Lightroom on the computer.

TIP: if you want to see where someone may develop skin issues decades from today, convert to B&W and then pull red up and pull orange down in Lightroom. You wil now see someone with any skin imperfections magnified hundreds of times. I wil not do it to this lovely young lady, but to see the effect, do it to a picture of yourself.


Black and white

Black and white is often under-appreciated. You are taking stuff away, after all.

Yes. Colour. Of course. But you are also adding stuff.

Model Lyndsay in Mono (Photo: Michael Willems)

Lyndsay in Mono

As advantages of a black and white image, you get:

  • Shades of grey. Everything becomes shades of grey. So while in a colour image you may have various little groups of shade, in a colour image, all becomes grey. So you automatically get shades all the way from black to white, if you like.
  • Emphasis on texture. Textures, which can be lost in colour photos, are seen clearly in black and white.
  • Emphasis on shape. The same is true of shape. You are not drawn to colour, so now the pure shape is what draws you attention.
  • Emphasis on light. In the absence of colour, it is all light. You can light dramatically, softly: Light is seen clearly, not as colour, but as light.
  • Ability to tweak. You can tweak colours in post (or when using film, by using filters. Like in the example that follows below.
  • Ability to create mood. You can add shade. Drama. Even grain, to create an old film look. I do this a lot nowadays.
  • Simplicity: it is also easier to shoot. No white balance to worry about.

So today, let me show you just one trick: the above-mentioned ability to selectively change colour.

An original image of a student the other day:

Student in colour

Student in colour

Now converted in Lightroom to “neutral” black and white:

Student in B/W (Neutral)

Now, I used the HSL/Color/B&W tool in the Develop module to selectively increase the brightness of her shirt:

Student in B/W (Light shirt)

But of course I want to de-emphasise the shirt, so her face stands out! Here’s the version I prefer, with a darker shirt:

Student in B/W (dark shirt)

Can you see how much more this emphasises the student, while in the original image, the colours stand out instead?

Here is one more example of how colour can distract, and how in the black and white version that distrction disappears.

So: I recommend you try some black and white. (And do it in “post”, not in the camera. Otherwise you lose the ability to tweak. You can set your camera to B/W as long as you shoot RAW, so you retain all the information).

Berlin Wall

Toronto, for the next weeks, has a Berlin Wall, designed to keep any protesters and citizens (a.k.a. “threats”) away from the visiting G20 dignitaries, who must not see any of this.

I took a few snaps yesterday, from the car:

Toronto's G20 Security Fence, shot by Michael Willems

Toronto's G20 Security Fence

Toronto's G20 Security Fence, shot by Michael Willems

Toronto's G20 Security Fence

Toronto's G20 Security Fence, shot by Michael Willems

Toronto's G20 Security Fence

Army presence in the street, riot police, many extra Big Brother cameras, constant ID and security checks, roads closed when VIP convoys arrive, a large part of downtown that will be completely shut off for two days, cell phones that will be jammed when Mr Obama is around, and a $1bn bill for the taxpayer: very third world, and I thought that was probably worth a few dramatic black and white pictures.

Am I being ever so slightly manipulative, by using contrasty black and white?

Perhaps, and in news photography I would not of course use any contrast enhancement, or even go to mood-setting black and white. But in this type of documentary shots, on my blog, it is exactly what is called for. I believe the Berlin wall thing is hideous and that must be shown: outrage is suitable.

That said, you should be aware of the fact that just like a writer, a photojournalist can also tell the story he wants. A protest with only forty protesters? Shoot diagonally from above and it’ll look like hundreds. Black and white creates drama. When looking at news pictures, see them in this context, and ask “what was the journalist doing to put across his point of view?”