Converting an image to black and white opens up a larger view and allows details to stand out from the haze.
BE THE CHAMP! - black and white wrecks
'The photographic challenge is that these big scenes are too large to illuminate with strobes'
WRECKS SIMPLY SUIT black and white photographs. Monochrome creates a timeless atmosphere that certainly communicates a suitably historic ambience. But even more valuable is the way that processing an image in black and white cuts through the murk of the sea and helps us to show the scale of shipwrecks.
We’re spoilt rotten these days as photographers. A decade or so ago, if we wanted to produce a black and white picture of a wreck we had to decide long before the dive and load the correct film stock into our camera.
We had to select just one ISO for the whole dive and even choose between negative or positive (slide) film before getting wet. And we were stuck with this choice for the entire dive.
Now we can switch to black and white under water, and change ISO, even for just a single frame. Perhaps even more beneficial, we also have the ability to switch any image to black and white when processing. There really is no excuse for not trying to shoot wrecks in black and white.
BIGGEST IS USUALLY best when it comes to photographing wrecks. The pictures that tend to chime with viewers are the grand scenes, which show as much of the wreck as possible.
With smaller wrecks this can be the whole boat, while with bigger ships we are usually focusing in on large recognisable features. The bow, the stern, the bridge – all tend to look fantastic.
The photographic challenge is that these big scenes are too large to illuminate with strobes. Rather than try to spray strobe light over such a large area, and end up just lighting up the backscatter in the water, we should turn our strobes off and shoot using available light.
Almost every camera has a black and white mode, allowing us to see our images in monochrome as we shoot them. But becoming an effective black-and-white photographer has little to do with switching our camera – far more to do with switching how we use light.
Colour pictures are, unsurprisingly, all about colour and detail, which we reveal by shooting with light coming from behind us and onto the subject, illuminating it completely.
Such shots will usually convert into OK black-and-white images, but they will be far from the best black and whites possible with that subject.
Great monochrome images are about shapes, shadows and the contrast between light and dark areas.
This means using the light in a different way, shooting across or against the light, to capture both areas of bright and areas of shadow. Once these image are converted into monochrome, the shapes of these areas make for a much more powerful composition.
PROCESSING SOFTWARE provides lots of options for converting files to black and white, but before picking one it’s important that we think about the type of image we’re trying to produce.
Most important, we want the subject to stand out from the background, which means that we must process the photo so that the wreck is a different tone of grey to the water behind it. It can be a dark wreck against light water, or a light wreck looming out of dark water.
The two most popular ways to convert images are in the Black and White menu in Lightroom or with the Silver Efex Pro Plugin.
In Lightroom, we can use the different colour sliders to brighten or darken the different parts of the image. The colours refer to the colours in the original image, so use the Blue Slider to lighten or darken the background water.
In Silver Efex we have to apply a filter to the image to do the same. We should use a blue filter to lighten blue backgrounds and an orange filter to darken blues, using the slider to control the strength of the effect.
The final factor that always helps a wreck stand out from the water is “de-murking” the image, which means adding contrast.
Normally when processing images the mantra “less is more” is very sound advice. However, when we want a black and white image to pop, very often the more contrast we add, the better.
We should use both with the general Contrast slider and also boost detail contrast with Clarity or Structure, for the best results.
Although you can convert images to black and white in post-processing, try switching your camera to black-and-white mode on your next wreck-dive.
On my workshops, photographers find that making this switch on the camera helps them to make the appropriate switch in their brains when it comes to using the light.
In black-and-white modes your camera’s LCD screen will show you monochrome images, but if you shoot only RAW files, these will still be in full colour on most cameras.
Either shoot RAW+JPG or accept that you will be converting the RAW files after shooting. Videos shot in black and white mode will, like JPGs, be recorded in monochrome.
Boosting contrast invariably transforms black-and-white underwater images. In the days of film, photographers would achieve this same effect by underexposing their black-and-white film and then over-developing it.
The tools may have changed, but we should still use post-processing to get the most out of black and whites.
Converting an image to black and white opens up a larger view and allows details to stand out from the haze. Taken with a Nikon D4 and Sigma 15mm fisheye. Subal housing. ISO 400, 1/100th @ f/11
Wrecks suit black and white, with strong shapes and shadows that look great in monochrome. Taken with a Nikon D5 and Nikonos 13mm fisheye. Subal housing. Magic Filter. ISO 800, 1/160th @ f/14.
Shooting across or against the light works best for monochrome.On wrecks, consider dropping to the seabed and shooting up. Taken with a Nikon D700 and Nikon 16mm fisheye. Subal housing. ISO 400, 1/80th @ f/11.