As a digital black & white photographer, the 21st century isn’t exactly the perfect time to live in. Virtually all digital cameras take pictures in color and those that don’t cost a fortune. Of course, every camera has a black & white mode, but this only means the camera is doing the critical job of black & white conversion for the photographer – not exactly the perfect solution for the creative mind. So, how can we solve this problem and create an (almost) monochrome photography workflow with today’s digital cameras? How can we (almost) free ourselves from colors?
Why get rid of colors?
In every book about black & white photography, you will find a chapter about seeing in black & white. What they usually mean by this is the process of seeing in the field, of recognizing scenes and subjects that will work well in black & white. What they usually don’t discuss is the second part of the image making process, the making of the picture in your digital darkroom. Just because they can be mesmerizingly beautiful, colors can be as distracting here as they can be in the field. If you have ever tried to convert a photo of a beautiful sunset, a flower or a shiny (and colorful) new car to black & white, you might know what I mean. Colors often keep distracting me from what I want to capture in an image: A beautiful shape, the texture of the clouds, the shiny metal, you name it. At the beginning of the conversion process, the new impression of the colors leaves the monochrome image dull and boring in direct comparison and thus interferes with my creative process. Fortunately, I found a solution which I would now like to share with you.
A two-step solution
In camera settings
The first step is adjusting the camera settings. I set my camera black & white but still let it save all my images as RAW files. This way, what I see on display is always monochrome, so that I can check my shots in black & white immediately if necessary. The files on the card, however, are still in color with all their fidelity.
With my Nikon D7100, I can adjust the settings for this impromptu in camera monochrome conversion. I chose the highest contrast setting and a red filter emulation because this approximates my idea of a good black&white photo best. Your preferences may vary, of course.
On the computer
The next step in our almost monochrome photography workflow must be taken on the computer. To get rid of colors here, I use a feature in Lightroom which was originally conceived for an entirely different purpose: Presets. I created a black & white preset, based upon the Red Hi-Contrast Filter preset which ships with Lightroom. I then apply it to all the images while importing.
For this preset, I chose settings according to my preference for sharp contrasts with deep blacks and bright whites. Here are my settings.
So far, I only have only used this preset, and it has worked very nicely for me. But I can see myself create different black & white presets in the future, depending on the kind of photos I am importing. Obviously, landscapes require other parameters than, say, portraits or street photography.
Please note that there is one scenario when I don’t use a monochrome preset during import and that is my on-black animal portraiture. Here, I need to see the colors to evaluate whether it is possible to separate the subject from its background and put it on a black background instead. Removing the colors from the images would strongly interfere with this process.
What are the benefits?
In addition to the advantage of eliminating the overwhelming influence of colors on my creative process (see above), I find it much easier and faster to judge whether the image works as a monochrome image and as I have envisioned it in the field. It’s easier to see if the composition works. Lines, shapes, symmetry, they all are now easier to perceive without the distracting influence of colors. I also find it much simpler to judge the potential of the photo for further processing. Sometimes, I even start processing an image in LR to check alternatives.
This way, I create a set of first drafts. For I don’t do my black & white conversion in Lightroom. I do it in Photoshop and Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 to take the image to places where Lightroom just cannot go. And in doing so, I benefit from the simple fact that even though I haven’t seen the colors of the photograph in camera or Lightroom, it has been there all the time. Even for a black & white photographer, color has its use in the monochrome conversion, so it is a good thing that I can when I send the image from Lightroom to Photoshop and later Silver Efex Pro 2, I send the color version. But now that I have found a clearer vision of where I want to take the image, I find myself immune from the distraction of colors.
More of the (almost) monochrome photography workflow
In my next blog post, I will use a minimalist architectural photograph to walk you through my complete processing workflow in Lightroom, Photoshop, Lumenzia (a Photoshop extension), and Silver Efex Pro 2.
In the meantime, please feel free to write down your thoughts about this blog post, my solutions, maybe even alternative ideas in the comment section below.