Usually while pursuing B&W images this time of year it’s not hard to look past color to see the composition and tones – there’s no color other than brown, tan and grey. It’s why I like getting out now and just wandering around, trying to see just the tones and grades of light change on objects.
Surprisingly, though, color plays a role in making good B&W images. Not surprising as sunlight contains all the colors we know, bathing everything around us in those colors even when the subjects just reflect back monochrome light. Masters of B&W photography realized this and used filters to selectively expose their film to certain wavelengths to get unique results on their negatives. With several decades of experience all carefully recorded in a notebook and a camera case full of filters I too can be a B&W genius.
Or, I can use the digital approach, a “what you see is what you get” version of B&W filters.
Because the digital sensor captures all those colors, they are available to software that converts images to B&W. All you need is a way to adjust each color separately in your post-processing. Most software has this ability – Lightroom, Photoshop, etc. – but I use a NIK plug-in that is specific to this task: Silver Efex Pro 2. It gives me great control over not only the color filter effects but also on contrast, luminance and fine detail. I’ve learned to run images through it as a way to learn how B&W can be created. It has opened up possibilities I wouldn’t normally consider.
For example, take this image:
I was watching the clouds hanging on the horizon as the sun set and realized it would light them up from below. I merely needed the patience to stick around and see the show. As it turned out, the contrails from passing jets accounted for most of the aerial display. I shot through a soccer net to give some structure to the framing. All in all not an atypical Nebraska sunset. I wondered, however, what a B&W photographer might have done with the composition, given all the filter magic available to them.
A little time in the software and this appeared on my screen. Using filters to selectively block different colors of light I discovered the details in the contrails and sky itself started appearing. The tone of the image went from warm, engaging sunset so something much more ominous, like the sky over a battlefield. This sense is enhanced by the soccer net, which before was a secondary element but now creates a cage the viewer is peering out of to see threatening shapes in the distance.
I’m pretty sure I would have never pre-visualized this and successfully gotten it onto a film negative. Only by playing around with the image was I able to explore what might be present and then make adjustments to bring it out.
The continual rumble coming from advocates of film vs. digital shows no sign of abating, especially now that photographers and other artists are rediscovering film as a medium of the unexpected (with no skill in using it any image is unexpected!). Commentators on the subject wisely try to return people back to the basics – the image is what matters, not the means to achieve it. As I’ve said before, digital is making me appreciate B&W film even more, challenging me to get this type of image right in the camera. Which means learning from the Masters and taking the time to work through the science as well as art of photography.