Updated: Jul 17, 2018
Let me tell you – I used to LOVE black and white images. Sepia mode (!) used to be my go-to on my little point-and-shoot arm extension back in 2003 (before the age of the iPhone). De-saturating clears up a few problems – skin tones/spots/it can ‘declutter’ a busy picture. Turning a photo black and white is a sure way to get a display-worthy piece. Right? Hmmmm, not always!
Convert to black and white wrong and all you will get is a lacklustre photo, that doesn’t say much in subject nor tonality – because you can have a stunning image of an abstract subject, but dreamy or punchy tones make it stand its ground.
I have gone a LONG way since 2003, to the point where in a sea of color, I will only deliver one or two black and white conversions – and then, the image within must contain raw emotion and warrant loss of tone 101%!. So you have decided that an image is ‘worthy’ to be stripped off its colors and you would like to use an editing app or Lightroom. My editing tools of choice are Lightroom on my laptop or the Snapseed app on my phone (it has WAAAAAY more tools, than I ever need, but it’s brilliantly versatile for adding that extra punch to snaps – obviously, not Client work). There are probably two main Black and White ‘styles’ that people usually lean towards – a punchy, contrasty look, where there is a lot of separation between the darkest and lightest areas and the softer, matte look, which (to my eye) casts a more serene and calm atmosphere onto the image.
Snapseed (the app), just like most other apps do, has a variety of different black and white filters, which are pre-edited to suit a certain desired effect. So if you chose to edit in the app, you can be done in a few clicks!
Let's start off with this cute image - it has been edited for color before, but we can still use it to convert to black and white in Snapseed.
You have a few options to chose from, each can be slightly customised to suit a desired effect. In this example, I chose to reduce the brightness back to 0.
And here is the final image - not too shabby for a couple of clicks!
We can export it back into the Album and share away to our hearts' desire!
Doing the conversion by hand in Lightroom will take you a little longer, but allows for far more creative control. You can achieve the desired look (punchy vs. matte) by using just one tool (you can use more, but this is a very quick overview on how to achieve one of the two styles in minutes).
Open the image in Lightroom and convert to Black and White on the Basic panel:
This gives us a pretty uneventful monochrome image, lacking any contrast (my color-loving eye finds it somewhat boring, compared to the original - completely personal preference!)
Now navigate to the S Curve panel and create a ‘classic’ S shape (push it to the point which gives you the desired effect - dragging the top of the 'S' upwards enhances the whites and lowering the bottom of the 'S' darkens the blacks.
Now this is a lot better, the image has a lot of contrast and sells the story a lot better!
You can then adjust contrast, blacks, whites, highlights, shadows, tint, temperature, you can even get creative with the HSL panel, but adjusting the S Curve is the easiest way (for me) to achieve the initial desired effect.
To achieve the matte look, let's reset back to our 'boring', basic black and white edit and head back to the S Curve box. Now you want to add some 'control points' and the easiest way to do this is to click on the 'curve' line where it intersects the grid boxes, then dragging the bottom left corner up along the left side of the box to achieve the desired effect.
The bottom left corner/control point represent pure black of the image and by moving it up along the 'wall', you are 'dulling down' the black in the image, creating the matte effect.
Though not usually my style, I have seen some gorgeous work other photographers create with this technique (definitely spending a 'tad' more time and using a lot more artistry to create their art, than shown in the examples above), adding an extra texture and layer to their emotive reportage of a story.
Here are the final two side by side - which do you prefer?
I hope today’s quick-hit tutorial has given a useful overview of how to approach black and white photography.
As weak an advocate as I am for the mono look, one thing I would encourage you to take away is consideration of whether desaturation would enhance your image or not.
Here’s a photograph I took on a recent workshop. We were shooting in pouring rain and this little trooper (and her little bro) was resilient to the elements.This image was one of the last taken on the shoot and, truth be told, the rain had gotten the better of her beautifully styled hair, but I saw ‘something’, that would just not let me cull it out of the set.I played with the edit and then clicked ‘convert to black and white’.And then I saw magic happen. Her beautiful face and the eyes shone from the image for me - which wasn’t quite the case before the conversion.
This is when you know the image is special - sometimes you play with the edit, you click ‘black and white’ and... nothing. You untick the photograph from the Final Selection and move on. Will you be giving black and white a get with a new approach?
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