BE THE CHAMP! - Monochrome
'Don't be afraid of adding lots of contrast to b&w images'
“I DON’T SEE ENOUGH black and white photos, only grey and grey.” That was Kurt Amsler’s insight into the state of underwater photography in 2015, told to me when we were judging the CMAS World Championship last month.
Kurt’s clipped Swiss-German pronunciation made his comments sound all the more persuasive! I had my mission for this month’s column.
Underwater photographers regularly convert their pictures into black and white to rescue shots that have been taken from too far away!
This solution actually does work very well for many problem pictures that are too blue and lack contrast.
Monochrome conversions cut through the haze and allow a massive boost to contrast and clarity, making the subject pop out of the picture again.
However, saving failures rarely, if ever, produces the best black and white images. These require more than software.
Truly great black and white images start with the decisions we make under water about how we are going to compose and use light in the photo we are taking. Black and white photography is all about finding and shooting visually appealing shapes and shadows.
SOME ARGUE THAT black and white photography exists only because of serendipity. If colour film had been invented first, they wonder if black and white images would ever have happened!
Even without this excuse, many underwater photographers never try black and white, instead focusing on capturing the colours of our world.
More still use it only to resurrect shots. I hope this column will persuade you to spend an upcoming dive focused only on monochrome.
Black and white photography used to be all about darkrooms, scary-sounding chemicals and red light-bulbs.
I must confess that I have never developed a black and white negative or print. Back in the day, I used to shoot Agfa Scala monochrome slide film, which you sent off to get processed. These days monochrome is much more welcoming, and chemicals have been replaced by computers.
The attraction of shooting black and white is that with colour removed from our pictures the emphasis falls on composition, form, shape and shadow.
Because water absorbs colour, black and white is particularly suited to the underwater world, and we can take monochrome images without flash. This brings two further bonuses: without strobes our camera rig is much more compact, and it creates no backscatter.
MOST SUCCESSFUL black and whites are lit only with ambient light, but how we work the light is really important.
The best shots are usually taken against the light to create silhouettes or across the light to capture a mix of strong shadow and eye-catching highlight. Shooting with the light is best for colour and detail, but these are not so important in monochrome pictures.
Sunny weather and flat, clear seas give strongly directional light, the most powerful contrast and the all-important shadows. However, in shallow water, flat light from a cloudy sky can be preferable because it does not create high-contrast dancing light patterns on the seabed, which will dominate an image in black and white, hiding everything else.
Consider the photo of the sting ray. The sand ripples play a powerful role in the composition, leading the eye to the sting ray. However, they are visible in the picture only because of the shadows, which require specific light conditions.
In sunshine these shadows would be totally overwhelmed by the patterns of light on the shallow seabed.
Black and white particularly suits wide-angle images of wrecks, big animals, silhouettes and schools because these can all offer shadow and strong shapes.
We should look for graphic forms produced by light and dark when we are composing images. It takes a bit of training, but the key is to see in colour, but think in black and white.
ON MANY CAMERAS we can change them into black and white mode. On some compact and mirrorless cameras this will actually make the screen monochrome as you frame up.
On SLRs we can change the picture style to monochrome, so at least we see the results in mono on our LCD.
I do this on my Nikons by switching the picture mode to Monochrome and tuning the mono-mode by adding additional contrast and the in-camera orange filter.
This means that the LCD shows me pictures in black and white that are very close to how the processed files will look.
We should also set the camera to shoot RAW and JPG: the JPG files will be in black and white and the RAWs will always be in colour.
Ultimately, when processed the RAW files will give the best-quality results, but it is very useful to have the black and white JPG as a guide when processing.
Converting pictures to monochrome is easy: convert to greyscale and pump up the contrast. However, we will produce much better results with a little planning at the conversion stage.
The most common mistake is to end up with a water tone, or brightness, that is the same as the subject, so the subject gets lost in with the background.
When converting to black and white use a tool (like the black and white converter in Lightroom or Photoshop) that has sliders for the different colours in the original colour RAW file.
The most important sliders are the blue and cyan ones, which will affect the tone of the background.
In Silver Efex Pro software we can use the colour filters for the same effect. Use blue filters to make the background lighter relative to the subject, and orange filters to make it darker.
Both light and dark backgrounds work well – what is important is that the background is a different tone to the foreground. In fact I used to shoot black and whites under water using orange or blue filters on my lens to darken or lighten the water relative to the subject. I wrote quite a few articles extolling their virtues, but now improvements in black and white processing software have rendered them unnecessary.
Black and white might seem old-fashioned to some, but with modern cameras and software we’ve never had it so good.
Any photo can be converted to black and white, but monochrome tends to suit wide-angle scenes, wrecks or schools photographed in available light.
Don’t be afraid of adding lots of contrast to black and white images to make them pop. Unlike colour pictures, they can take it!
A kiss of flash, usually best from a single strobe, can be effective in black and whites, but you should avoid blasting the scene with lots of artificial light. The detail and colour it will reveal has little value in monochrome.
Macro images rarely suit black and white because they are typically all about colour and detail, although we can sometimes generate a memorable picture by showing a creature noted for its colour without it.
Macro images with strong side or backlighting creating strong shadows do produce strong black and whites pictures.