How Photographers Can Improve Their Black and White With Jenna Martin

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon2 Comments

Introduction of Jenna Martin

Jenna is a fine art photography expert who specializes in underwater photography and has become one of the world’s leading teachers of underwater photography. Jenna does a lot of DIY building of the things she needs to accomplish her creative vision with her fine art photography, including early underwater housings for her camera.

If you would like to learn more about fine art photography you need to check out her Creative Chaos Podcast (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/creative-chaos-podcast/id1440844182?mt=2).

How Can Photographers Get Better at Black and White?

Like anything you want to learn the best way to improve is through practice. Do “training” sessions for your black and white photography by putting your camera into monochrome mode and shoot that way for an hour or two. Focus on the old photography principles looking for leading lines, interesting textures/patterns, and layers of lighting

Jeff: I feel like I have made a massive leap forward in my photography over the past year because I am able to have and execute on a creative vision. From capture to post I am able to create the photo I want nearly every shoot. The combination of the technical and the artistic has come together enough for me that my photography has really elevated. The place I feel like I have a hole in my photography today and that is with black and white.

Some of the most compelling images I have seen, images that stir the most emotion are black and white. There is a very different feel and when it works for an image it has a lot of impact. For me though, I never see it in my own work. I don’t look at a photo I shot and think, this is one that is going to work in black and white, or that this is a photo where black and white is going to improve it.

I want to talk in this episode about how a photographer can develop an eye towards identifying when a photo should be in black and white and even better how you can have the final image in black and white actually be part of your creative vision for the photo.

Photography Training Sessions

Jenna: I love color. I use it the majority of the time. However, I love what black and white can do for a photo. You see the value range of the photo so much better in black and white and that can really add to the photo. Some people will look at their photos in black and white and think well this one doesn’t work here but it does there, I wonder why? The reason is not having a lot of value range [luminosity] in the photo.

It isn’t something we do normally. We see in color and so we are used to looking for scenes or compositions where there is a lot of dynamic range in light. We recognize it when we see a well done black and white photo but just like you need to develop your eye for creating good compositions with color photos, you need to develop an eye for black and white.

Let’s compare this to a pitcher in baseball. The more games you play the better you are going to be, of course. Every game you can get a little better at pitching. You can increase the pace of that learning and development through training. The practice sessions where you figure out the different ball rotations and what you can do to be better as a pitcher is where you can really improve quickly.

If you are a wedding photographer you are going to get better as you shoot weddings, but you can improve faster if you will do training sessions. Go out with your camera for an hour or two where it isn’t for a client and train. Practice the things that are hard for you to do. Replicate the game day scenario and practice.

Put Your Camera in Monochrome

Jeff: I recently went out on a photo walk with a friend of mine named Levi Sim. Great photographer who does a phenomenal job with black and white. He just nails it regularly. Photo walks are a great way to have a training session for black and white photography.

Levi encouraged me to put my camera in monochrome mode at the beginning of the walk so that as we shot and looked at the photos I was taking I would see them in black and white and adjust things to get something more interesting. Something that was different that I would have done if I was seeing the image in color after pressing the shutter button.

Jenna: I learned to love negative space in my photos by doing photo walks. I learned how to really utilize that because of those training sessions on photo walks.

Focus on Basic Photography Principles

Jenna: I feel like I have developed my ability to create a good black and white photo and it really takes a dedication of looking for those old photography principles. Negative space, leading lines, rule of thirds, these old tried and true photography principles are what you have to make sure are present and exaggerated in black and white photography.

Think about how much color is contributing to most of your photos for these old photography principles. How many times is color the reason you have those elements in your photos and if you were to remove the color then you lose those things that make your photo appealing. When you shoot black and white color isn’t going to help you with those things that every great photo needs so you have to adjust and figure out what you can do to get them in the photo without color.

When you are first learning photography you start learning these principles and then as you learn and develop your eye for compelling images you learn when you should break the rules. You sort of have to start over on this process when you are going to create a black and white photo. Now you have to focus on the lighting even more and make sure it is producing the things that will make a photo great.

Shoot Film

Jenna: If you haven’t shot film before and really want to develop your eye for black and white, this is kind of an intense form of training. With film you have to be so much more certain there is a compelling image you are capturing. You know it is going to take more work and money to develop that shot and you aren’t going to take it without being sure this is going to be a good photo.

Try Color Photos in Black and White

Jenna: It is a step most photographers are probably already taking to “try” out photos in black and white as you are processing them on the computer to see if they work. This is tremendously helpful as well, kind of a training session of sorts.

The thing I want to encourage photographers to do is not use this as a test and check kind of thing where you don’t really ever come to understand when a photo works in black and white and when it doesn’t before just trying it. I want to encourage photographers to use black and white to help them with the editing they are doing when the final result is going to be color.

If you put an image in black and white and process it that way even when the final image is going to be in color, you can notice things you wouldn’t have if your image is always in color. It will help you to get better and black and white images and it will help you to do better with your color images!

Jeff: I have done a lot of this in post. I have thought that I should have at least one photo from every shoot that is good in black and white. Having something that is a benefit to my clients who hire me for portrait photography, a tool in the toolbox to offer. I have played around with it on the post end where I am more comfortable and sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. Understanding why has been a challenge.

Jenna: Doing it in black and white with your camera in monochrome mode will really help with that. Training yourself to look for that by shooting in that way helps so much.

How Can Photographers Have a Creative Vision That Includes Black and White?

Jeff: It feels like the next step up with black and white photographer is getting to the point where my creative vision is to produce a black and white image. How can a photographer develop that?

Jenna: I agree, that is the next step up. When you are shooting have your creative vision for that shoot to be a black and white photo is the place you want to get to.

An experience comes to mind for me here with photo essays I have done for the humane society with dogs. Black pets are the ones that don’t get adopted and I am convinced it is because they are photographed poorly so that they don’t look appealing to someone looking for a pet. It is far more challenging to show the fine details of an animal that is black.

I know going into shooting these animals that I need to shoot in monochrome mode so that I can make sure I am capturing that detail. Make sure they can see the muscle tones and the beauty of that animal even though they are black. It has helped me so much to envision right up front what I want to get and have it be in black and white.

Jeff: Makes me think of a tip I got from Aaron Nace over at phlearn.com a while ago to work on a composite in black and white. I am LOOOOVING composite work, it is so much fun to do. Aaron’s tip was to process that composite in black and white first, he used a channel mixer to make it black and white, so that you are focused more on making the lighting match without the colors being distracting.

Jenna: Aren’t composites so much fun! I love them too. The majority of my early work was composites. I totally agree, I use a gradient map to make the images black and white in Photoshop. That is how I was matching the shadows and the lighting. It made it so much better.

Jeff: I have done some images where I didn’t share that it was a composite. I didn’t say it was a single shot either, but I didn’t share that it was a composite so that I could see if people could tell. I loved it when I got to the point where nobody pointed it out. So much fun and looking at it in black and white made a big difference.

I found that really helped me with my other editing as well. If I am working on a photo that I want to make be the very best it can be, taking it to black and white and editing it really improves it even though I am going to publish it in color. Have to be careful here because you can really make it look awful in color too.

Listener Questions

Sam Lockhart: I tend to convert to black and white after I’ve seen the photo but I’m guessing the best b&w shots are intended from the beginning? Are there particular settings and compositional factors which make for better b&ws?

Jenna: Not really sure it is far better if you intend to have an image be in black and white from the beginning. In my underwater photography I don’t have the luxury to really spend the time on this that you would in pretty much any other situation. You have to hold your breathe, you have so many technical challenges that you don’t really have time for this kind of thought process.

Sure, having it in your head you are going to go black and white with something means you are going to be shooting with that in mind, but I have a lot of images that become so much better in black and white without it starting out that way.


Barry Porter: I love black and white photography but why do people ( I’m my Experience) only Consider B&W to be “ fine art “ also what makes a photo “fine art”?

Jeff: Don’t want to take the rest of the time here answering this question, is there a short-ish answer to this?

Jenna: Check out my Creative Chaos Podcast to learn a lot more about it. I had fine art explained to me this way. You can take a photo of a deer in their environment and get a great shot. It can be really pretty. Fine art would be if you took that deer and put in a shopping mall. It makes people stop and look at it. They are trying to figure out what is going on. Something that makes you stare at it because there is something different.

Jeff: So maybe we consider black and white fine art is because we don’t see the world in black and white, we see it in color.

Jenna: I think so yes. The skin of a person in black and white is represented really differently than it usually is in color. You want to see the texture and the wrinkles in black and white.


Moses Rodriguez Funny thing is I decide my b&w by how I feel. It sort of speaks to me. Maybe there is something more and I just don’t understand it.

Jenna: I agree, totally feel the same. I learn things constantly as I go back and look at photos that I liked or didn’t like and with the knowledge I have now or what I learned I see it differently.

Jeff: Do you think you mood at the time you are processing affects how often you go black and white?

Jenna: Ooh. I would think so. I guess I haven’t ever thought of that.


Tim Reed: A common misconception? Black and white is a way to save a photo i.e. colors aren’t right or don’t do the picture justice, and etc. I have actually pulled that rabbit out the hat a few times myself in weird situations and ended up with an awesome image. So sometimes when I see a black and white image I think or wonder what was wrong with it to result in a black and white photo. Is that a common interpretation or thought? Seems I can never look at a composition and say this is going to be an awesome black and white photo without going through several edits first then feeling like I “settled” for black and white in some instances, because I couldn’t get the color exactly the way I wanted it.

Jenna: Oh man, I feel that one deep in my soul.

Jeff: Yep, those are the rare cases I have gone with black and white so far in my photography. I have had to hide my technical issues with a photo by putting it in black and white.

Jenna: Me too. I have totally done this. On the other hand there are some photographers who just blow me away with their black and white photography. The photo being in black and white was done very purposefully, not just to hide a technical problem.

Jeff: This is my goal for what I want to be able to do with black and white. I want to produce the images you like just talked about where making it black and white adds to the image. Something where the only way I can accomplish the emotion of the shot I want to communicate is by using black and white.

Levi Sim is an example I used earlier. He does tons of corporate work but he also has a Steve Jobs portrait project where he is taking portraits of anyone who will let him in the same kind of pose and lighting to produce a similar black and white image to a very famous black and white image of Steve Jobs. He is doing it very purposefully. That is where I want to get to.

The vast majority of black and white is probably hiding technical issues, but there are plenty that are really good and being done very much on purpose rather than hiding a technical issue.

Jenna: Absolutely. I know there are lot of photographers who nail it with black and white that are so good they are not hiding any challenges, but I bet most of them you see are doing just that.

Though I have to say I hate it when photographers post two versions of a photo. One is in black and white the other color and they are asking which is better. If you need that help, maybe send it off to a single photographer with the objective of having a legit conversation and learning about why it works in black and white and doesn’t. A photographer who is good at black and white. Don’t leave it up to a popular opinion thing, you won’t learn from that.


Sandy Glenn Brown: Thanks Jeff, this is a great topic to discuss!!! @ Tim Reed, I agree with your comments about conversation to black and white. I too, would like to know how to “see” a black and white image before the shot. Does you guest shoot color then convert? How does your guest process an image for B/W? I’m super excited for this info.

Jenna: We talked about going out and shooting in monochrome so that you can see an image is flat in black and white while you are out capturing.

Jeff: The other thing I want to mention here is that when we are talking about going to black and white on a photo it isn’t the one click thing you can do in Lightroom or Photoshop. I am talking about using the HSL panel in Lightroom, and there are other ways to do this in Photoshop, and then tuning the black and white by changing the luminosity and saturation of the colors to add depth to the photo.

Jenna: I use gradient maps in Photoshop for this. I almost never take an image to black and white in Lightroom. I love the gradient map and have developed my style by doing this in Photoshop. I try to replicate how things look in film with my editing and I love how gradient map helps me to do this in Photoshop.


Brian Pex: I see lots of Black and White images that maybe should not be black and white and would love to hear their take on how simple shots most often work best with B&W rather than more chaotic scenes.

Jeff: Are there images that just won’t work in black and white?

Jenna: Images where there are similar tones. A woman in a red dress surrounding by green, the complimentary colors are adding to that photo and taking it to black and white probably won’t be as strong because those two colors look so similar in black and white. You might able to work with it some, but the colors are probably so important with that photo it should stay in color.

If you had that same woman in a multi-color dress where there is a lot going on then it might really have the tones to make that look better. Busy photos tend to need color to help us process the variations.

Jeff: I think milky way may not work well in black and white. We don’t see as much color at night ourselves, so getting that milky way core in color and seeing that seems like it is providing something different to our eyes and appeals to us and making it black and white wouldn’t have the same affect.

Jenna: Now I want to try a milky way shot in black and white to see!


Kenny Huffman: My question would be kinda strange since I import all my photos B&W and look at light composition and texture before deciding it needs color to close the deal so to speak. What is in your decision to out the B&W for color? Not enough information in the photograph?

Jenna: Interesting process, would like to know more about that. I definitely start in color on everything. My decision to go black and white happens while looking at the color image and if I wasn’t intending from the beginning for it to be black and white I choose to take it there if there are a lot of tones in the image that are not the same. Lots of differences between the saturation and luminosity in the image that will be drawn out with black and white.


Jeremy S. Lanthorn When to go glossy and when to go matte (or luster or….)

Jenna: Totally a fine art question here. I prefer matte for black and white. I think the blacks look fuller and deeper on a matte print than other types. My dream collection work, the work that is surreal kind of images, it is all on matte. Though it really depends on personal preference and what you are shooting.


Stephen Smith: Talk about the timelessness aspect. We’ve all seen museum exhibits of the Farm Security Administration color photographs from a time period (1939–1944) where we’re accustomed to seeing just black-and-white photography, and it’s jarring. The same is true when we see Photoshop-colorized versions of old black-and-white photos.

We’re in an age where color makes us feel closer to the photo’s subject, and black-and-white feels more isolating. Does the expert think that will continue, or reverse? What will be our emotional connection to black-and-white photography in another fifty years?

Jenna: Great question. It feels timeless because this was the original form of photos. The original photos and movies we had was black and white. It is also that you can take a picture of a tree in black and white right now and you won’t really know exactly when the photo was taken. Ansel Adams had a lot of fun with black and white and dodging and burning.

Jeff: Feels to me like the emotional response we have to black and white is only going to get stronger. Color is all around us and in our photos. Technology has come to the point where it is normal to get very good color reproduction. Kids today are going to just be used to that and when they see black and white it is going to be strikingly different.

Jenna: I got a Polaroid camera a little while ago and of all the photos I have in my family it is those Polaroids that I love the most right now. I have seen birth photography done in black and white a lot. Maybe because births are not clean, but they create an emotional response and are powerful.


Quinn Kirkland Do you recommend using colored filters when you know for sure your going b n w? If so what are you using and why.

Jenna: I don’t use any filters. I am not the person to ask because I go pretty simple on my gear. If I need something I usually just build it myself. I tend to like things as close as I can get in camera. I have never bothered with filters. For me that is just another step in the middle that complicates things,

Jeff: Canon cameras over-saturate reds. Just how Canon sensors work. You can get more detail of red things if you go and desaturate red in the HSL panel of Lightroom. Not so much that you are losing detail just tends to look better if you reduce the saturation of the reds. If you could add a filter that would help to take care of that then maybe there would be an advantage there but I don’t think it is worth the impact it could have on the image quality when you can really get most of this in post.

The only other thing I can think of here would be something what Don Komarechka is doing. Don is a tremendous photographer who seeks out capturing images of the unseen world. Amazing macro photography but he has also done a lot of work with infrared. He had his camera modified to put an infrared filter in front of the sensor so that he can experiment with things looking very different from what we are used to seeing. I could see that being something that would improve your black and white photographer because it would be so different.

Doodads

Jenna: Smash CDs and incorporate them and reflecting light off of them into your photography

Jeff: DYMO LetraTag LT-100H Plus Handheld Label Maker ($30)

Reminders

Comments

  1. Great podcast, always learn something in every episode! I’d like to share a couple of thoughts on bnw photography: First, for mirrorless shooters, there is a huge advantage associated with the EVF: you can see in bnw as you shoot, allowing you to train yourself to see light, shadow, tonality, shapes and composition. Taking the color out of your viewfinder will help you see better. There is a wedding photographer named Kevin Mullins who I follow at f.16.click, who shoots documentary style wedding photography almost exclusively in bnw. His work is very compelling. He says he always shoots with his EVF in bnw, even if he is shooting color. In this case he will shoot RAW + jpeg, and process the RAW file later in color. Second comment: filters can indeed be very helpful in bnw photography. A red filter, for example, can help to darken the skies, and a green filter can give pleasing skin tones for portraits. I shoot Fujifilm, and they have a film simulation called Acros, with built in red, green and yellow filters, which makes it very simple. Of course you can do this in post, but if you get more of it right in camera, there is much less time spent on the computer. Hope these thoughts will help your listeners. Keep the podcasts coming!

  2. Pingback: Six Fine Art Photography Business Tips - Master Photography Podcast

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