An ordinary colour photograph
The same image converted to monochrome with red high contrast filters
The same image, converted to mono and tinted silvery blue (selenium toned)
Monochrome- or black and white if you prefer- is often considered to be old fashioned. But most photographers will admit that it has a charm of its own, and many images originally taken in colour become something special when converted to monochrome.
The reasons for this? Firstly, a dull dreary day can often become something far more dramatic when converted to monochrome. Because the colour of the light is no longer an issue, and because of monochrome filters (more on this later), the photograph becomes about texture and contrast, and not at all about colour.
At this point, I should point out that “monochrome” does not necessarily mean “black and white”. “Monochrome” means “one colour”, and so that colour can be any you choose. In fact, even back in the pre-colour days, monochrome images were often sepia coloured as they aged, or where intentionally “washed” in chemicals to change their tint. This could give them a grey-blue tint, or a warmer sepia tint, or a warmish grey tint.
Monochrome, because it does not rely on colour to make an impact, often makes the viewer look for something else in the image: texture, detail or a different atmosphere. It is, simply, a different way of looking at things.
Portraits, in particular, as well as seascapes, close ups, landscapes and urban photography are particularly well suited to monochrome. Mono can be very flattering to the human complexion, and with careful use, you can even change the apparent “colour” of a person's eyes!
Most editing software has the ability to convert a colour image into monochrome. However, most simply “de-saturate” (turn off) the colours. The end result is frequently flat, dull and grey.
This is where filters come in. In the old days (and some people still do use filters), a photographer who was shooting monochrome would place a coloured piece of glass over the camera lens. Why would someone use coloured glass when the image is in monochrome? This is because a red filter, for instance, lightens its own colour (red) and darkens its opposite (blue). An orange filter would lighten orange, and darken blue. Conversely, a blue filter would lighten blues but darken reds.
Translate these into monochrome, and the effects can be striking.
Imagine a blue sky with white fluffy clouds. Now imagine a red filter: the blue of the sky would translate into darker grey and the white clouds would become brilliant white.
Using a blue filter, blue eyes can become bright silvery grey: dark eyes (because brown is related to red) could become even darker.
Filters were commonly yellow (weak), orange (stronger) and red (strong) when it came to lightening red spectrum colours and blue, plus green which tends to lighten organic green shades and can often darken inorganic greens. In fact, a green filter is flattering to Caucasian human skin, making one look tanned and somehow healthier, although in monochrome. Blue was often used to counteract the orange tint of artificial (tungsten) studio lights or domestic light bulbs.
So why am I telling you this? Because the same effect as filters is commonly available with decent photo editing software. Adobe Lightroom and even Google Picasa (sadly discontinued) or a vast range of plugins for various editors allowed one to “filter” and convert colour into monochrome.
So, next time you're in your photo editor, don't just hit the “convert to black and white” button, take a closer look to see if it offers these “virtual filters”. If you want a FREE but powerful photo editor, try GIMP. Gimp is somewhat similar to Adobe Photoshop. There are lots of tutorials out there to teach you how to use it, and lots of plugins to extend the program's abilities. You can get it from here:
Using monochrome gives you the ability to use your camera in weather that may not be brilliant for colour, but may be just the job for monochrome. I find that monochrome can also enhance the mood of a picture.
Without colour to distract, one notices light, texture and contrast more. Monochrome can also lend an old fashioned feel and is especially powerful for portraits. If you've got images that are not quite up to scratch in colour, see if they'll look any better in monochrome. But don't stop there: shoot subjects specifically for monochrome.
There are some subjects where monochrome just don't work, like sunsets. But on cold, crisp winter days, or even dull and drab ones with the occasional bit of sunlight, it's wonderful. If it's not photographic weather, why not dig out some of your existing photographs and learn to see in black and white?