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    Black and white photography is soooo versatile!

    Black and white photography is soooo versatile!

    Black and white photography is a photographic genre that is more versatile than it first seems. Purely monochromatic photos consist of all the shades of grey between black and white, but I include photos that have a slight tint in this category as well.

    Which subjects work well?

    Black and white photos must have a clear design: lines, structures, textures, just as they occur in architecture, for example. The casting of light and shadow is crucial, which is why portraits, landscape photos, photos of fog, or those that are creatively blurred also make for suitable subjects. In contrast, photos that primarily subsist on a variety of colours are rather unsuitable.

    Whether a colour photo or a black and white photo will work better depends on the composition of the image. The more layered a photo is, the more colour it needs to achieve impact.

    This picture looks better in colour than it does in black and white. This differentiates the green of the foreground from the grey-blue of the background.
    The black and white version is more impactful since, even at the top of the picture, colour does not play a dominant role here. The greater contrast makes the sun, jetty and mountain stand out even more clearly.
    In portrait photography, the light is specifically controlled in a studio environment to enhance the black and white effect: soft light and a high degree of contrast are the two influencing parameters here.

    Black and white photography: how to go about it?

    I take pictures in RAW format and convert the photos using the black and white filter in Lightroom/Photoshop. The great benefit I get from doing this is that I can lighten or darken all the colours separately when converting the picture to black and white. This allows me to achieve effects or an emphasis that would not work in the same way if I had taken a black and white photo with the camera directly.

    Das farbige Original.
    A possible conversion in black and white. The blue tones are darker, while the yellow, orange and red tones in the middle are lighter.
    In the Photoshop menu: Image > Adjustments > Black & White (or the equivalent in other programs); the colours can also be controlled however you like.

    Contrast in black and white

    When there is an absence of colour, the contrast in the image takes on a more important role. Contrast is the difference between the light and dark tones. It is brought about with Curves or Levels.

    The very dark tonal values are missing in the original.
    Manual development in black and white photography lightens the yellow tones, producing a low-contrast image.
    I also darkened the medium and dark tonal values here. To do so, I select Adjustments > Levels (or > Curves) in Photoshop.

    Image composition

    The subject must clearly stand out against the background. Photos that have a lot of individual details tend to benefit from being in colour so that we can tell what’s in the picture. It is therefore important that the subject can be quickly identified.

    Of course, the usual rules of composition also apply to black and white photography – elements such as shape, position, or contrast become even more important when colour is no longer a factor.

    On the left, a clear subject; on the right, a crowded image. Clear subjects are better suited to being converted to black and white.

    The frame

    Black and white photos look particularly attractive and meaningful with an appropriate picture frame when on a wall. The frame’s border can be either white or black. Several photos, hung next to one another on the wall and with a similar subject, can look especially decorative.

    The absence of colour directs the viewer’s attention to the shapes in the picture instead. Black and white wall pictures suit any interior!

    Black and white from the filter kitchen

    The software industry today has a whole range of filters available that you can use to good effect in the black and white genre. On your mobile phone, there are built-in correction curves under Edit > Filters that convert photos to black and white or monochromatic with a tap of your finger. Hardcore advocates may mean only grey tones when talking about black and white photography – personally, I like to play with all the black and white variations of design.

    So, I will sometimes colour pictures in a little to enhance the effect. In Photoshop, these techniques can be found under Split Toning or Colour Grading.

    On the left, the original image taken on a mobile phone; on the right, an edited version with a vignette (darkening at the edges). The conversion to black and white is specifically prepared here.
    I edited and tinted the image. “Sepia” is a popular filter for making photos look “old”. The barn is the oldest in Europe, by the way, and can be found high above Zermatt.

    Using smartphones, there are many ways to convert a photo to a black and white drawing. Just look for apps that have the words “drawing” or “sketch” in their name. The effects you can achieve as a result are sometimes more, sometimes less believable. Many apps suggest the drawing style in the surrounding space in particular; the actual image often remains as a photo.


    Selective colouring

    When there are unwelcome colour casts in interior spaces, converting the image to black and white can be a solution. Particularly in mixed lighting situations, you have daylight and artificial light that are rarely in balance with one another. With black and white images, colour casts are no longer an issue.

    Natural light from above and illumination from within result in undesirable colour changes, distracting from the spiral shape.
    Converting the image to black and white elegantly eliminates the problem. I also left out the red hat out of the conversion using a mask.
    In this black and white picture, I used a mask to leave the bright blue of the eyes.

    Black and white for artistic purposes

    Creating new imagery means combining several techniques. For example, I documented a visit to the Handegg power station (Grimsel region) with my mobile phone. The visitors all wore a yellow high-visibility vest. The exposure time was three to four seconds in each case, and both the people in the image and the camera were moving each time the picture was taken. The random shots show an artistic style and develop their own visual language.

    The conversion to black and white offers opportunities to selectively control individual colours just like the ones discussed above.
    Ralf Turtschi

    Ralf Turtschi

    Ralf Turtschi has made a name for himself as a specialist book author and journalist. He works as a photojournalist, is a hobby photographer and lecturer and gives technical and creative advice on all aspects of photography. He is particularly fond of nature, landscape, portrait, travel, macro, architecture, and night photography.

    Further information: www.agenturtschi.ch

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