With the sudden surge in popularity of Black and White images on Facebook and other social media, it’s time to post this article that Mike wrote for Scuba Diver Australasia magazine in 2008 for the “In Focus” column. The format and photos are not necessarily the same as the magazine layout. Enjoy!
If I’m presented with a series of art prints it’s always the classic black and white photo that stands out. Check the Web or flip through some diving magazines and you’ll notice a lack of underwater black and whites though. Why is that?
Several reasons: Cameras are set up to shoot colour images; folks don’t want to spend time converting to black and white in post production; and of course the underwater world is so full of rich colours, it may seem a waste to photograph marine life in monotone. Seeing the underwater world solely in colour, though, is like going to Starbucks and ordering plain black coffee! Which means there’s a treasure of photographic opportunities awaiting the shooter willing to conceptualise outside the box.
While Doug Sloss has already written about converting a colour image into black and white using Photoshop, I want to take a different tack. Let’s look at the “why, when, and where” of thinking in black and white.
Not every subject in the water lends itself to shades of grey. Obviously, a bright red sea fan with numerous colourful crinoids and soft corals attached to it won’t be nicer if you capture it in black and white. Instead, subjects with strong lines, contours, and shapes work well in black and white; examples include wrecks, wharf pillars, whales, and manta rays. But are these types of wide-angle subjects the only suitable subjects? Not by a long shot.
By thinking outside the box, you’ll be surprised how many different subjects look great in black and white. Anemone bulbs, nudibranchs, schooling fish, fish portraits, and even coral reefscapes can be given a whole new look with a simple colour conversion. The key is to look for textures and shapes that are out of the ordinary.
Take the humble anemone for example. Whereas most shooters will concentrate on capturing the antics of a playful anemonefish, look instead at the jewel-like details of the individual polyps. The play of shadows across the bulb tentacles creates a perfect abstract rendition of a relatively common subject.
When composing photos of fine detail to convert to black and white it’s not just the composition that counts. In order for the photo to work it must be illuminated properly. A well thought out image will have a good balance of light and shadows throughout. This is very important as it’s these areas that display the subtle layers of grey and black that will make the image “pop.”
When using strobes to illuminate an underwater subject it’s very important to use them wisely. Using two strobes to evenly light the entire subject doesn’t give the opportunity to create hints and textures. Instead, varying the power of the strobes or using only one will create the dramatic light needed to cast fine shadows across the subject.
Other subjects that lend themselves well to monotone are “charismatic megafauna” like sharks, whales, mola mola, and manta rays. Why would this be, you ask. It’s simple. Since all are pelagic in nature, they need to blend in with their environment in order to hunt or hide from predators, and as such utilise basic skin tones: grey, black, or white. However, their lines and shapes make them instantly recognisable to the average diver. Combining the sleek contours of a shark with the mysterious and subtle tones of a black and white image create a sense of mystery and awe. The same is true of mola molas – their grey skin appears bland against a blue background but contrasts sharply with the subtle grey of the open ocean when converted in Photoshop.
The sheer size of a great whale is impossible to light with strobes and photos of them often tend to “wash out” toward the blue spectrum. A black and white conversion allows the strong aura of the whale to stand out better against a light coloured background. This leads us to the next advantage of colour conversion: the ability to save a slightly over or underexposed photograph or one that tends too much toward blue/green natural light photos.
I have a number of photographs in my collection where I was too far from the action and my strobes weren’t able to illuminate colour properly. Shooting in RAW and using the white balance adjustment can often bring colour back to these photos, but I often try a black and white conversion instead.
One of my favourite images is of a large school of sharks in French Polynesia. The original slide is a washed out blue/green because I was too far from the sharks. The subject itself was very appealing but the overwhelming blueness of the image made it an ordinary shot. By scanning it to digital and converting it to black and white I was able to save a once in a lifetime photo, and it now hangs on my wall.
The Soul of a Wreck
Some of the most dramatic underwater subjects aren’t fish but rather man-made objects. Diving on shipwrecks is a haunting experience for any diver. But capturing the essence of a lost ship lying on the bottom of the sea isn’t an easy task.
Using the subdued hues of grey in a monotone image, the emotion and power of the final resting place ship is undeniably more powerful than the use of a bright blue background. The mood of what are often war graves is captured perfectly in black and white, and the subtle shadows create a deep feeling of mystery and emotion.
Other man-made structures that work well in black and white are docks or piers. Shafts of bright light streaming through the wooden planks of a dock, or bursting from behind a series of pilings is an unforgettable image. Many of these objects are home to large schools of fish seeking shelter. This added element of marine life adds a complementary “near and far” subject to the image. Be careful when shooting this style of photograph: The low light of morning or late afternoon works the best as the sun is low on the horizon, and won’t overexpose the whites in the background.
One of the best rewards of a well-planned and executed black and white photograph is the end result of printing. The classic tones of such photos really stand out. We now have at our disposal a fantastic way to display photographs in a different way: on canvas. Many professional print shops offer digital printing on canvas at very reasonable rates. Taking a black and white photograph and having it displayed and framed on stretched canvas can help make that image into a timeless display of art.
There are also a few exciting tricks that can be done in Photoshop to make your photo one of a kind. Consider leaving a portion of the subject in colour while converting the rest of the image to black and white. A small splash of bright colour against an otherwise grey background makes the composition stand out from the crowd.
Now that you know what subjects to look for, get out there and think in monotone. Flip through some of your old “just missed” photos and you may find a hidden gem amongst the chaff. And don’t be discouraged by the green water at your local wreck dive – thinking in terms of lines and contrast necessary for black and white will allow you to capture that iconic image you’ve been shooting for. sd