Your photography can be wonderfully enhanced by exploring black and white techniques. We share some practical tips and tricks.
“Whispering” Ted Lowe. He was the ‘voice’ of Pot Black, the first televised snooker programme in the UK in the 1970s, and I loved listening to him. The thought of his husky deep voice brings back those winter evenings of spam and ketchup sandwiches with chocolate milk. Ah, those 1970s snacks – now there’s a cookery series waiting to happen.
Anyway, my father was very keen on snooker and I used to watch Pot Black with him. As you know, the concept of snooker is fundamentally based on the variation in the colour of all the balls on the table.
The only thing was, we only had a black and white television.
Somehow, my father was able to differentiate the various shades of grey. “Why didn’t he go for the blue in the middle pocket, Dad?” “Because it’s red” – was an example of how conversations went during the programme. After a while I was able to discern those shades of grey myself. When we eventually got a colour TV several years later it all looked – well – a bit gaudy. It turns out I preferred the subdued grey tones – they went so well with Ted’s voice.
The greyscale rendition of the real world starts with charcoal and pencil drawing and reaches its high point with the development of documentary photography in the twentieth century. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Bill Brandt and other giants of photography took monochrome to a new level of artistic achievement, creating rich images full of shape, form, tone and texture.
With digital photography, monochrome images can be achieved with the flick of a virtual button, either on the camera or back home on the computer. Easy isn’t it?
Using a desaturate command will get rid of the colour information. But it’s possible to be much more subtle than this and really explore the world of monochrome.
Rather than a simple desaturation, I created a new adjustment layer. This enables me to revise and review my work without altering the underlying original colour image. In this example I have created a new adjustment ‘channel mixer’ layer, enabling me to control the red green and blue components of the pixels. This is important because each colour channel handles greyscale information differently. You can also use the channel mixer to replicate the effect of lens filters on black and white film.
Ticking the ‘monochrome’ option and adjusting the sliders gives me a huge amount of creative control over the image – much more than just desaturate.
Once you are in the black and white world there is huge range of tone for you to explore.
I converted the image to grayscale in the ‘Image mode’ menu. I then used the ‘duotone’ option to create highlights and shadows with varying colour. There are lots of detailed tutorials for these tools on the web – as well as inside the ‘Help’ functions of the software itself.
Here are some tips for you to get inspired by a world without colour.
- Learn about creating adjustment layers – you can change your image without affecting the original. Very good when you want to leave an image for a few days and come back to it.
- Don’t think that making a picture black and white is going to make a boring image interesting – it won’t.
- Concentrate on form and texture. After a while and with greater experience you will develop the ability to ‘see’ whether a subject will look good in monochrome.
- Toning an image is much more than just sepia ‘olde-worlde’ look – it can create warmth of tone that puts your photograph to another level.
- Simple subjects often work well in monochrome – portraits of people in the garden work as well.
- Look at the work of Karl Blossfeldt to understand how black and white can take your photography to places that colour can’t.
- If you want to watch snooker, buy a colour TV.
International Garden Photographer of the Year 4Seasons theme ‘MONOCHROME’ is open until 31 March 2011 - a chance to win the category and a £500 prize. And you can get feedback on your entries – win or lose.
About Philip Smith
Philip Smith is a professional photographer specialising in gardens and plants with 15 years’ experience. His photography has featured in many magazines and books including The English Garden, The Garden (RHS) , and Gardeners’ World. His work has also featured in exhibitions at Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley and London.
As co-founder and Managing Director of the International Garden Photographer of the Year Philip is responsible for the world’s premier competition in the field, which culminates in an annual exhibition at Kew Gardens and other venues. Philip is the author of Better Plant and Garden Photography.
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