I was asked this summer if I would give a talk on monochrome photography to my local camera club and agreed to do so. I gave the talk last Thursday … this is a slightly extended version of the content.
I’ve been involved in photography for over twenty years, mostly monochrome photography, and used to have my own darkroom, as the darkroom was very much a part of getting the images I actually wanted. When I moved to Cheshire from Berkshire in 1999 I was unsure of whether I wanted to build another darkroom, and started experimenting with digital printing in 2000. This early start has played a part in the somewhat unusual collection of software that I use. I’ll mention the various software packages I use at the end of this article, but this is principally about general issues in monochrome digital photography, not specific software.
I’m primarily a landscape, floral, and ‘fine art’ photographer, not a people, portrait, action, or documentary photographer, so my views and approach definitely won’t cover everything! (I did shoot one wedding for a friend … while the bride and groom were happy with the results, I am definitely not open to requests from anyone else!)
There are three basic tools involved in photography – camera (including lenses) for image capture, monitor (and computer) for processing, and printer for output.
My very first camera (about 50 years ago) was very simple – you put film in it, aimed with a wireframe viewfinder, and took a photo by flicking a lever. Cameras have become more sophisticated since then, but I still avoid most of the automation apart from auto-exposure (in aperture priority mode) and auto-focus. I want to make any further decisions that are needed, not the camera! (It can’t know what aperture I want for depth of field, or shutter speed to stop motion or create blur. I definitely don’t want it deciding how to render a colour scene into a monochrome image!) I also select a specific white balance rather than auto – this means that if a correction is needed for a series of photos, it’ll be the same correction for all, instead of slight changes from one image to another. I also shoot in RAW mode rather than jpeg – I know I will be editing to convert to a monochrome image, so there’s nothing to gain from using jpeg, and I believe I get greater flexibility from using a raw file.
A monitor of some sort is needed to edit your captured image. Ideally it would be colour calibrated, but the tools to do this are expensive for some. At a minimum for editing monochrome images it is desirable to have the black and white point accurately set – different monitors control these in different ways. You need to adjust brightness and contrast so you can clearly see gradation in both dark blacks and bright whites – there are sample images on the web you can use to check these, but it is best to use an image you can download and view inside your editor. A good example is the printer test page from the Northlight Images website.
Printing monochrome images can be difficult. If you have a colour printer that has only one black ink, you may find that it does not reliably print a neutral tone for all shades of grey, and only a slight drift in hue can be easily seen. This can be avoided if necessary by adjusting the image to a slightly cold or warm tone, to avoid crossing between the two. Printers with three black inks are less likely to suffer from this. If you have several prints to do, having them printed online may be cheaper than doing them yourself … small cartridges of ink are expensive!
Again, the printer test page from Northlight Images makes a very useful test (as you’d expect as it was designed as a print test). It contains both detailed highlights and detailed shadows, and instructions on how to use it and what to look for in the print.
I sent a few images (including the test image) to a nearby printer (who we recommend to club members for colour prints) to test them out for monochrome results (using the ‘ordinary’ colour photographic process), and while not quite up to the standard of inkjet prints from an Epson 3880 printer on premium papers with a custom profile, they were certainly acceptable for general use. You can also get prints made from digital files onto silver gelatine paper (traditional monochrome darkroom paper), though these are more expensive and the choice of paper is much more restricted than it used to be – none of the papers I preferred to use in the darkroom are available now.
Components of a monochrome photograph
Monochrome images are composed of several elements:
- shapes – whether bold, simple or complex, you need to consider the interplay of the shapes in the image you are creating
- textures – whether strong or subtle, textures within your image can play an important role
- tones – your image will likely contain tones from black to white; if it doesn’t, this needs to be an obvious choice, and not look as if poor technique has left the extremes of tone omitted
- but not colour – so don’t be overwhelmed by colour contrasts when taking the photograph.
The shapes in the image are the first thing to consider when capturing the image – they are the hardest things to change in processing. The emphasis given to texture and the tonal range can be adjusted to suit the effect you want, and conversion from colour to grey values is also adjustable during processing – provided you haven’t let the camera decide on the conversion for you! (This is a major difference from film – where conversion of colour to tone was largely set when the image was captured, either by choice of film or choice of filter used.)
You may often see references to ‘getting it right in the camera‘ – usually with an implication that post-processing should be unnecessary.
This runs counter to the history of monochrome photography – more great monochrome images were probably made in the darkroom rather than in the camera. Recording the image on negative film is just the first step, and ‘getting it right’ meant not blocking up either the highlights or the shadows, and producing a negative, by choice of both exposure and development, that could most easily be manipulated in the darkroom to get the print that the photographer wanted, instead of a straight representation of the scene. I take the same view with digital images – I want the most flexible image possible to work from, so I don’t use any of the black and white or scene modes.
To get a good monochrome image you’re usually going to do some post processing, so I always keep the raw files to work on, rather than shooting jpeg. I also try to minimise the noise at capture, by using as low an ISO as possible given requirements of shutter speed, depth of field (aperture), and lighting (which I usually can’t control) – you can add back noise (grain) if you want, more easily than removing it! I’ll usually bracket exposures (if it’s a static scene) – it doesn’t cost anything, and gives me more options. In extreme cases, HDR processing may be a useful way of dealing with high contrast scenes
As mentioned above, correct setting of the white point and black point on the monitor are vital, otherwise you will get dull or blocked up highlights and/or deep shadows will be blocked or weak. If your monitor isn’t showing you the true tonal range of your file, you aren’t going to be able to accurately predict what a print will look at.
conversion to monochrome
To show some basic steps in the conversion of a colour image to a monochrome image I’m going to use a photograph I took of the hills at the end of Wastwater. (It’s not an image of any particular merit, just one of my snapshots from the week before the talk that would suit my needs for this talk). It has contrasting though muted colours, some texture (though not much as it was a somewhat misty day), and some flaws in the sky area. A simple conversion would be to simply convert to greyscale using your image editor.
In older editors you might have done this by switching to Lab mode, and just using the L (luminance) channel, or simply desaturating the image. Both give results similar to the image on the left. Current versions of Photoshop and Lightroom have a tool specifically for converting to Black and White, that provides sliders to individually adjust red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and magenta colours to grey tones. Somewhat to my surprise, the default setting for this tool, gives very similar effects for this image – a very bland image with no contrast between the orange-brown bracken and green grass areas.
After adjusting the various colour controls (primarily brightening greens and yellows for the grass, and darkening reds and oranges for the bracken) this is beginning to look more attractive as a monochrome image. It has regained the differences that were provided by colour in the original image. It is however still lacking in both overall and local contrast that will be needed to make this more successful as a monochrome image.
Adjusting overall contrast in an image using curves or equivalent is limited, in that it affects all parts of the image in same way, eg stretching the mid tones towards extremes and compressing highlights and shadows as you increase the contrast (just like selecting a fixed paper grade in the darkroom). While this does indeed increase contrast in the midtones, it necessarily reduces contrast in highlight and shadow areas. What is needed is a means of adjusting contrast that adapts to the local density of an image.
This is the purpose of the clarity slider in Lightroom and its equivalent in current version of Photoshop. Other software may have a similar tool under a different name, but if not there is often another way reaching the same result – using the ‘unsharp masking’ tool. If you use the unsharp mask tool, setting the radius to a high number, and the amount low (opposite to the normal usage) gives a similar result in increasing local contrast (so a mid grey in a dark area will be pushed to lighter tone, while a mid tone in a light area will be pushed towards dark). The image above has had just this process used giving very similar results to using the clarity tool (this processing was carried out in Photoshop rather than Lightroom). (I don’t know a similar method for reducing clarity.)
In the darkroom we’d also make other adjustments to localised areas, either dodging or burning to change the overall density of a part of the image, burning in the sky for example. You can do this in Lightroom by using the adjustment brush to paint a change over part of the image, or in Photoshop using an adjustment layer to make changes and then applying a mask to the adjustment layer (and don’t forget you can adjust the opacity of the layer and its blending mode to tweak the effect).
There are also plugins available for Photoshop and Lightroom that will make it easier to convert images to monochrome and make adjustments. On the left is a quick conversion using Silver Efex Pro. It allows both global and local adjustments of contrast and structure (similar to clarity) with an automatic mask generation for local adjustments. While the overall tonal range is similar to the image above using unsharp mask, it has allowed me to bring out more detail in local areas and produces a more attractive image … except for the ‘enhanced’ dust spots and piece of hair in the sky. You still have to do the spotting you did in the darkroom, but you have to do it before you start, not after you’ve finished! Unfortunately I can’t recommend Silver Efex Pro, at least in Europe, as I’ve had bad experiences with the European support, or lack of it. Topaz also have a black and white plugin, which I haven’t used, and there are probably others.
I’ve already covered printing in general in another post - from camera to print so there’s no point duplicating that here.
If you have an Epson printer with multiple black inks the Epson driver probably includes an ‘Advanced Black and White’ mode that uses less coloured ink than the standard modes, and so is less prone to hue shifts with changing density. (Having said that, a well made profile for printer and paper can give a very good neutral black too – try both with the Northlight Images test file and see which you prefer!)
In my opinion the most important thing you can do to develop a feeling for monochrome photography is to look at as much monochrome photography as you can find. Since Borders has ceased trading in the UK, the only magazine of monochrome photography you’re likely to see in a newsagent is Black and White Photography, which does still contain a good amount of photography, though more and more equipment reviews seem to be taking over the pages. Look at the images, decide what you like and why, and try to emulate what you like. (Also look at local museums, and occasionally some of the larger galleries – in Manchester the Lowry has had a few exhibitions of monochrome photography, and Cornerhouse occasionally has a photographic exhibit too.)
Personally, I find the ‘rules of composition’ unhelpful, except as a shorthand for judges to explain why they like the images they’ve given a high score to.