Creative Field Techniques: Visualizing Black and White

Awhile back, south Florida’s one and only Everglades black and white photographer, Clyde Butcher gave a live Q&A on Instagram. I asked him the following question, “What advice can you give a photographer to help them see in black and white?” His response was simple, “Commit to shooting only black and white”. This simple answer at first makes perfect sense. But then, you wonder, how do you commit to shooting black and white with a digital camera? Butcher has been shooting black and white film forever, so I believe his approach to committing to black and white has a different meaning than for a photographer using a digital camera.

Experience cannot be replaced and no doubt, Clyde Butcher learned to see in black and white. You can too with your digital camera. And here is where digital cameras have an edge over film cameras – the digital camera allows you to see the image immediately after shooting it. Clyde Butcher must wait until his film is developed to see the actual photograph. But not so with the digital camera. Here’s why. The camera gathers up all the light information captured by the sensor, converts it to digital information and then compresses all that information into an image file. Have you ever taken a shot and wanted to review it right away, but you get a message on the screen (like the one seen below) that tells you it isn’t ready yet? That’s because the camera is working on creating a file for you to review.

Here is where it gets interesting. With a digital SLR, you have a choice as to which format you will shoot your images. If you shoot in RAW format (see screen shot below), the image shown on the back panel is the compressed file created by your camera, not the RAW file (think of the RAW file as ‘uncooked’). The image you see on the review panel is cooked and will not look exactly like the RAW file that is eventually downloaded onto a computer. And that’s fine, just know that when you review it on the screen, it will look a bit different from the actual image (also the screen’s brightness will affect it). In my camera, these are my image file choices as seen below. Extra fine, fine and standard are all jpeg formats of varying qualities. Please note, some cameras offer another file format called TIF. This is a higher quality one that is not compressed like a jpeg and retains all the camera’s information.

Now, if you shoot only in jpeg format (which I do not recommend!), the image on the screen will look very much like the image you eventually download to your computer or upload to Instagram or Facebook. Why is that? A downloaded or uploaded jpeg file is compressed with all the pixel information ‘imprinted’ or ‘cooked’ into the file. That’s what you see on the camera’s screen and that’s what you get when you download/upload your image files. 

What does all this have to do with seeing in black and white? Your digital camera allows you to review your images in black and white. What? Say that again! You can pull up your image on the LCD screen and see it in black and white. Wow! That’s pretty cool, because I believe this is an effective way to help train your eyes to see black and white while you are out there shooting. So how does this work? In your camera’s menu, you should have an option called Creative Style (Sony), Picture Control (Nikon) or Picture Style (Canon). Below is a shot of my Sony camera’s menu.

If you open the menu, you will see a long list of options, like ‘Standard’, ‘Neutral’, ‘Vivid’, ‘Landscape’, ‘Portrait’, etc. By the way, point and shoot cameras have these types of choices as well. Notice in the screen shot below that it is set at ‘Standard’.

Each of these settings are presets, meaning the camera will alter the information from the shot according to the preset. Standard or Neutral presets change the information minimally whereas some presets will look obvious. One of those is the ‘Black and white’ or ‘Monochrome’ preset, as you see here below.

These presets will affect how the image looks on the camera's screen, regardless of whether you shoot in RAW or jpeg format. Guess what happens if you set your picture style to monochrome? The camera creates a file without the color information. This means you can take a shot and it will appear on the screen as a black and white, like this image of an orange and a tomato.

Can you see how it helps you to visualize a black and white image? And if you are not happy with the black and white rendering, you can go back to your presets and change it to ‘Standard’ or ‘Neutral’ for the next shot to see it in color.

What happens if you shoot in jpeg format? The disadvantage of shooting in jpeg is that you are left with only what the camera renders. If you use a monochrome preset for all your images, all your images will be black and white. In other words, all your images will no longer have color information and there is no way of getting it back. And that is the biggest problem with jpeg files because they really cannot be edited well once the information is cooked into a compressed file. If you are shooting in jpeg format only, you better choose your preset wisely, or better yet, start shooting in RAW format! 

What if you do shoot in RAW format? Will you lose all your color information if you used the monochrome preset? Here’s the best news ever - you do not lose any of your color information. And in fact, you can use any preset and none of your RAW files is affected. All the RAW files will be intact, color and all. The black and white preset will only affect the image file that appears on your camera’s screen. Presets do not affect the original RAW file. Isn’t that amazing!

What does this mean? Not only can you review your images immediately in black and white, but you will have retained all the color information in your downloaded files. And at that point, you can choose to begin the editing process of converting them to black and white, which is the best practice for digital black and white images. If you shoot jpeg and use the monochrome preset, you get what you get, the camera already chose how the tones are handled. I only shoot in RAW format and all my black and white images were created during post-processing where I have more control over the tonal range and so forth.

I managed to incorporate my motto into this blog, “take control of your camera and use its technology to your creative advantage”. By shooting in RAW, all your image files will be exactly as you shot them, but at the same time, you can use the camera to help you visualize in black and white. Then, with editing software and acquired editing skills, you can create black and white images from those color files.

If this blog inspired you, I recommend you try a day of shooting with the monochrome preset. Pay attention to shadows and brights, scenes where there is a lot of contrast. Play with light, shapes & textures and try various compositions. In other words, get out there and experiment. Who knows, maybe you will become the next Everglades or Yosemite black and white photographer.

If you are interested in learning more about camera or editing techniques, I offer individualized instructions in the field as well as in Photoshop. Please visit my website to learn more about these workshops or contact me at bigcypress214@yahoo.com with any questions you may have.