Article © 2008-09 by Jenna Caplette, with tips from Kathy Eyster
Oriental Pine in Fog image by Kathy Eyster
Your digital camera can tutor you in the art of black and white photography. So can the subtle tones and stark contrasts of Montana landscapes in late winter and early spring. Montana nature photographer Kathy Eyster says, “It's simplest to learn to see the world as black and white if you begin to photograph things that are black and white or gray, or all one color.”
Gauging how color scenes will look when translated to black and white takes some practice. If your camera has a black and white setting, when you've found an intriguing subject, Eyster suggests taking one image in color and another in black and white. By comparing the two images, you begin to teach yourself how to “see” in black and white. Because you can study images on your camera's LCD screen without printing them, Eyster encourages her students to “take two. They're free.”
Eyster advises, “If you're interested in creating good black and white images, you have to exercise your imagination. You live in a color world, so you have to imagine what it would look like without color.” Ansel Adams and other photographers pre-visualized or imagined what their pictures would look like before they ever pushed their camera’s shutter button.
In order to imagine a subject as a black and white image, learn to look past the color for the level of contrast in what you see. For example, if you take a summer time image of a green plant with red berries, captured against a blue sky, the tonal values of each of those elements will be the same, even though the colors are different. Saved as a black and white, those tones will be indistinguishable.
Focus on shapes and textures, and on how light interacts with them, adding dimension. Look for the kinds of details you want and get the best possible image framed before you push the button. Though you can enhance an image with digital editing software, you can't rescue a bad image. For instance, if your shot is out of focus, you won't be able to change that.
Even when you have developed the ability to “see” in black and white, Eyster recommends that you capture your digital images in color. Working from color offers more control over how the black and white photographs you create in the digital darkroom of computer editing can look.
While in the field, practice with exposures so that your image will have the best possible color. If you overexpose, then you can force light colors to white; if you underexpose, you can force dark colors to black. Without the color information in these parts, you have less flexibility for what shade of gray you turn that area into in the computer. For example, if you overexpose the sky with clouds so there is little or no blue, then you cannot make a dramatic dark sky with bright clouds afterwards. The sky will remain white in the black & white version too.
As you edit your images, experiment with how their visual impact changes as you lighten or darken parts of them. Try applying special effects such as sepia toning and traditional borders.
There are times when an image you intended to use in color, actually works better in black and white, especially if it has distracting or conflicting colors.
For Kathy Eyster, black and white photography accentuates the quality of light and shadow. Its elegant simplicity evokes subtle moods difficult to express in color. “It's a different way of looking at the world,” an invitation to see in new ways.