Sometimes it’s just nice to strip away the colour from a scene and tell a different story. Sometimes the colours around you are so desaturated, there’s hardly any colour so it may as well be monochrome. There are times that you see the beautiful interplay of shadows and highlights, and only monochrome will work as you vision. Whatever the reason you’re aiming for a monochrome image, this guide will hopefully help you get the best of of a composition, and help you decide which camera colour profile to use when capturing your images.
Before you start taking photographs, it helps that you change your mindset to thinking in monochrome. Photographing for black and white is very different to colour in many ways. Our eyes are attracted to colour schemes and objects sticking out when shooting in colour, whether that be a golden castle with a blue sky, surrounded by multicoloured flowers, or a person standing out from the crowd in a colourful costume or clothing.
With monochrome you have to look for very different things, as neither of those two typical examples would work perfectly in monochrome. You have to look for other things to make subjects stand out, such as shapes, patterns, shadows and bright light. Sometimes the bigger the difference in contrast of dark and light, the better, and because of this, you really have to think differently.
Quite often it can be blatantly obvious what will work and what won’t work, but other times you’ll have to look much harder or you will miss it…
Seeing in mono
In order to see in black and white (or whichever monochrome variant you want) there are a couple of tricks you can use, and depending on your situation you can use whichever one works best for you.
The simplest way is to set your viewfinder to display a live view of a black and white colour profile. In modern mirrorless cameras this is simple enough, and you can set the viewfinder to show you exactly how your photo will return out before you press the button.
You could also of course take the shot in black and white, and then view it on your back screen to see if it is suitable. This is a bit slower technique, but works well in situations where you don’t need to rush the shot.
Thirdly of course you could view the scene of subject with your mobile phone, set to a black and white profile. Scan and the area to see how it looks, and then take the photos you want with your DSLR.
Photographing in mono
This is where it gets interesting, as there are a number of techniques that allow you to capture the final image you want. I’ll highlight three alternate ways which give different results depending on what you choose.
1. Set the camera to shoot raw while in a monochrome jpeg profile: This will give your chosen mono image, along with a raw file which will be in colour (the next section “Editing in mono” will cover the benefits of using colour for final edits).
2. Set the camera to shoot a monochrome jpeg profile: You’ll have mono images to work with which you would have tried to get as right as possible in camera.
3. Set the camera to shoot in a colour profile: You can then convert this to monochrome later (as you would the raw file).
Each of these settings has its pros and cons, but also some cameras are more capable than others when it comes to monochrome options. For example, Fujifilm allows you to shoot in pure black and white, or a version called Acros plus Sepia, and with the first two options also have three variable filters (Red, Green, Blue) which you can add and which affects the strength of the shades of black and white depending on the colour that filter affects (exactly as you would with black and white film photography with these filters). Also, same camera can shoot three jpegs at once, enabling you to choose any combination of colour film simulation to those jpegs!
Editing in mono
You’ll be in a position at the end of a specific monochrome shoot to edit one of two ways. If you have shot in black and white, you can easily flick through your photos and see instantly which ones work and which ones don’t. If you only shot in colour, the job is a little more time consuming as you have to convert the image to see the results, this is why having a colour (raw or jpeg) and black and white image to look at side by side helps you.
Firstly, editing the monochrome images you have taken gives you a different kind of flexibility. As you would have got the look you want in camera, this isn’t too bad, but take into account you’ll only really be able to edit the brightness, contrast, shadows and highlights of the image as there is no specific colour for your editor to target.
A typical monochrome conversion tool. With this you can adjust you can adjust the lightness or darkness of individual colours to give some dramatic effects. Different programs use different tools, but all do the same basic thing and target colours.
Secondly, when you edit your colour photos, things are a little different as you have more control. While extremely useful, it is a little more time consuming. You’ll be able to select black and white in your editor which will set the tones generally for black and white. Once this is done though, you can target the original colours of the photos and making those individually darker or lighter etc. You can also retrospectively add red, green or blue filters to target different coloured sections of your photograph.
As a side-note, these coloured filters act like this for those who never used them during the film days. The following is taken from the Photography Mad website “Red filters produce a very strong effect and greatly increase contrast. They’re often considered too “harsh” for most types of photography, but can be used to produce striking creative effects. Orange filters sit between red and yellow filters, giving a nice balance of each one’s properties. This makes them a popular general purpose filter. Yellow filters produce the most subtle effect of the 5 coloured filters. In some cases the difference is barely noticeable, but it can help to lift a photo just enough. They’re a popular choice for beginners as they can be used in virtually any type of photography. Green filters are less popular than the others but are useful in some circumstances. Blue filters are rarely used for black and white photography. They darken most colours and reduce contrast across an image.” Hopefully this will give you some sense of using coloured filters with black and white photography.
Photographing in monochrome, whether it be black and white, sepia or similar is very different to photographing in colour. If you go into with the mindset of just taking colour photographs and converting each one to monochrome, it doesn’t work the same. Work with the light and dark more than you ever have before, paint with shades and contrast and choose subjects which can fit this. It can take some practise, but getting that perfect monochrome shot can be worth it.
My best advice is in the “Seeing Mono” section. Turn your equipment into a virtual eye for you, and see what you’re shooting and how it looks before you take the shot. Try and do as little editing as possible, don’t worry about your ISO as noise can make an image, and most of all, experiment to your hearts content!