There are plenty of technical reasons why converting a colour image to black and white will give you the most flexibility in the way that image will eventually look. That’s all well and good, but shooting in colour when you intend to end up with a monochrome picture requires a leap of imagination that few are truly equipped with. The ability to see in black and white is one thing, but the further ability to picture in your mind one of the myriad ways a black and white image might be created from a colour original is quite another.
Being able to mix colour channels in post-capture software allows us to alter the tonal values of different colours in the frame and the way each of those colours relates to each other in tonal brightness. Some experimentation is useful to see what effects can be achieved, and very often imagining those different results at the time of shooting is more than we can manage with any degree of accuracy. Fortunately, if you are a Lumix user you don’t need to imagine accurately, as with a quick trip to the menu system we can use the built-in filters to get those looks in-camera and see exactly what we are doing.
In the olden days…
In the days of black and white film, photographers would often use coloured glass filters over the lens to alter the tonal relationship between different colours in the scene. Often what appears to be tonal contrast in a scene is just the contrast between opposing colours, and when that scene is shown in black and white the colours look exactly the same – so the picture appears a bit flat. Coloured filters allow us to promote some colours to appear brighter and demote others to appear darker, so we can enhance tonal separation in our pictures – making them more dramatic.
A red filter allows red light to pass, but blocks cyan light, so red things appear bright and cyan things go darker. In a landscape, for example, a red filter might make a blue sky dark which in turn might emphasise the brightness of the clouds. If the amount of cyan blocked by the red filter makes the sky too dark, an orange filter could be used to create a more moderate effect – or yellow for more moderation still.
Glass filters provide an excellent way to control tonal relationships on black and white film, and no self-respecting photographer would be without them.
Built-in black and white filters
Most of the more modern Lumix G cameras have colour filter settings in the Monochrome, L.Monochrome and L.Mononchrome D Photo Styles in the menu system so we don’t need to fit glass filters over our lenses any more. These allow us to apply the effect of using a Yellow, Orange, Red or Green filter over the lens to control the intensity of light the sensor receives from different colours in the scene. The filters work in the same way that glass filters do in film photography, with the red filter creating dark tones out of blues and bright tones out of reds and colours that have lots of red in them.
The green filter follows the pattern of creating lighter tones from colours with green in, and darkening colours that contain pinks or reds.
The in-menu controls also allow contrast to be adapted to inject drama or calm depending on the look you are going for. Adding contrast makes more of the darkest tones turn to black and the lightest to white – so be careful not to fill-in shadows that you want to maintain some detail in. Filled shadows though are rarely as offensive as patches of white, so be more careful with the brightest tones so you don’t lose information there.
We also have coloured tones we can add to our pictures, shifting one way to create a cool tone and the other to make the picture warmer.
What files take on the effects?
The black and white settings you apply will show on the rear screen and in the viewfinder whether you shoot raw or JPEG, but the effects will only stick to JPEG files when you import your pictures to the computer. Adobe Lightroom will allow a monochrome look to be reapplied to the raw files, but most other applications will just show the raw files in colour. If you shoot in raw only you can process the pictures in-camera to obtain a JPEG with the looks you applied – or with a slightly altered look as the in-camera processing function will allow changes to be made. You can use the processed JPEG as your finished image, or use it as a reference while processing the raw file to black and white in the application of your choice.
What’s the point again?
The point is that when you use these filter effects while shooting black and white you can see exactly what you are going to get. You don’t have to imagine what a black and white rendition of the scene will look like, as you will be able to see it through the viewfinder and on the rear screen before you’ve even pressed the shutter release. When we can see the effect in-camera we get a clearer idea of whether the shot is working or not, so we can make changes to get things right. When a shot is working well it can also inspire us to make the most of the effects, and to experiment with different compositions and exposures to enhance or expand on what we are seeing. If we are only imagining the look of the black and white picture we will create later this extra inspiration is very hard to come by.
Oh, and it makes black and white much easier and doesn’t require any post-capture processing – which is a massive bonus for those who don’t like software or those who prefer to get things right at the time of exposure rather than afterwards.