The biggest obstacle to successful black-and-white photography has always been that most of us see in color.
Back in the film days, photographers had to learn through trial and error how to see the world in tones of gray rather than colors—pre-visualization. Black-and-white shooters would eventually build up an arsenal of specialty red, yellow, orange, green, and blue filters to help them alter the colors in a scene to specific tones of gray.
But today, with digital cameras, black-and-white visualization has never been easier, and the digital darkroom provides us with myriad ways to turn our color captures into monochromes. If you don’t want to give up color entirely, the digital darkroom also makes it easy to tone images with a single hue.
Previsualize with JPEG
It’s hard to see in black-and-white when you’re looking through a viewfinder at a world full of color. But most current DSLRs can do a neat trick to help you make better monochromes: by setting the camera to make simultaneous JPEG and RAW capture, with the JPEG profile set to b&w. On Canons, the JPEG profiles are called Picture Styles, and on Nikons, they’re under the Picture Control menu. On other cameras, you can find out how to do this by looking in the index of your instruction manual.
With this dual capture, the image will play back as b&w, but the RAW file will maintain the full data of the color image. This color file gives you many more options for post-processing into a monochrome than a b&w JPEG.
And here’s a still little-known fact: If your camera has live view, and you’re set to monochrome capture, you’ll see the scene on your camera’s LCD as black-and-white, in real time.
One way to explore the world of black-and-white without the need for previsualization is to simply look for monochromes that occur naturally. Winter in temperate climates is a great time for this, particularly when a coating of snow smothers almost all color.
Foggy mornings are also mostly devoid of color, and at dawn or dusk, many scenes take on a monochromatic cool shade of blue, as in the image of the lake dock on the opening spread.
Macro photography allows you to capture a subject that’s an abstraction of tones in a sea of single color.