The Many Colors Of Black And White

Welcome to another edition of Let’s Talk Photography! It’s a brand new year and I’m looking forward to getting out and shooting and learning more about my camera and the light that I’m capturing. This week, I’m going to ask you to consider all the colors that exist in a black and white photograph. Okay, take a breath, yes, I said there are colors in a black and white photograph. Follow along and you’ll see that I’m not writing this after hitting the New Year’s Champaign too hard.

Some photographers shoot exclusively in black and white. They see the world and understand how removing the colors in the every day can expose the expression and feeling of the world around them. Colors can become a distraction to the emotion of the frame. Other photographers will shoot in color and then convert to black and white using software. But they, too, have an understanding of how the colors in the light can change the scene. And then there’s photographers like me that have a hard time making great black and white photos but appreciate a really great black and white that someone else has done. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made some good black and whites, but only after I learned how to use the colors in my scene to achieve a very attractive black and white.

First, you must understand that every color will be represented by a shade of light or dark. For example, bright colors like yellow, light green and orange will translate to shades of brightness in your black and white while colors such as red, blue or brown will translate to varying shades of darkness. When you convert a color photo in your software you can create a black and white photo very quickly and easily by taking the Saturation of your image down to zero, therefore removing all the color information and leaving only the varied levels of dark and light.

But, why is it that the most beautiful black and white photos seem to have a “not so flat” look to them that draws you in and makes you feel certain emotions when looking at them? Compelling black and white images are made by using the different colors of light to change the exposure of the image. Some photographers will utilize different colored lights or apply filters to their lenses to enhance or remove certain colors from the image when they are shooting. Other photographers will apply color filters to their images to change and enhance the light values in the finished black and white conversion. To better explain this, let’s take a look at one of the images that I took when I was shooting the Buddy Guy concert at the Seneca Allegany Casino.

The first image has the color information that came from the camera. Notice that the left side of the image is washed with a blue light and the right side is more in the purple range. This is because of the stage lighting that was used during the concert. If I were to just remove the color values then the image would look flat. But, taking the colors into consideration, I could use those colors to make the image more dramatic. Let’s isolate the blue and make it stand out by increasing its brightness value. In some software this would be done by applying a blue filter to the image. By boosting the brightness of the blues in the image it makes his entire shirt shine brightly and makes the guitar the same shade all around, but it also makes the portions of the band member behind him stand out as well causing him to be a bit distracting. Also, notice that the purple side also became very bright because purple is made up of both blue and red so increasing the blue value also makes the purple become brighter.

Now, let’s put the blue back to its original value and we’ll increase the brightness of the yellow information in the scene, or apply a yellow filter. Doing this causes the blue side to become even darker gives a greater amount of depth to the whole scene. Notice the edge of the guitar, which contains a yellow hue, becomes very bright while the face of the guitar, which is washed over with the blue light, becomes much darker creating a more dramatic feel to the image. Also, the band member in the background almost completely vanishes, therefore isolating Buddy against a black background.

We could continue to do this with all the colors in the spectrum and see how it changes the image and you’ll find that the image will take on so many different feelings or personalities. The trick is finding the balance that is most appealing or invokes the emotions that you intend to convey to those who would see the finished photograph. I didn’t want to have such a dramatic feel but I wanted to isolate Buddy without losing everything and everyone in the background. I also wanted to create a “shiny metallic” so I balanced the blues and reds to achieve a silver look to the image.

It’s all up to you when it comes to the finished piece, but give black and white photography a try and see if you can create a dramatic piece by altering your color information before you desaturate the image. Try shooting a still life scene at home and change the colors of light that you’re using to invoke different feelings in the same image.

As I mentioned, I have a difficult time shooting black and white because I really do love color in my images. Now that I have practiced and understand how the different light values will influence the scene, it makes it a little easier to go out and make a nice image with all the colors of black and white.

Until next week, happy shooting!

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