How to Use Black and White to Take Better Colour Photos
Take Better Colour Photos… hmmm… lets see… I used to laugh a lot at The Goodies. I’m not actually sure if I saw them on a re-run a few years later or at the time but that’s by-the-by. They used to do sketches but they also used to do funny songs. I distinctly remember an interview where the quote was – and I paraphrase – ‘When we write a joke song, you have to make sure the song is a great song, and then, and only then, do you add the joke lyric.’ So they didn’t write funny lyrics and essentially add them to a non-workable base.
My point? if we are talking landscape photography or panoramic photography? – this isn’t a Goodies article…
Let’s talk Colour Bombs. When that sky is just Going Off. So much colour, it’s a riot. You point your camera or phone heavenwards, press the shutter, maybe even zoom in to fill every bit of the frame with glorious colour, and Voila! An instant masterpiece.
Or not. It’s not actually a photograph. Rather, just a blob of colour, especially when re-visited after a few weeks. It’s top of the landscape photography do’s and don’ts list.
Hmm – we tend to see a lot of these in our non-photographer friends’ Facebook feeds.
So – What to do to Take Better Colour Photos?
I am a firm believer that you need to get the composition right, Strong Lines, Depth, Rule of Thirds, Balance, before you add any colour you might be lucky to find in the sky. If you look at some (not all) of my images, the brilliant colour in the sky might take a quarter or maybe a third of the image area. The rest is a Solid Good Photo. So all this sounds easy, but how do you disassociate yourself from thinking of – and really being distracted by – just the elements of colour? Maybe more toward a ‘photographic art’ approach?
Think in Black and White, Shoot in Colour.
This photography tips article is really about how to reduce complexity to get a great monochrome image. This great monochrome ‘base’ image will become thus a great colour image if you wish. But for now, it all starts with your camera. Most modern cameras have a setting that you can set the JPEG capture to monochrome, but the RAW file will still (of course) be in colour. (you will have to Google this to find how to do this for your own camera settings).
Try it. Please Google right now ‘how to set [my camera] to black and white’. (‘Picture style’ for Canon at time of writing.)
Welcome back! – there, that didn’t take long, now did it?
What you will now be seeing when you review your images on your camera screen (in the field) are monochrome lines, patterns, shapes, and no more than that. Of course your camera will be on a tripod (more on that here). If you also set the camera screen to show the grid, you can check rule of thirds and then make sure there is something bisecting at least one of the cross-points. Pop your horizon on a line.
I’ll now hazard a guess. You are hoping to see beautiful landscape photography appear on your screen, but you will actually see a whole jumbled heap of mid-grey. Not too much black and white (or even very dark and very light grey). And that’s where you start your journey to really ‘looking’ at better composition. Reduce the number of elements in your image. Zoom in to maybe remove distractions. Now – you can’t do this while the sun is setting and there is wonderful colour in the sky – so you find a Great Composition before the sun sets. THEN you add the colour. Look for more blacks and whites in your viewfinder, and less mid greys. Look for strong triangle and polygon shapes, slanting and converging lines. Basically nice patterns.
Once you are back at home, and downloading the RAW files, start to really ‘look’ at the difference you are making to your colour images. Stronger, Simpler, More Powerful. Your journey to Beautiful Australian landscape photography has well and truly started. Did I just hear you dreaming of your new website headline – ‘Buy Australian Landscapes here’?
I shot with a mono viewfinder for a good few weeks, and still do as a reference every now and then.
So what exactly was that pre-amble all about? Essentially I have just told you to get the composition basics right (the great song) before adding the joke on top (the colour bomb bit). Geddit? I hope this article has made you think and will help you take better colour photos. And take better sunset photos.
The Berowra Photographer