Black & White Tips and Fundamentals

Discussion in 'Black and White' started by Dioptrick, Mar 3, 2012.

  1. Dioptrick

    Dioptrick TalkEmount All-Pro

    Feb 4, 2012
    New Zealand
    It's been raining hard and wind is howling outside, so I thought I might use the indoor time to share some of the stuff I've learned about B&W photography.

    B&W is colour-blind: (Oh really, lol?)

    It wasn't until I started work as a graphic artist in the old 'cut & paste' pre-computer days that the penny dropped about how silver-halides see the world of colour. Light-sensitive chemicals used in photographic film and paper are called silver-halides. I remember being given this "magic pen" which apparently was invisible as far as our high-contrast bromide camera (look it up) was concerned. We can write notes and instructions with it and it never showed-up in the final artwork reproductions. For a while I thought its ink was made of some fancy special substance until I discovered that all it was was just a light-cyan coloured pen. Silver-halides can't see certain colours (like certain shades of light blue and yellow), and in addition silver-halides also see some colours as the exact same shade of grey (like greens and reds).

    The principle here is not so much that monotone photosensitivity is colour-blind, but rather it's colour-SELECTIVE... although silver-halides used in photography will capture middle shades of grey, whereas bromide reproductions don't.

    Below is a colour wheel which was converted to B&W Greyscale, and B&W high-contrast Bromide. It'll make sense of the gibberish I'm talking about.


    You can ignore the bromide wheel. What's relevant to B&W photography is what you see in the Greyscale wheel.

    Fast forward to the digital age:
    What is amazing (for some cosmic reason) is that modern light sensitive digital sensors AND even Colour-to-B&W pixel conversions in photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop - behave similarly to silver-halides. Old-school photosensitivity is chemical whereas new-school photosensitivity is digital/electronic - but BOTH are colour blind in almost exactly the same way!

    Study and remember which colours translate to the same shades of grey. Understanding this will help when interpreting if certain compositions will come out good or bad in B&W, before pressing the shutter.

    Next, I'll share about how to use coloured lens filters for B&W photography... and how it relates to this.
  2. Dioptrick

    Dioptrick TalkEmount All-Pro

    Feb 4, 2012
    New Zealand
    Colour Filters for B&W Photography

    If you ever come across someone with one of these filters screwed-on the front of their camera lens, try not to laugh or panic. That person is only taking some sweet B&W photos. :) Back before digital post processing was possible, this was the only way of making sure that you end up with an optimised (if not usable) negative to print off from in the darkroom.

    Sky Enhancement

    Remember the magic pen? Well, one place that you'll see that exact same colour in nature (cyan)... is the sky (below left pic). The middle pic is what a non-filtered B&W shot of the same scene would look like, and the one on the right is how a bromide camera would reproduce it. You will notice that cyan near the horizon will translate to a very light grey almost white (the white boat sails and the cyan sky end up both white). As the sky gets bluer higher up, the magenta content in that colour begins to register as a middle grey (yes, blue is cyan + magenta). The whole sky doesn't even register in the bromide reproduction. Same thing happens just like it does in the previous colour wheel examples.


    That's fine if you want the sky to be light against a dark mountain, but let's say the sky/clouds itself is your subject and you'd like it to be more dramatic. The next set of pics shows what the coloured scene looks like when viewed through an Orange filter - and the effect orange has on the B&W sky in the middle pic. You will notice more cloud detail, the water is darker, but the light green grass is about the same. Compare these differences to the unfiltered original on the right.


    A Red filter will make the sky even more dramatic, but it may come at the expense of losing some shadow detail in other areas, especially in the medium/dark greens. However, the white boat sails and the sky are now very distinct, and the viewer's attention is immediately drawn to the boats.


    So what's happening here is that by adding orange (or red) to the sky, we have changed the cyan colour into a hue that silver-halides can 'see' to better register the detail that's there. Now with digital post processing, these variations for this particular example can also be achieved by playing around with 'levels or curves' and by using the burn tool because there's enough detail in the lighter parts of the sky on the unfiltered original. However, in lighter skies or if the shot was over-exposed, this subtle detail may be lost and there's no way of getting back what's not there in post-processing.

    There is a downside when using filters... you lose about an f-stop of brightness for exposure, which doesn't matter in daylight photography. But in low light or indoors shots, ending up with a slower shutter speed or a higher ISO might result in camera-shake or a grainy image.

    If you had to choose just one, get an orange lens filter. It's the most versatile colour in all the years I've used them. It's also reduces skin blemishes in portraiture. Nine times out of ten tricky situations, using an orange filter will be better than not having one.

  3. Phoenix

    Phoenix TalkEmount Top Veteran

    Aug 25, 2011
    Melbourne, Australia
    Real Name:
    Phoenix Gonzales
    Dude, you dont happen to be named Paul Wilson irl do you?
  4. Jin Han

    Jin Han TalkEmount Regular

    Feb 19, 2012
  5. Phoenix

    Phoenix TalkEmount Top Veteran

    Aug 25, 2011
    Melbourne, Australia
    Real Name:
    Phoenix Gonzales
    Err....not that Paul Wilson. My photography professor back in the day, his name was Paul Wilson, he was the one who took us through the different use of filters with b/w photography (which btw is extremely valuable knowledge if shooting b/w) and the way Dioptrick has explained it really reminds me of how it was explained in class back then.
  6. Dioptrick

    Dioptrick TalkEmount All-Pro

    Feb 4, 2012
    New Zealand
    That's the second thing you had me look-up in the internet. :p

    No, I'm not Paul Wilson (kiwi pro photographer)... I'm just an enthusiast passing-on what I myself have received from others. :)
  7. Dioptrick

    Dioptrick TalkEmount All-Pro

    Feb 4, 2012
    New Zealand
    Using Colour Filters for Separation

    Going back to the colour wheel, you'll notice that silver-halides see greens and reds very similarly and interprets them as the same shade of grey. If Mr. Halide was driving the bus through an intersection with traffic lights, I'd get off the bus! lol :eek:

    The thing about nature is that you will often find greens and reds together, and the combination makes very striking colour photos... but, not so for B&W. The middle photo on the set below shows what an unfiltered B&W image looks like when green meets with red - everything is about the same shade of grey. Have a closer look at the lower middle area where some out-of-focus flowers are directly in front of some long green leaves - they have disappeared into each other. The only reason we're seeing some distinction in this example is because its a macro shot - the sharpness vs OOF is helping the viewer recognise that it's a B&W photo of a flower. The very dark stalk is actually helping a lot with this perception, without the stalk it would be a real struggle to even know what this B&W photo is about. Rendered on the right is a high contrast bromide equivalent.


    Keeping it short and sweet - red and green are opposite (complimentary) colours. A green filter will lighten the greens and darken the reds.


    A red filter will lighten the reds and darken the greens.


    On both the green and red filtered B&W photos, have another look at those out-of-focus flowers at the middle lower portion of the composition - then compare them to the unfiltered B&W original on the right. The principle here is that the filter colour will lighten similar colours in the composition, but will darken complimentary or opposite hues. That's the gist of it.
  8. Dioptrick

    Dioptrick TalkEmount All-Pro

    Feb 4, 2012
    New Zealand
    Lens Filter vs Post Processing

    Now that photography is digital and we can easily post-process photos, the question that comes to mind regarding B&W photography is:
    "Do I bother with coloured lens filters and shoot in B&W mode... or do I just shoot in colour and convert it to B&W later?"

    There are pros and cons either way, and I for one shoot in colour mainly for convenience. After all, the examples I've posted here are all post-processed. It also saves having to buy and carry all those filters (not easy to find these days). Photoshop has all these filters, btw - tucked away and hidden under Image Menu > Adjustments > Photo Filter...

    Also, there are other ways to 'adjust' colour images before converting them to B&W. In the set below, I have applied Hue/Saturation slider adjustments to reach a similar result, which gives me another option to choose from. I knew that if I changed the colour of the flowers to cyan that they would come out white in B&W. But be careful when using Hue variations, as it can sometimes bring out unexpected grain out of nowhere - even from an ISO100 jpeg original.


    Another plus when shooting B&W in colour (huh? :rolleyes: :eek: lol) is that there's no luminance drop in exposure settings. What's achievable now in post-processing B&W images is so quick and reversible. What used to take me forever into the wee hours of the morning in my darkroom, only takes minutes in Photoshop. So with so many advantages in shooting in colour, why shoot in B&W mode?

    The main advantage in shooting in B&W mode is because it forces us to "see and think" in monotone. Colour can be distracting and can cause us to miss spotting a good B&W shot. More later...
  9. davect01

    davect01 Super Moderator

    Aug 20, 2011
    Fountain Hills, AZ
    Real Name:
    Quite a nice explanation.
  10. Dioptrick

    Dioptrick TalkEmount All-Pro

    Feb 4, 2012
    New Zealand
    Seeing in B&W

    Colour can be distracting. Here's an example why.
    This image works well as a colour photo. But let's say I'm on a B&W theme assignment, but shooting scenes in colour mode.


    When I'm not 'seeing' in B&W, a shot like this can be ruined when colour overwhelms my senses during composition.
    Only after the image was converted to B&W, did I realize that my wife's head is nearly indistinguishable from the foliage.
    I would've immediately spotted my headless pedestrian had I been shooting in B&W mode.


    Texture Texture Texture
    This was the B&W mantra of one of my friends who mentored me casually in the early days.
    But sometimes nothing but texture with very little relief can overwhelm a composition.

    Next... some wee tips that helps me 'think' better in B&W.

  11. Dioptrick

    Dioptrick TalkEmount All-Pro

    Feb 4, 2012
    New Zealand
    Thinking in B&W

    Colour wheel fundamentals are useful, but this alone won't make pleasing B&W photos. It's "what" we shoot that makes the real difference obviously. Composition plays a big part, but this is a must have - even for colour photography. So what else can give a B&W image a little 'boost' to make up for that lost colour component?

    Painting with Light
    When colour is removed from the equation, Perspective and Form take over. However, it's the type of light and where it's coming from that will define how these shapes and forms are revealed, enhanced, or even hidden. In addition, an art director once pointed out to me... "don't be afraid to also shoot directly into the light." This had never occurred to me before and I still often neglect to do it. After taking a photo, do a last-minute check just in case. See if you can reposition yourself so that the light source is behind your subject because even mundane things can become amusing from this vantage point.

    By permission: Hand Form study by Scott.A


    Infinite Levels of Contrast
    The other big word I kept hearing regarding B&W was the word "contrast." I initially presumed that contrast only pertained to intensifying levels of illumination to make compositions more dramatic. But contrast has many facets, and can also be depicted 'contextually.' Combining sharp and blunt objects in a composition (or clean and dirty items) for example is a form contrast. High and Low, Near and Far, Straight and Curved, Happy and Sad - all forms of contrast. Using contrast creatively brings endless possibilities that can give B&W photos an extra boost. The following pics are only a few examples of contextual contrasts, but hopefully it'll kick-start your own new way of thinking in B&W.

    TEXTURE CONTRAST (rough foliage / smooth structures)
    STRUCTURAL CONTRAST (man-made gazebo / dwarfed by nature's gazebo directly above it)


    STEREOTYPICAL CONTRAST (swapping expected norms)

    By permission: "immipedia" flickr - 2012

    MOTION CONTRAST (rising stones / stationary stones)

    By permission: Anti-gravity study by Scott.A

    GEOMETRICAL CONTRAST (circles / triangles)


    TOUCH CONTRAST (soft warm puppy / cold hard floor)

    By permission: "immipedia" flickr - 2011


    Finding Inspiration
    I remember seeing a handful of Ansel Adams Yosemite prints being featured in a magazine many many years ago. Rocks, trees, and skies they mostly were... but Mr Adams was a master of composition and of the darkroom. I was just awestruck as I stared at his B&W photos, following every glorious kink in those landscapes. Now these had to be poor replicas, just photos taken off the originals then screen printed onto glossy magazine paper, but the effect they had on me was profound. I've read that an original Ansel Adams print apparently leaps at the viewer as if it were alive, and I can only imagine what that would be like. To this day I've never seen an Adams print in real life, probably never will... but since then I carried this idea of how high the bar had been set in this field. As a recreational enthusiast, having fun is more important to me than labouring to reach such high photographic professional standards... but every time I decide to shoot B&W, I always remind myself to try and jump (see and think) a little higher than I normally would.

  12. jebuskrust

    jebuskrust TalkEmount Regular

    Sep 16, 2011
    Limassol, Cyprus
    Thanks a lot Dioptrick. I bookmarked the thread to read it later on
  13. Phoenix

    Phoenix TalkEmount Top Veteran

    Aug 25, 2011
    Melbourne, Australia
    Real Name:
    Phoenix Gonzales
    This thread is absolute gold for anyone shooting (or planning to shoot) B/W.
  14. freddytto

    freddytto TalkEmount All-Pro

    Dec 2, 2011
    Puebla, Mexico
    i agree Phoenix This information is useful, for me I'm a rookie ...:eek: