Lessons from the Shop: How to take great B&W Photographs - Part 1

By Steve Terlizzi
Click Photos to Enlarge
Click here for Part 2 and here for Part 3

Fence Color  Fence B&W

In his famous song Kodachrome, while Paul Simon was singing the praises of that very famous color film, he sings the verse, "Everything looks worse in Black and White".  Well, Mr. Simon with all due respect, no. 
As Gary Fong discussed in his recent blog, thinking about B&W photographs can bring a new level to your photography and reveal interesting photos and stories where ones never appeared to be. Obviously, good music doesn't necessarily mean good photography.
Take a look at the two photos above. The color version was taken during my colorist phase. I was searching for colors everywhere. When Ayumi peeked through the red fence, I loved the complementary colors with her purple shirt and the purple concrete. I was happy with the picture. However, when I converted it to black and white, I become exhilarated with the picture.

Remove the color, reveal the wonder

By removing the "distraction of color", one brings out the textures not seen, shapes, lines and contrast in the picture. For example, the wonderful textures in the wood come alive in the B&W version. The contrast between Ayumi's face and jacket becomes greater and your eye moves immediately to her face. What is a distracting background fades away to highlight the main subject of the photo in the foreground.
Truly, thinking about shooting for B&W output forces you to think more about the composition in the photograph. Finally, while not evident in this or the following example, B&W can show the effect of light and shadows in a dramatic way.
Should I simply shoot in B&W in the camera? My feeling is an emphatic NO. There is a lot of valuable information in the color channels that will allow you to make conversion decisions that are in line with your vision for the photo.

That Vision Thing

Vision? What do you mean vision? One doesn't simply shoot in color, then convert to grayscale or desaturate the photo. One needs to think about where you want the photo to go and of course there is no wrong answer - just different answers.
Closeup ColorCloseup B&W1Closeup B&W2 
Let's take a look at this series of photos. I took a rather ordinary snapshot of Ayumi playing on a futon with my on-camera flash with a tissue covering it! The light is still bad and the girly-girly blouse color distracts from Ayumi. I took two approaches with this photo: B&W #1 is a high contrast version where I sacrificed detail in the shadows to create a 50s Hollywood picture effect. B&W #2 is the opposite where I created a more high-key effect maintaining the detail in the hair and creating a softer look. Which is better? I like both.
Converting color to B&W requires several conscious decisions at the time of the shot and during post-processing. One needs to think about the tone and contrast in the photo. Where is the pure white and pure black in the picture? How are the shadow details to be handled? Would it be better to lean toward silhouette or try to maintain the shadow detail?

Preparing for Post-processing

Some of these decisions can be postponed until Photoshop processing. But one should keep in mind two camera techniques to assist in post-processing. Shoot in color and maintain the RGB channel information. Also, you should shoot in RAW format and "expose to the right" overexposing the highlights - but never clipping them.
In Part 2, we will discuss the various ways to convert to B&W and why these two items are very important.