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In this Foundations of Photography, Ben Long shows photographers how to develop a black and white vocabulary and explains the considerations to take into account when shooting for this medium. The course follows Ben as he goes on location and explains what makes good black and white subject matter and how to visualize the scene in terms of tonal values and contrast rather than color. Along the way, he demonstrates some exposure strategies for getting the best images. Back at the computer, Ben demonstrates techniques for converting the resulting photos into black and white using Photoshop and other imaging tools, and offers tips on printing and output.
There won't be a lot of technical difference between your black-and-white and color shooting, but there is a little bit of camera configuration that you need to consider. First, should you shoot RAW or JPEG? Ultimately, the big difference between RAW and JPEG is not one of image quality. RAW does not yield better images than what you can get from JPEG. You won't see more sharpness. In fact, straight out of the camera, RAW images will probably be less sharp than JPEG images. If you're shooting color, you won't have more vibrant color in your images, nor will you get more dynamic range--that is, the range from the darkest to lightest tones that the camera can capture.
What RAW will get you is the ability to perform edits that are simply not possible with JPEG files. Now this doesn't really matter to us for black and white, but with RAW files, you can change the white balance of an image after you shoot, something that's not possible with JPEG. What is useful for us is the ability to very often recover overexposed highlights when shooting with RAW. RAW also allows us to perform more edits to our images before certain ugly types of artifacts appear. Because you tend to do a lot of editing to black-and-white files, pushing colors around very specific gray tones, this extra editability is very welcome.
So I highly recommend shooting in RAW if your camera allows it. Your camera might also have a black-and-white mode on it. If you're a Nikon shooter, you might have a black-and-white picture control, while Canon shooters might have a black-and-white picture style. Other cameras might have their own equivalent of black-and-white mode. Now a lot of people think, "Oh, this is great. I don't have to wonder what my color world looks like anymore. I just put my camera in black-and-white mode and I see it right there on the screen." Alas, there is no such thing as a free lunch, or free black-and-white visualization.
I am going to heartily recommend that you do not use the black-and-white modes on your camera, for a couple of reasons. First, as we've already discussed, there is no objective rule for what shade of gray corresponds to a particular color. The same color image can be converted to black and white in many different ways. Now what your camera shows you as a black-and-white when you're shooting with a black-and-white mode is just one possible interpretation of that color scene, and it may not be the one you had in mind. I don't want that camera's stock, probably kind of blah, black-and-white conversion recipe to limit your thinking of what can be done with a particular scene.
You might think, "Oh, that shoot is going to be really good in black and white," and shoot it in your camera's black-and-white mode and then look at the that camera-generated version, be kind of under-whelmed, and give up on that scene when in fact, it could be a very good black-and-white picture with a better black-and-white conversion. Second, if you're shooting RAW, all this black-and-white mode stuff is irrelevant anyway because that black-and-white conversion step that your camera is doing is a post-processing function and only works on JPEG images. Still, some cameras will show you a black-and-white review in black-and- white mode, even when you're shooting RAW, but your RAW file will still come in as color.
Finally, even if you're shooting JPEG, I don't recommend these modes for the additional reason of editability. As I already mentioned, there is a finite amount of editing that you can do to an image before certain types of ugly artifacts appear, and black-and-white conversion in camera will use up some of that editability. If you then want to do additional edits to improve the camera's conversion, you'll have far less latitude in your image to work with. Most importantly, learning to visualize in black and white is not that hard, so you simply don't need that crutch of a black-and-white preview.
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