One of the most common questions I’m asked is how to create monochromatic imagery full of depth and emotion. Although I could wind up going down a rabbit hole with this one, for the sake of time, I’ll do my best to explain some important points as briefly as possibleJ
Quick Tips on Developing Rich Monochromatic Imagery:
#1 Understanding Light is Key
Step away from the camera for a minute and spend time studying light, because its intrinsic behavior plays such an important role in black and white imagery. Observe the direction, angle, reflection, softness and intensity of light as it falls on everything around you, and how the same focal point can have a completely different appearance when it hasn’t changed at all, but the way it is lit has. Once you understand the importance of light and shadow’s role on your subject(s), it’ll help you to look at your photography much more objectively than subjectively, which ironically, aids in how you compose and execute your shot for a certain mood or atmosphere.
#2 Determine the Mood you Wish to Convey
We live in a world full of beautiful, vibrant color, so we naturally gravitate toward this type of photography because it is what we are familiar with. Strip a photo of color, however, and all you are left with is sheer feeling and emotion. Therefore, if your intent is to create an image that simply thrives on raw emotion, enhance the parts of the image that set the atmosphere- light, shadow, shape and texture. When you determine what mood you wish to convey, it will greatly help you to compose, edit and execute the shot in a way that is favorable to monochrome.
#3 Immediately Direct the Viewer’s Attention to the Subject
Because of our fast-paced society, grabbing the viewer’s attention is crucial to any sort of imagery, but especially monochromatic since there isn’t the added bonus of color to entice them. Once you set the mood, ask yourself, how do I focus all the attention on the subject so that the rest of the image is complementing, instead of drawing away from it? It is incredibly important with monochromatic imagery to eliminate or tone down any distractions and background noise, because if the image doesn’t successfully direct the viewer to a main focal point, it will be very easy to lose interest. Therefore shoot and edit in such a way as to direct the viewer’s attention right to where you want.
#4 Get it Right in Camera!
Getting as much right in camera will make editing so much easier. This is why it’s invaluable to understand light, shape, tonal value and mood beforehand. Instead of fixing issues with poor exposure or composition, you will be spending your time enhancing what is already there. Oftentimes, you’re going to want to expose a photograph differently when shooting for B&W than when you are shooting for color. You want to go for that artistic, dramatic light. Because of this, I will often under expose in either hard light or high contrast scenarios, and slightly over expose in low light, in order to retain as much highlights to work with as possible. The more you do right in camera, the easier it is to finish in post processing. Because of this I’d also highly recommend shooting manual RAW, or RAW + JPEG.
#5 Take it to the Limit
Don’t be afraid to stretch your image in post processing in ways unthinkable with color photography. I will often open several duplicate layers, pull the blacks way up in one, the whites way up in another and then mask back in what I don’t want changed. I’ll do this process multiple times in order to get as much depth from all the grayscale tones as possible. Hand editing can be time consuming, but it doesn’t have to be confusing. The majority of my editing is done in levels, with a few tweaks in exposure adjustments, dodging/burning, and maybe even some very subtle light painting or vignetting with a large, soft, low opacity brush. Remember a simple desaturation is insufficient when it comes to wanting rich, monochromatic conversions. Because of this, also…
#6 Familiarize Yourself with Different Channel Conversions…
…and how they affect the outcome of your image’s tonal value. This can be incredibly useful for producing sufficient depth in both perspective and texture without extensive amounts of editing. Simply running an image through desaturation can leave you with a picture that is dull and lifeless, because each color on the spectrum will look different depending on how the color is removed. Images shot in color are made up of varying amounts of red, green or blue- converting them synchronously to only two contrasting tones can therefore produce a flat, inadequate appearance. It’s like trying to fit various kinds of wooden shapes into two differently sized holes without first whittling them down to the proper size. One way to avoid losing too much tonality and dynamic range when converting to monochrome is by saving multiple versions of the color image with red, green and blue desaturated in varying increments. Play around with the sliders and you’ll see how the amount of removal of each color will subsequently affect the final contrasting tones.
So as you can see, creating monochromatic imagery that is full of depth and emotion might be a little tricky to nail at first, but with some careful observation and practice, you’ll begin to understand the concept behind what you are producing and it will become easier and more natural to accomplish.
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