Getting into the B&W mindset

March 14, 2014

This article over at The Online Photographer got me thinking.

The color/B&W switch in my head locked on color, I made color pictures, and if I converted them in post to monochrome, they didn’t become good B&W pictures—they were just color shots stripped of their color content.

This is not at all a technical issue. It’s entirely a matter of perception. I couldn’t put on my B&W shooting “head” with a camera that was incontrovertibly making color photographs.

First, some slightly-related commentary: photographers, please, for the love of all that’s good, stop converting your photos to black and white for no reason except to make them black and white. Monochromatic photography is a thing in and of itself. It is, to me, a study of contrasts; when we’re working with nothing but the dichotomy of black and white—light vs. dark, whatever—we see contrasts more than anything. Not all photographs are equally “capable” as color or grayscale. In fact, the opposite is true in most cases.

Your portrait subject has stunning blue eyes, or a statement article of clothing, or your landscape contains vivid autumnal foliage, or your street photo’s subject is a bright red sportscar. Think very carefully before you click “convert to black and white.” Think about what you might be losing by removing the color from the image. Don’t just do so because “it looks cool.”

I’m generalizing here. To each his own, though. Photographic style is a highly personal subject.

Carl Weese gives us a solution to this theoretical dilemma:

Set the camera to shoot RAW+JPEG. Then set the JPEG to monochrome. With a mirrorless camera (there may be exceptions) this will make the LCD and the EVF (if it has one) show a monochrome display. A DSLR’s finder of course won’t be affected, but (exceptions possible again) the LCD, whether used for live view or chimping, will show a monochrome picture.

The effect of this is both obvious and subtle. You can see the picture, on location, in monochrome. But that’s not the point. It won’t look much like a platinum print. This is a trigger—an input that reminds you that you are trying to make B&W pictures.

You’ll still have a RAW file to do with as you please. But with the camera previewing in monochrome, the photographer’s eye is going to bias towards “monochrome scenes.” You’re less likely to make a photo and convert it later to post for whatever reason—you’re making pictures in black and white because they look best in black and white.

I’ve played with this method on my Fuji X100s, using a custom preset (Black and White w/ Yellow Filter, +1 Highlights, +1 Shadows, for those wondering) and it works like a charm.