Thursday, 24 March 2016

What makes a good black and white photo?

I hear that question a lot.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced it's the Wrong Question. Try asking yourself the obverse question 'What makes a good colour photo?'. Isn't this an equally baffling question to give a straight answer to?

I think we all more or less know what makes a good photo, whether it's our own or somebody else's. Unfortunately, in good daylight, we all see the world in colour whether we want to or not. The problem we all have is disregarding the colour we see and trying to imagine the world in tones of grey. 

So the real question is 'How can we see in black and white?' 

Some of us old enough to have been weaned on black and white film learnt to do this to some extent just by practice, but it isn't easy. So here are some suggestions that might help. 

The great landscape photographer Ansel Adams (more of a US national institution than a photographer) recommended viewing the scene through a Wratten #90 dark amber filter. In fact, any colour filter will turn a scene to monochrome, albeit the colour of the filter. A 'Panchromatic Viewing Filter' used to be available for this purpose; maybe it still is. I believe it was yellow and the tonal rendering was supposed to be similar to how the scene would be recorded on panchromatic film. 

A better idea is using a screw-in colour filter on your camera. A red filter works like magic and, because it makes blues appear extra dark, the clouds seem to pop out of the sky. But don't forget to take the filter off before you take the picture. 

A well-known black and white photographer (who's name escapes me!) was asked how he was able to visualise his subjects in black and white and he said the easiest way he found was just to squint at it. Doing this reduces colour perception and the blurring effect takes out most of the detail making you more conscious of shapes, tones and overall composition. 

A digital camera makes seeing in black and white a whole lot easier. Just set the picture mode to black and white in the menu and use the Live View function. Take the picture again in full colour mode if you think you might need it. 

Let's clear up one area of possible confusion. In our club competitions and most other external competitions the rules define Monochrome as a picture in one colour only.  'Mono' (one), 'chrome' (colour) - geddit? At one time the club allowed split-toned black and white prints (a darkroom toning method that introduced two colours). This is easy to do in editing software but now you would have to enter it into an open class.

Using a single colour tone will help some pictures but be careful how you use it, and don't overdo it. A warm tone such as sepia works best when you want to inject a comforting or an 'old world' look to your picture. A cool or bluish tone can work well with pictures of ice and snow. The main thing is to choose a tone for a reason, not just a random colour to pretty the thing up. Having said that, when we visited the SPA Exhibition at Guildford recently, their wasn't a single monochrome picture selected that had been colour-toned. 

 A 'classical' black and white image has a full tonal range from black to paper-base white, with discernible details in both the shadows and in the highlight areas. Occasionally, a judge will not be favourably disposed towards anything else. Here are a couple of examples of the 'classical' style.
 Awaiting the tide - Mandy B
Your move - David P 

However, depending on the subject, a monochrome picture can also work in high key where there are no dark tones:
Snowdonia from Great Orme Head - David P

Or in high contrast, where some of the shadows are blocked up or the highlights blown out.

The highest contrast of all is an image with no grey tones at all - there are just two tones, black and white. The most beautiful examples I have seen of this kind of work are in a book I bought some years ago called 'High Contrast' by J. Seeley. They were made using lithographic film, a very high contrast film designed for reproducing script and diagrams. Similar effects can be produced using editing software. In PhotoShop, try the Threshold command in Image/Adjustments, moving the slider to get the effect you want.  Just bear in mind that it is risky putting this kind of thing into camera club competitions - 'old school' judges may not like it.
Biker Liverpool - David P

Congratulations to everyone who entered our monochrome competition last week, most of you making a pretty good fist of it. Special congratulations to the winning and highest scoring entries which will soon be appearing in the Internal Competitions section of the Photocraft website.