I recently spent a few days in the Photography studio with one of our long-time repeat guests, Lee. We spent many happy hours reviewing his best photos from the previous day’s safari, and generally just nerding out on photography together. We got to chat about how he had the incredible opportunity to spend three days with the legendary photographer Ansel Adams. To say that I was jealous would be the understatement of 2016.
Our discussion about black and white photography, and Ansel Adams, led me to this blog post. Ansel Adams was one of the great masters, best known for his iconic black and white images of the American West. There are two main reasons, according to an expert source, why Adams preferred black and white. The first was that he felt color could be distracting, and could therefore divert an artist’s attention from the achievement of his full potential when taking a photograph. Adams stated that he could get “a far greater sense of ‘color’ through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than [he had] ever achieved with color photography”. When asked by guests who visit the studio why I think one of their photographs may be spectacular in black and white, I provide a similar version of this sentiment. I believe that a black and white photograph has a certain quality that colour will never have. By stripping the photograph of colour, your strip away distraction to the eye, and (in many instances) get down to the crux of the story, or uncover a secret moment that colours may have tinted too fiercely.
To that end, I thought that a blog post on black and white photography tips, as well as a few best-practice editing techniques to transform a black and white image, was long over-due. Here are my top 5 pieces of advice when it comes to editing in black and white.
1. Push your creative boundaries
I am leading with the most challenging piece of advice, but one that underpins my next four. This is something that you’ll need to do more often if you want to make beautiful black and white photographs. It’s so easy to get stuck in the same pattern when we go out and shoot. By changing your perspective, and deciding to go out on a mission to look for shots that would make good black and white photographs, you push the boundaries of your own creativity. Hopefully, you’ll find magic on the outskirts of your comfort zone.
2. Create a different feeling by directing the eye to light and dark only
Neurologically, our eyes and optic nerves work in a few very particular ways when they take in information and feed it to our brains. On a primal level, our eyes are trained to be sensitive to movement, as this would be where most threat or danger would come from that would elicit a fight or flight reaction should our lives be threatened. When our eyes take in something static, however, visual selection occurs in multiple phases. The first phase is an overt action, where our eyes use low level information to locate areas of interest. After the eyes have chosen and moved to a location of interest, a covert selection occurs. Although our eyes do not move, our attention actually shifts to various aspects within our field of vision. Plainly put, our eyes are drawn to areas that are bright, or areas that are sharply in focus- both forms of contrast (just as our cameras seek contrast in order to focus).
I wanted to illustrate this point with the below video. Notice how your eyes focus on different aspects of the photo as it changes from colour to black and white.
By removing all colour from a photograph, we can become expert story tellers by crafting the journey the eye takes when viewing our photograph. By accentuating light areas, we pull the eye’s attention to them. By creating areas of large contrast by increasing clarity and sharpness, we can guide the eye in certain directions. All of this can be used to get the eye to enter the frame at a certain point (as Ansel Adams did with ‘the push’) and then land on key areas… like puzzle pieces to pull the story together. Identify these parts of your photography and enhance them through the editing process to guide the eye around your story.
3. Remove distractions by de-saturating the colour to tell a completely different story.
This is the ‘Ansel Adams’ theory that I love to explore. If you look at the two identical photos below, you should see two different stories. The colour version tells a story of a cool, shady, secluded spot on a hot afternoon. The black and white photo tells a story of a secret hiding place, away from everyone else. By removing the bright green barrier, which serves its purpose of giving the viewer a certain secret perspective for the colour photograph, the eye is not drawn to the blurred leaves, and instead lands directly on the contrasted rosettes of the leopard’s legs and tail.
This comparison below also illustrates my point well. The colour version shows interest in the form of the russet colours of the buffalo herd, and the bright pop of colour on the yellow-billed oxpecker’s beak. I wanted the colour version to tell the story of a morning in the South Luangwa National park in Zambia, as the heat rose and the animals became lazy. The black and white image tells, one may argue, the complete opposite story. The bright white inflections draw your eye to the horns and white accents of the buffalo’s face- especially the glint in the eye, creating a sense of alertness and interest.
4. De-compartmentalize your shot
This one takes a bit of practice, but once you have successfully identified and edited your first photograph in this way, your eyes will be open forevermore. Look for texture, depth, layers, shadows, shapes, patterns and lines. Find one or two elements in your shot that you want to identify and bring out, and use those as the key features to accentuate and draw the eye to.
High key editing is a great way to practice this skill. Here I found three elements I wanted to show off: The clean white background of the sky, the texture of the tree and the exquisite patterns of the leopard’s coat.
Similarly, I wanted to draw the viewer’s attention to the fine details of this giraffe’s head and neck. The lead-in line (or ‘the push’) from the bottom left corner drags your eye up and to the centre (also known as the power position) where the intricate details of the giraffe’s face create beauty and interest against a stark white background. You’re left wondering what the giraffe is thinking…
5. Save a poor photograph
A poor quality colour photo can be transformed to something quite beautiful when transported to black and white. Dull colours, poor contrast or extra noise could make way for a soft, shadowy black and white masterpiece. Before you chuck a photo in the bin, try and feel if there isn’t something tugging at your gut to keep it and turn it into a black and white photograph that, perhaps, you didn’t see in the beginning. Some of my best photographs have evolved through this process.
Pulling the story together- a quick black and white edit example
In this video, I do a quick 3-minute edit on this shot of an elephant giving itself a lazy dust bath. The original image is quite bland and boring with little contrast to make it worth my while to keep in colour. Instead, I identified the dust, and the texture of the elephant cow as she gazed at me and chose to pull those out in the edit. I have not narrated this video, but you’ll see that I pushed the toggles up much more than usual for this edit. My main areas of focus were to de-saturate the shot and pull up the light areas by increasing exposure, white saturation and highlights. I then accentuated the texture of the skin by increasing clarity and sharpness (and then again with a brush later on), and then drew the eye to the dust cloud by lightening it again, and adding more clarity and contrast. A final burn around the elephant increased it’s brightness in comparison to the background, which makes the subject lighter, brighter and sharper than the background- hopefully attracting the eye’s attention as the lead-in to the story. Again, taking inspiration from Adams’ technique when he said: “A photograph is never finished until I burn the corners.” Ansel considered it important to keep the viewer’s eye in the frame of his images, so he would burn (darken) any light areas near the edges of the image. These adjustments were quite time-consuming and tedious to produce in the darkroom of Adams’ era, but are now quickly and easily achievable in programs such as Lightroom.
How do you feel about editing in black and white? Is it something that you were nervous to try before, or perhaps don’t think about when editing your photos? I hope that some of these tips may have changed your mind, and given you some inspiration to play around with some of your own black and white photographs. As always, perfect practice makes perfect, so go out, change your perspective and see where it may lead you in the creative world of photography.