Why set your camera to its mono mode for monochrome photography when you can simply convert a regular colour image into monochrome on the computer? It’s because you need a black-and-white ‘eye’ to shoot good black and white photography in the first place, and being able to see the results on the spot is a huge advantage.
Shots which work in colour don’t necessarily convert well to black and white, but if you only shoot in colour you won’t find out how they convert until you get home, when it’s too late. In this tutorial we’ll show you how to set up your camera and compose strong monochrome photography using your camera’s black and white mode.
We see the world in colour, we respond to colours and modern DSLRs can reproduce colour with amazing fidelity and depth. So why shoot in black and white?
Monochrome photography can be used to give pictures an ‘antique’ look, but it has creative benefits too. The lack of colour means it’s already one step removed from reality, so that people are more likely to look at the way you’ve made the photograph and less likely to be distracted by the subject matter itself.
Also, if you remove colour from the equation, it becomes much easier to explore shapes, lines and tones and turn them into satisfying compositions.
This is where your DSLR can help you. The Nikon DSLR we used for this tutorial has a Monochrome Picture Control, and most other DSLRs offer the same. Canon, for instance, offers Picture Styles. Your camera’s mono mode then turns your photographs into black and white and can help you visualise the world as shades of grey.
We went to Broadway Tower in the Cotswolds to show how this works. The gritty textures and simple shapes made a great subject for monochrome photography, even on a dull and overcast day.
Apart from changing the camera’s mono mode, shooting black and white is technically no different to shooting colour. What you do have to change is how you ‘see’ and compose pictures.
Monochrome photography depends on shapes, tones and textures, but most of us are attracted by colour, so it takes a little while to learn how to switch this off – you have to change the mode in your head as well as the one on your camera!
The simplest shapes often make the best subjects, and you should make the most of contrasts in both tone and lighting.
Finally, don’t expect to get every image perfect in-camera. Even the greatest monochrome-shooting photographers needed a little help in the darkroom…
Setting up your camera for monochrome photography
01 Go Mono
Your camera’s Picture Controls (or whatever name for your camera’s brand of art filters) don’t change any of the camera’s key exposure or focus settings, but they do alter the way the image is processed. With the Monochrome Picture Control selected, your shots will be displayed in black and white.
02 Try a tripod
A tripod is not essential, but putting your camera on one does leave your hands free to experiment with the camera settings and the Picture Control options. If you use the viewfinder to compose your shots, you’ll still see the scene in full colour, but when the picture appears on the LCD on the back of your camera it’s in black and white.
03 Train your eye
This is one of the big advantages of digital monochrome photography – straight away, you can see if your shots are working or not. Even better, try switching to Live View mode, because that enables you to compose your pictures in black and white too. Keep an eye on the battery level, though, because Live View drains it faster.
04 Be bold with angles
Black-and-white photography relies on visual impact, so try using your widest lens to get in close for strong angles and perspectives. The converging verticals in this shot have produced a picture with a striking trapezoidal composition. In black and white, shapes and lines become much more important.
05 Change your settings
On a dull, overcast day, black-and-white pictures can lack contrast, but we used the multi-selector to access the Monochrome Picture Control’s advanced settings. You can increase the Contrast value for a start, but there are also options for adding black-and-white filters and toning effects to add more punch to your shots.
06 Process in-camera
There are so many in-camera options that you may not have time to try them properly while you’re shooting, but you can do it later. Some newer DSLRs offer in-camera raw processing, where you can produce any number of JPEG copies from your RAW files – here are sepia and cyanotype versions of one shot.
Raw in reserve
When you’re shooting in black and white, make sure the camera’s set up to shoot raw files. If you use the Monochrome Picture Control, your camera will still display the image in black and white, but it will save a full-colour raw file to your memory card – you get the advantage of shooting and visualising in black and white, but the ability to choose different conversion options on the computer later if you need to.
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