We all know that a good black and white (monochrome) image can create quite an impact. Monochrome is a very powerful creative tool, because it can be used to shift the emphasis in your images from colors to textures. High-contrast color images can look strange, but high-contrast monochrome images can be stunning. But there’s another reason you should consider learning the art of black and white digital photography– it lets you expand your shooting conditions.
Even with the best digital cameras, we still face challenges when it comes to certain situations, like mixed lighting, mid-day scenery, or high-ISO work. Many times, you’ll recognize these conditions and either throw away the images or just not shoot altogether. With black and white in your bag of tricks, you don’t have to. Midday landscapes? No problem– just emphasize the textures and use color filter techniques to cut through haze. If you are shooting in a mixture of lighting conditions, like daylight, fluorescent, and incandescent, converting to black and white lets you discard the cacophony of colors and focus on your subject. If your camera produces noise at higher ISOs, it won’t matter in a black and white image– that noise might just look like film grain and be entirely believable.
If you’re going to dabble in black and white, make sure your editing software is up to the task. Simply clicking the “desaturate” command will leave your images flat and uninspiring. I recommend using dedicated black and white conversion tools that let you work with color channel data to get the best results. Lightroom, Aperture, and Capture NX2 can all produce quality black and white images. There are also dedicated 3rd-party plug-ins for monochrome that do an even better job and provide more creative options. My personal favorite is currently Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2.0, but there are other good programs out there, too. I suggest downloading a trial version before you purchase anything.
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Examples of challenging scenes that work with black and white (click any thumbnail to enlarge the image).