Black and White Conversions

Once considered the pinnacle and only serious form of fine art photography, black and white has become an artistic sideline, sometimes even a gimmick or trick in the digital photo world.

Converting colour images into black and white when using film was always considered a poor solution and most (not all) digital mono conversions are done using a similar process.

The problem is the process itself.

You usually cannot get a good mono image with a straight conversion from a colour image because they are not created with the same priorities in mind. Colour uses it’s balanced and equal colours to create it’s version of the story, mono uses textures and tones. What is lacking is “tonal separation” or the contrasting of colours when seen as tones in a black and white sense. We will look at this in more depth below.

This is exaggerated by the change in depth or “shape” of a mono image when compared to the colour version of the same image.

In the images above, the visual cues change a great deal from colour to mono. The eye catching orange on the left and lower right and the two brilliant red leaves dominate the composition and contrast with the blue sky. In the mono image, everything flattens out. The dark bushes at the bottom of the file creep in, the leaf looks lost and weak and the second leaf and orange elements effectively disappear. The near-far dynamic is reduced and clues to depth and distance are simplified.

In these two images, the emotional strength of the image (warm yellow contrasted with cool blue) is, in effect the whole image as it was visualised. The strong feeling of front-back and the added strength of warm-cool dynamic reinforce each other. The way we prioritise what is important in an image is based on these prompts.

It is tempting to choose the colour shot above as the only logical choice, but the mono conversion takes on a completely different feel. The image seems to settle into a flatter plane, with the leaf texture and lighting becoming the important factors rather than the simpler and more powerful colour cues. The background is now simply out of focus . Flick between the two and see how your perception of the images depth changes.

Take a look at the image sets below. Each literally changes shape when converted. In our minds we see depth based on colour cues. Take these away and most images seem to “come forward” and even out. It is up to you to decide which you like best, but it is important to recognise the difference.

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A major challenge facing black and white image makers (and it has always been this way), is being able to visualise the mono version of an image with colour eyes*. What the black and white photographer has to be able to do is see tones within colours and then learn to bring them out. They must also try to turn off colour as a compositional tool*.

Most colours convert to an unexciting middle grey. Red, green, blue, orange all end up being a block of similar tones. Film manufacturers new this, so mono film was sensitive to colours in different ways to colour film and more importantly, lens filtering drastically changed the way that film reacted to colours.

This is why a black and white print taken from a colour negative was rarely successful without some significant and often difficult added work and why digital “straight” conversions are often inadequate. This is also why “gimmick” one touch mono conversion settings are so effective by comparison. They simply add what is missing; contrast, vignetting and tonal structure (and often toning) for better/stronger colour to mono conversions.

In the set above, flat light has produced a fairly lack-lustre colour image. The green, orange and white areas have some strength, but the mood and power of the image is weak. To put it another way, there is no clarity of message.

The straight mono conversion is actually better, but still lacks any real grab factor. The trunk, leaves, grass and background trees have all blended together with nothing standing out and without strong colours to add interest points, the image is flat. This tonal smoothness has it’s place, but in this image it is boring.

The third image has had it’s tones better separated. Added orange channel lightened the leaves, and reduced green channel darkened the grass and background trees and the mid tone contrast was strengthened in the main tree for added local contrast using the brush tool (+20 added clarity and contrast). Some vignetting was also added to bring the image corners in, framing the central subject better.

So how do you separate tones using Lightroom?

Using Lightroom, colours can still be manipulated (which means photographing in colour is important*), allowing you to lighten or darken one colour or tone against another. In the image set below, the colour image is lightened to fix poor exposure. Next the straight mono conversion, which is too dark and flat. Lightening the image helps a bit, but still lacks any feeling of glow or brilliance.

Using the green colour slider (in mono conversions there is only a single slider, not a tone or hue option, just a light/dark control), the green and yellow grass can be lightened and the red/purple briar left alone. lightened or even darkened separately. The whole image was given added clarity (there is now a texture option to, similar to the structure option in SilverFX), which separates middle tones well. The clarity slider is a very powerful tool in black and white, especially when applied locally using the brush tool.

The resulting image cannot be considered a literal interpretation, but that is the point of black and white. By choosing black and white, you have chosen to change how we see the work. Easy and powerful colours, used to stimulate an emotional response or give a context for mood are stripped away, replaced by tones and textures, in turn held together by strong composition.

From top to bottom, the most useful controls are;

Exposure. Often there is a tendency to process black and white images too dark. Do not be afraid of nearly paper white or inky black. These high and low key tones add brilliance and depth.

Tone curves or;

Contrast. Do not be too aggressive here. Contrast is good for added punch, but in mono it can crush details in light and shadow areas.

and

Highlight/Shadow/White/Black. For more delicate contrast control, these are good, but the curves tool is more subtle again. The whites channel can add brilliance with the highlights slider used to control blow out. Do not be afraid to use strong, even totally black areas.

Clarity (and the new Texture). This is ideal for bringing out mid tone contrast, adding bite to fine details. This is especially useful applied locally (specifically to important areas, not globally - all over the image) with the brush tool.

The Colour Control sliders. These are the strongest option for separating individual colours from the pack. Each slider lightens/darkens the shown colour only as there is no use for Hue or Saturation.

Split Toning. The colour toning tool comes into it’s own here. You can add back in the mood that mono is lacking but tinting cool or warm. Again, don’t go over board. Try some of the pre-sets Lightroom has to see aggressive application and work back from there.

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As a black and white photographer, it is important to take control. Never be afraid to experiment and put your mark on an image. Traditionally, mono image making was chosen by creative photographers for exactly that reason. It was the only way they could fully control their out put and therefore their message.

Early colour imaging was an exercise in tight controls and consistency. In the 1970’s colour became a more creative tool, but the tension between “right” or “true” colour and manipulated colour has always been present as we are conditioned to react to the real/false difference.

Black and white frees you from this constraint.

Next time the light is poor or too difficult to control, think black and white. Even some images considered failures that you already have may respond to the mono treatment and they are a great place to start experimenting.

The images below are from a photographically poor day at the zoo. Harsh midday sun, dirty glass, mesh fencing and crowds, forced some poor images, but mono conversions helped create some strong images.

* Try this technique for black and white;

Shoot in RAW, but set your camera to black and white JPEG, with the option of a yellow or orange filter setting for added contrast and separation, (some cameras offer a dramatic tone mono option also that may give you some good ideas). This allows you to see in black and white when using live view on an SLR or always with a mirrorless camera.