Go B&W In Winter

More than just a solution for bleak scenery, converting your images to black-and-white can give winter landscapes and sports action tremendous impact
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Black-and-white adds a fine-art impact to nature photographs, and the unique properties of winter are especially exciting for beautiful monochromatic photos and prints.

Winter is a wondrous season for photographers, with its own unique challenges and triumphs. For many of us, the landscape changes shape and character entirely, covered in a blanket of Mother Nature’s finest frozen concoction. While there are certainly fleeting moments of inspiring color, winter, it seems, is a season well suited to monochrome imagery.

There’s a certain simplicity and resoluteness conveyed through a black-and-white image that’s often hard to capture in color. In my opinion, it’s one of the best ways to showcase the simple framework of a meaningful image. Color takes a backseat to shape, texture and tonal nuance, and depth and dimension are brought out through shadow and highlight. For some, winter can be a particularly challenging time to capture five-star images. With a little insight and practice, this season can serve as a veritable monochrome bounty, ripe for the taking.

Above is an example of a before-and-after desaturated image. While the color photograph is striking, black-and-white conversion brings an almost otherworldly, timeless feel to the overall aesthetic of the image.

Often, the overwhelming question that looms in our photographic minds is, “When do I shoot for monochrome or just stick with color?” The easy, open-ended answer is simply, “When it feels right.” It does take some practice, however, to arrive at a creative level where you know the scene before you was just meant to be shared in black-and-white.

In my earlier years of shooting, I found myself converting images to black-and-white only when the color at my location wasn’t cutting it. It always seemed to be more of a plan B than a plan A. This all changed with a visual exercise that helped me to see the world in shades and tones as opposed to just color.

Upon returning home from a shoot, I would convert my digital color images to monochrome and study the way everyday objects looked without color. Before long, I was able to “see” in monochrome when shooting in the field. Depending on the scene that lay before me and what my creative mind-set was, I was seeing in shades of black, white and gray instead of indigo, magenta and mustard. What an inspiring new world! Winter is a particularly useful season to practice seeing, as much of the time the range of color is naturally limited. The veil between color and monochrome is thin, and it’s easier to see both types of imagery without sitting at the computer and converting the image.


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Winter naturally reduces the color palette to the essentials, and by learning to “see in black-and-white,” you’ll be able to properly judge a scene. The digital age also has provided photographers with so many options for black-and-white imagery that it’s hard to even define what a black-and-white image is. Channel mixers provide extended control over hue and saturation, and any number of tones can be added to conversion for subtly or overtly adding to the look of an image.

What To Look For In The Field
When out shooting in wintertime, there are several questions I ask myself when deciding between color and monochrome. What is it that speaks to me about the scene in front of me? Is it color? Or is it shape, depth, texture and detail? How can I best relay to the viewer the most important components of the scene and exclude the rest? If color appears to be a distraction, then the answer is easy.

There also are numerous elements I look for when composing and capturing an image in my mind before actually clicking the shutter. I look for intense transitions between highlight and shadow. I look for ways to convey a sense of depth and dimension that will manifest itself in tonal difference as opposed to color. Winter weather has a way of sculpting the landscape with wind, sun and other atmospheric phenomena, presenting strong foreground anchors, rich in linear texture and detail. This depth and dimension also may be found through near-far transitions between lit and shaded areas of the image. Many times I search for layers in an image, the definition of which are rendered much more palpable when void of color.

It’s worth mentioning that a good scene for monochrome isn’t necessarily one that just doesn’t work in color. Oftentimes, the resulting image will look adequate, or even somewhat nice, in color. What I’m shooting for, however, is maximum impact. For me, an image shot in color most often will have to exhibit bold, rich and exciting color to have impact. If those qualities aren’t present, I’ll start to examine how the shadows, highlights and tonal differences will establish impact instead of color.

Here’s a worthy exercise that may help you to understand how an adequate color image can be an exceptional monochrome one: Go through your image library and pick out several images that may not have made the initial five-star cut on your first edit. Process these images in monochrome, and you’ll be amazed at how some images just sing with life. The more you do this, the better you’ll know when the impact of monochrome will surpass color.

It’s worth mentioning that a good scene for monochrome isn’t necessarily one that just doesn’t work in color. Oftentimes, the resulting image will look adequate, or even somewhat nice, in color. What I’m shooting for, however, is maximum impact.

Furthermore, there will be times when you actually find the color to be a deterrent from the message you’re trying to convey with your image. When shape, form and texture trump color, you know you’ve found monochrome heaven.


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How To Properly Expose For Winter Monochrome Images
Perhaps the most important aspect of monochrome imagery in winter is nailing your exposure at the time of capture. It’s vital to have accurate image information across the tonal range to properly process your image on the computer.

Naturally, your camera’s meter will underexpose snow. You’ll most often have to overexpose a ½-stop to 1 1⁄2 stops to accurately render the snow as white instead of gray. The camera’s histogram is your best tool in assessing whether you’ve captured an accurate exposure.

Push those right-side highlight values as far to the right as you can, without overexposing or blowing them out. Pay attention to your left-side shadow detail as well, ensuring that you have adequate information to pull as much shadow detail as you like. If the dynamic range is too great, either consider which part of the image you’re willing to sacrifice (shadows or highlights) or crunch that dynamic range through the use of filters or HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing for exposure blending.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that shadows are there for a reason! There seems to be a bit of a trend in this digital age to pull detail out of every last dark area of an image, resulting in an unnatural image that’s over the top in detail and utterly void of defining contrast. Monochrome images rely on shadows to separate significant compositional elements, as well as give them substance and depth. Resist the temptation to overuse that Shadow/Highlight tool in Photoshop and embrace this natural compositional tool.

Additionally, don’t forget your landscape filters when capturing that monochrome keeper. Tried and tested since the days of film, the grad ND filter is an incredibly useful tool in keeping the hot parts of your image in check and capturing dramatic skies at their finest. A polarizing filter also is exceptionally useful in deepening skies and adding a little extra pop and contrast to puffy clouds.

How To Convert Your Monochrome Image
There are countless software programs and methods to convert a color image to monochrome, all valid in their own right. As a user of Aperture, I’ve become well acquainted with its RAW conversion, and I’m a huge fan of the monochrome mixer for monochrome conversion. A simple click converts the image to monochrome. The user then has latitude to manipulate the image further by adjusting the red, green and blue channel sliders.


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Another particularly useful function of Aperture’s monochrome mixer is the ability to apply black-and-white filters to the image by clicking on one of the filter presets. This also is a great way to become more familiar with these filters and better understand the effects they have at the time of capture should you ever have a desire to use the filters in the field. Lastly, I often add just a hint of brown tone or sepia to my monochrome images. I prefer a slightly warmer image than what’s commonly the result of a simple monochrome conversion. Note that this is a personal preference and not a common step for many photographers.

After making my RAW conversion in Aperture, I continue on to Photoshop, where I make more local contrast adjustments through levels and curves adjustment layers. Additionally, it’s here that I’ll apply some selective dodging and burning, if I’m so inclined.

As you make more conversions from color to monochrome, you’ll gain a better understanding of when and how to approach an image for the best monochrome result in the field. Much like a marathon runner starts training with shorter-distance runs, you can ease into the challenge of seeing in black-and-white. Through simple visual and creative exercises, you’ll know when it’s right to forget color and capture winter in its most basic and beautiful form.

Raised among the towering peaks of Utah’s Wasatch Mountain Range, Adam Barker has a passion for photography and the outdoors. His landscapes have sold as limited-edition fine-art prints to private and corporate collectors throughout the U.S., and his quest for exceptional imagery has translated into stunning editorial work in skiing, fly-fishing and numerous other lifestyle and adventure publications. To view more of his work, follow his blog or attend a workshop, visit www.adambarkerphotography.com.

Useful Filters For Added Contrast


Tiffen Polarizer 

B+W Gray Graduated Filter

Singh-Ray ND Graduated Filter

11 Comments

    I am old enough to have worked extensively with B&W, processing my own rolls of film and making my own prints, before color became more affordable and then really grew with digital imaging. “Seeing” in Black and White is easily learned and difficult to forget. I was challenged to make best use of color!

    Try B&W during an afternoon walk about familiar territory. Try some shots. “See” what you are looking at in monochrome. When the process becomes natural, you will have more than doubled your enjoyment of this great hobby!

    Winter is a wondrous season for photographers, with its own unique challenges and triumphs. For many of us, the landscape changes shape and character entirely, covered in a blanket of Mother Nature?۪s finest frozen concoction. While there are certainly fleeting moments of inspiring color, winter, it seems, is a season well suited to monochrome imagery.

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