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|Though it was overcast with cloudy skies, the rich diversity of tones provided an ideal backdrop for a black-and-white image of these young lovers on a bridge in the middle of Paris. The light was fairly flat, but the couple and the surrounding scenes were rich with a range of light and dark tones, which I accentuated once I brought the image into Adobe Lightroom. I didn’t concern myself that the resulting original file likely would look a little flat. Instead, I focused on carefully composing my shot to capture the momentary gesture of the young girl touching her companion’s cheek.|
When we think of travel photography, the first images that flash in our minds are likely in color. Whether the destination is Paris, Morocco, Honolulu or Rio de Janeiro, the images we imagine are undoubtedly influenced by the photographs we’ve seen in magazines, not least of which is National Geographic, whose photographers have made the use of light and color an art form. As evocative as those color photos are, there are times when a scene is even stronger if it’s rendered in black-and-white. The natural world is rich with saturated greens, reds and blues, but sometimes the monochromatic image more adeptly expresses our personal experience of a scene and a moment. It’s no less so when we’re traveling, even in largely urban environments.
Use Your Nature Skills
The great thing about producing black-and-white travel photography is that you’re utilizing the very same experience and skills you practice when you’re photographing nature. Your ability to see light and shadow and to build strong, effective photographs of nature are the same skills you need to produce great black-and-white travel images.
I realized the truth of this when I began to photograph nature. I thought I was at a severe disadvantage because I rarely photographed natural landscapes, macro subjects or wildlife. I was nervous that anything I produced would be a bust, but I quickly discovered that everything I had learned about light, contrast, color, composition and foreground and background relationships from travel photography was still at play even though I was photographing in Death Valley or Yosemite. Yes, the subjects were different, but the concepts that make a good photograph were still the same.
It’s Still About Light
A great way to begin seeing and photographing in black-and-white is to simply pay attention to the light. Just as with color photography, the early morning and late afternoon deliver strong directional light, which produces strong points of contrast between light and dark. The resulting contrast can help reveal shapes and textures that otherwise would be lost under flatter, even light.
Though it’s easy to want to sleep in, especially during our vacations, the choice to rise early and stay up later has its advantages. The magic light during those times is just as magical when color is no longer a factor. Though you may not use it to take advantage of the vibrancy of reds and blues, you’re still using that same light to create a different relationship of tones, shapes and patterns.
Whether the shadows are stark or hard as a result of strong directional light or flatter because of a rainy overcast day, the photographs become as much about the range of tones than just the subject or elements within the frame. In fact, the tones themselves become the critical concern as you explore the world in black-and-white.
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Use Your Camera To See In B&W
Though an understanding of color theory is always an advantage, it’s not a requirement. This is because we can easily set the camera’s Picture Style mode to monochrome or black-and-white. This results in the image being played back on the LCD or the electronic viewfinder as a black-and-white. You immediately have a sense of how greens, reds, yellows and other colors will appear in your photograph.
If you’re shooting and saving your images as RAW files, you maintain your color originals. The image played back on your screen refers only to the JPEG, which, if you want to retain, means setting your camera to the RAW+JPEG setting. This is a viable choice if you’re starting to learn to see in black-and-white. Additionally, you may be quite happy with the black-and-white version created by the camera.
Your camera may provide filter options for its black-and-white setting, including a yellow, green or red filter. I suggest using only the yellow filter if your images include people. Otherwise, the green or red filter can make the resulting skin tones look rather unnatural. Of course, you can use a traditional glass filter, if you prefer.
Pay Attention To The Shadows
One of the best ways to evaluate the quality and the direction of the light is simply to pay attention to what’s happening with the shadows. The shadows reveal whether the light is hard or soft and from what direction the light is coming. That information alone can easily determine things as simple as on what side of the street to walk or even in what direction to go exploring.
Shape And Form
The presence of strong shadows can help to accentuate shape and line, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Such was the case during several days of my recent trip to Paris, when rain and cloudy skies were the norm. Rather than allow such weather to dissuade me from making good photographs, I chose to emphasize shapes, lines and patterns and micro-contrasts to produce good images of architecture.
When the photograph is stripped of color, the things we choose to include or exclude from the frame become all the more critical. Saturated colors such as reds and yellows can be big visual draws and we can build a composition on that fact. But when color is lacking, it’s things like brightness, contrast, pattern and sharpness that instruct the viewer where to look first and how to explore the rest of the frame. In fact, it’s the practice of shooting black-and-white that can truly challenge your skills to produce strong and effective compositions.
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Young boys skating down the street might be an image that would work just as well in color as in black-and-white, but it often comes down to a personal preference.
All images: Fujifilm X100S, Fujifilm XF 23mm F1.4 R lens
The image produced by the camera should be considered a starting point for a final black-and-white photograph. Regardless of how good the image may look on the camera’s LCD screen, these images often will require a bit of refining in Lightroom or Photoshop. You want to avoid simply taking your color image and desaturating it to remove all the color. That just makes it a shot without any color. It doesn’t really make it a black-and-white image, which requires a more thoughtful conversion.
In Lightroom’s RAW converter, I’ll make my global adjustments with respect to levels, curves, contrast and sharpness. Then I’ll move over to the Black & White Mix module, which allows me to make selective changes based on the original colors within the file. It’s a powerful tool, and it allows me to isolate adjustments of contrast in a fast and convenient way. I then can follow up with the Adjustment brush to selectively dodge and burn the image to emphasize and de-emphasize certain elements in the frame.
I’m also a fan of Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, which is one of my favorite plug-ins for converting color images to black-and-white. With its diverse range of presets and customizable adjustment tools, you easily can create unique looks. Both methods can be as easy or as complex as you want to make them.
Dodging And Burning
Remember that the human eye is drawn to the brightest element within the frame and you can use the art of dodging and burning to control the viewer’s experience of the photograph. Don’t be satisfied with hitting a preset to convert your image from color to black-and-white. The full expression of that moment, that shot, lies in your careful enhancements of the image.
There’s an air of the classic, even romanticism, to black-and-white photographs, especially when making images abroad. The choice to document the places we’ve seen and the people we’ve encountered in black-and-white provides us with the opportunity to do more than make the typical snapshot. It’s a wonderful chance to hone our skills as photographers by making images that leave as much of an impression as the moments that help us to remember.
Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, writer and host/producer of “The Candid Frame” photography podcast (thecandidframe.com). He’s also the author of five books, including Chasing the Light: Improving Your Photography with Available Light and his latest, Portraits of Strangers.