I tried black white photography for the first time recently and I am wowed.
It has been 30 years since I took my first photographs and experienced that "Wow!” feeling even though the results were not all that fantastic. I had that sense of deja vu when I developed my first roll of black and white film recently.
The black and white photographs were nothing great, really -- mainly pictures of my friend, David with his daughter, Danica, and other family portraits and snapshots taken during a dinner party.
I also took some black and white pictures of people doing ballroom dancing during the party and not a single photograph came out good. The lighting was too dark, even though I had pushed my Kodak Tri-X 400 professional black and white film to ISO 1600. And the people were moving too quickly.
Still, the magic of black white photography was there!
Yet another excuse could have been that I didn't take pictures often enough, since I did not have that much time and money to pursue this hobby more fully.
But probably the real reason is this: I was afraid.
What if the pictures turn out badly? I was afraid of trying something new, afraid of failure.
Thinking back now, I can understand those who keep posting on photography forums about wanting to take slides, but never got round to doing it. Why can't they "just do it"? I used to think.
I could have said the same thing to myself about black white photography. Why didn't -- and couldn't -- I just do it? In fact, years ago I had bought a roll of black and white film but, for some reason, never shot it!
If you, like me, had never tried black white photography or monochrome photography, I strongly encourage you - Just do it! Don't worry about the pictures not turning out nice. Most of my first roll didn't. Yet I still experienced the magic; I still felt encouraged to want to do more black white photography.
For a start, you can try digital manipulation, using Adobe Photoshop or similar software, to convert your existing color pictures into black and white photographs.
This was what gave me the urge, and the confidence, to shoot my first roll of black and white film.
The photograph of hands was originally in colour but, because of poor lighting (because the picture was taken at late evening and it had a strong blue cast), it never looked it best -- until I decided to turn it into a "black and white hands".
Click here, or on the photograph, to view a larger image and to read the the story about how this photograph evolved, including the many rounds of bad scanning that it went through!
Another successful "black and white hands” is this picture below, taken at this year's Vesak, which is one of my favourites:
The advantage of converting from color into, as you can see, is that you can leave a touch of color for a special effect -- producing a photograph that is both color and monochrome.
I had tried making both these photograph of hands completely monochrome, but didn't like the effect as much as when they have a touch of color.
Incidentally, this photograph of hands has three different types of “color”.
The main part of the picture is monochrome, the flame is full color, the dish below is desaturated color. On Photoshop, this is done by Image > Adjustments > Desaturate (to turn the picture completely black and white) or Image > Adjustments > Hue / Saturation and slide the saturation slider to the left (to desaturate partially).
Desaturation is probably the best way -- quickest and without loss of image quality -- to do digital black white photography.
Do not use Image > Mode > Greyscale.
This will greatly reduce the size of your image to one-third of the original. While it might seem good to have a smaller image to work with, it means you have lost two thirds of the original information!
Here is another example of a color photograph that has been desaturated to the point that it looks almost like a black and white photo.
I never expected this photograph, taken at the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, to look good in black and white. I cannot remember what made me choose it for my digital black white photography experiments, but I am glad I did.
It is not always obvious which photographs will look good in black and white. Another surprise was this flower photograph.
As I mentioned on my, the original photograph was so bad -- with dull colors, poor contrast, etc -- that I would have discarded it. Again, I am glad I experimented with digial black and white. I ended up liking it so much that I used it to lead off my flower photography page.
There are obviously instances where color works better and other instances where black and white is preferred.
In general, black white photography is most effective when you want to emphasise elements such as the shape or form, texture, tone, lines, patterns, lights and shadows…
In fact, one reason why photography teachers make their students take black and white pictures is to make them focus on these elements, without being distracted by color.
The student learns to observe each of these elements separately. This is good training. They learn to "see in black and white".
Sometimes, removing the color works well with abstract or semi-abstract photographs,by making them seem even more unusual or unreal.
Portraits often turn out good with black white photography because not having colors allows the expression of the person -- and the mood of the picture -- to shine through.
Black white photography also works well on overcast days, when the colors are dull anyway. Or in situations where the color is "dirty” such as backlanes or, in the photograph below, a lotus pond with murky water.
But if it is possible to convert color pictures into monochrome -- and it is even possible to create special effects with parts of a picture in color and parts in black and white -- then why bother with black white photography?
I used to feel this way too. Why bother? But after having taken my first roll of black and white photographs, I feel differently. I don't think I am imagining things, but monochrome pictures converted from color seems to me to be somewhat different from the real thing.
There is a certain magic in black white photography. Even if it is just a party snap shot.