Most photos are taken in colour and converted to monochrome at the processing stage. Post production involves the selection of the best images, followed by an editing stage where they’re visually manipulated to accentuate their appeal.
I use Adobe Lightroom, which combines the whole photography workflow seamlessly into one application. The great thing with Lightroom is that it’s non-destructive. You can reset images back to how they were without losing anything. While it’s easy to desaturate colour images simply by pulling down the colour slider to zero, it doesn’t produce the best results. The trick is to understand that your resulting black and white images start off composed of colour wavelengths as much as being representations of varying light intensity. Lightroom helps with this by having a black and white conversion tab that allows the photographer to edit each of the colour ‘channels’ separately.
A blue sky, for example, provides a common starting point for experimenting with the blue spectrum. Increasing or reducing blue sensitivity will dramatically alter the sky’s tonality, turning it from an insipid grey to a midnight black — literally turning day into ‘night’. While you certainly do lose the blue colour from your original colour image you gain a new world of tonality that provides great potential for expressive communication.
Another obvious colour parameter photographers experiment are skin tones. Various degrees of orange and yellow can soften skin tones and make them look more pleasing. Sometimes photographers work against this to accentuate the textured and wrinkled faces of old people. And monochrome representations of foliage can be lifted by lightening up the green spectrum to produce an attractive natural ‘glow’.
Once you have your basic colour conversion, it’s time to take a look at the tones. Changing the contrast setting can completely alter the feel of an image, from subtly nuanced to dramatically harsh. It’s all about balance. What you gain with one aesthetic you diminish with another. An image of a flower with beautiful tonal graduation communicates a different message to a documentary shot with stark lighting — but you can also have images of dramatically lit flowers and people in documentary shots with beautifully subtle tonal graduation. This is one of the pleasures of working in monochrome; using an existing image and reinterpreting it as light and shade. Creating a distinct mood that tells a story.
Film grain is an aspect of black and white photography that I’ve always been weirdly interested in. Traditionally it was linked to the choice of analogue film the photographer used — Ilford Technical Pan, Kodak Tri-X Pan, Ilford HP5, and so on. The developing chemistry also played a part, suppressing or accentuating the grain. In the analogue photography days there was a whole world of film grain aesthetics that no longer exist with digital photography. Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro is one of the best apps that provides digital facsimiles of those old film emulsions. While it’s an amazing app, it’s also easy to go overboard!
Restraint is an important outcome of experience. Applications that offer a plethora of readymade filters and presets can tempt photographers into making bad aesthetic decisions. I’m not against filters and presents per se, but don’t forget the photographers most important tool — his or her mind. Your vision. Your boldness. And, your restraint. There’s a lot to be said of developing your technique, getting the results you want from an idea in your head rather than seeing a filter or preset that jumps out at you. These days I tend to use digital grain as a subtle texture within the detail, rather than attempting to replicate Tri-X Pan. This method seems more honest and appropriate for digital photography. Once you get over the newness of this approach, it takes you to a fresh appreciation of everything else.