Michael Freeman: Save the Shot by Throwing Out the Color
There was a time — film-only time, of course — when you had to choose physically and in advance between shooting in color or in black and white. The closest you could get to flexibility was a second camera body so that you had both around your neck. More than that, you had to think in either color or black and white, and most photographers tended to prefer one or the other and follow that. Digital sensors have changed all of the that — potentially. Sensors record black and white in the sense that the individual photocells measure quantity of light, and the color is achieved by filtering the light through a red, blu or green filter to each photocell. This filtering, done in most sensors with a red, blue and green mosaic filter called a Bayer filter in front of the chip, is measured by the camera’s processor, and the result is that each file has three separate channels, one for each color. This is not so different from color film, except for one very important thing: it allows the color nit only to be altered during processing or post-production, but also to be subtracted from the final image.
You will need
- A camera that shoots in raw format.
- Processing software that allows conversion to black and white, ideally with multiple color channel adjustment.
What’s good about it? Lots of things are good! First, you can decide at any time after you shoot whether to go for black and white. Then, the tools available in any good raw processor, like Adobe’s ACR (in Photoshop and Lightroom), you can adjust the color channels to decide what shade of ray any color should be — and that means between white and black for pure colors.
The idea Not only does a digital color file give you the means to produce a black and white image. It gives you much more control than any film photographer ever had, no matter how many colored filters he or she had to cover the lens. Remember the idea of shooting through strongly colored filters, well publicized by Ansel Adams in particular? The filter holds back much of the light entering the lens that isn’t that color. So, a red filter holds back the blue from a blue sky, giving notably dark skies in the black and white image. The digital version offers much more control, and you don’t have to plan it in advance. In fact, you can re-visit any image in your archive and try out an almost endless variety of black and white renderings.
But before we get to the technical matters, there’s the more important question of why and when to do this. When I say that this method of processing gives you great control over the image, the real control is in your head when you shoot, knowing what you can pull out of a scene. It’s the advance knowledge of black and white processing possibilities that vastly extends your creative control over shooting. Being able ti say to yourself “Now this will look wonderful in black and white with a pale atmospheric distance and sky” and knowing that raising the blue and cyan will be the way to get it, puts you less at the mercy of light and shooting conditions.
And in fact, as the title of this article suggests, my particular interest is a practical one, albeit still to do with creative judgment. There are many situations in which the combination of light and color in the scene in front of you may not be what you want. Harsh midday sunlight is one, distractingly vivid colors are another. The combination of both, as in the Tibetan monk example at the bottom of the article, can be overwhelming. Thinking alternatively, in black and white, can be a very workable solution. And one extra advantage is that black and white can accept much more extreme processing than can color — especially increases in contrast. Basically, if you want, you can easily go hard and graphic with a black and white photograph, whereas in color it would look simply excessive and amateurish.
Tech check For once, the tech side of things dominates the article, and it’s very much down to the processing or post-production. A quick word about the difference between these two, because people’s terminology differs. By processing, I mean what you do to a raw file to bring it to the finished state of a TIFF or JPEG, and by now most of us shoot raw. Post-production happens afterwards – any of the software image-editing techniques to tweak the image, or in some cases to manipulate it drastically. Black and white conversion is available in both, and works in essentially the same way, whatever the software.
In the black and white conversion process, you’re presented with a number of sliders, each for one quite tight range of color, such as yellow or blue,
Raising the percentage of any color makes it lighter in tone in the black and white version – as simple as that. But with six separated colors in the Photoshop dialog, that leaves a lot of room for alteration. So much so that it’s quite a good idea to look first at the presets — every image-editing software that offers black and white conversion has presets. In Photoshop, they look like this:-
From these you can get an idea of the possibilities, and of what combination of sliders will give you the effect you prefer. Here, for example, is an image that combines very harsh sunlight (at 12,000 feet on the Tibetan plateau) with some vivid reds, greens and blues that after many images become too much. The basic red, green and blue filter sets are shown together….
- Practice conversions on several images just so that you can anticipate what a real scene might look like in different black and white interpretations.
- If in any doubt, scroll through all the presets available in the software to give you an overview of the range of effects.
Here I’m using Photoshop CS5, but any image-editing program functions in much the same way. Now, the stronger (ie more saturated) the color in the original, the more strongly it will respond to the color filter slider, hence the very different versions in the set immediately above. And, if the relationships between colors makes it impossible to have each part of the image exactly as you would like, it’s always possible to make two or even three different versions, then layer them and then selectively erase. From the example above, the denser hillside and upper torso of the monk from the blue filtered version have been combined selectively with the red filtered version….
- Excessive use of extreme effects, such as the Photoshop presets High Contrast Blue Filter and Infrared.