BE THE CHAMP! – black and white conversion

archive – Photography

BE THE CHAMP! – black and white conversion

Last month ALEX MUSTARD looked at how and when to use a monochrome approach while shooting under water, but when might it be a good idea to turn your colour photos to black and white on your computer?
‘The lack of colour will focus the viewer's attention onto shapes, textures and compositions'

THE LATE, GREAT Peter Scoones, featured throughout Colin Doeg’s 50 Years of BSoUP article in last month’s DIVER, had strong and perhaps surprising views on digital manipulation. He was all for it.
We find his opinion surprising because we’re used to photographers of a more mature vintage being against modern innovations.
Scoones never was. In fact, he was usually the first to put the latest technology to work.
Typically, we’re all products of the age into which we’re born. People who started out in underwater photography in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, like me, invariably used slide film and became wedded to its “exactly as shot” purity.
You would carry this piece of film around the world with you. You took it under water, you exposed it, brought it home, developed it and then slid that same rectangle of film into a projector or lightbox to enjoy.
Scoones actually started in underwater photography before slides became the dominant format.
His early days were those of black-and-white film, where the image started in the camera, but was very much finished in the darkroom.
He facetiously referred to the slide-film years as the blip, and embraced digital as a return to true photography, where the image’s journey doesn’t end with the taking, and its full potential is realised in post-processing.

ALL THREE PHOTOS featured in this month’s column started life as colour shots, though the seal silhouetted at the surface was monochromatic in blue-green. And I subsequently decided to process them as black and whites.
Last month I spoke about the value of thinking in black and white, looking for shapes and shadows when composing pictures in monochrome on wrecks.
Wrecks give us time, but in the fast-moving world of marine mammals (or other dynamic subjects) I usually find the best time for black-and-white thinking is after these dives.
The trick is in learning to recognise which pictures will be enhanced by the conversion.
One of the attractions of black and white is that the lack of colour will focus the viewer’s attention onto shapes, textures and compositions. Although we often chase the boldest colours, there are times when colour is a distraction, and these shots will blossom in mono.
Marine mammals often work well in monochrome. Their shapes are usually instantly recognisable and often contorted with movement, and this is best emphasised in tones of grey.
As a rule they are rarely colourful, so we give away little and have much to gain when making them monochrome.
We can emphasise form by shooting silhouettes (like the seal framed in Snell’s window), but we can also process a standard side-on shot to jump out in black and white.
The key is to process the file so that the subject is a different tone to the background. With the manatee, I adjusted the colour channels in the black-and-white conversion to turn the water as dark as possible to highlight the grey mammal.
With the sea-lion under the oil rig, I processed the file to lighten the water and kept the sea-lion silhouette as dark as possible.

MARINE MAMMALS have many features that we can exploit in mono processing.
Dolphins have a beautifully smooth skin that takes on a silvery sheen once the colour is drained from the shot. This can be emphasised further by adding a selenium tone when processing.
Some species, such as the common dolphin, have attractive patterns in different shades of grey, and these can be enhanced in the conversion to black- and-white.
Seals, sea-lions and manatees have hair, and this texture can be brought out in black and white.
All three also have a fine set of whiskers that can be highlighted with local contrast adjustments, such as increasing Structure or Clarity.
It is not always easy to spot which images will work best in black and white, so it’s worth experimenting.
I often use the Lightroom shortcut “v” to see if an image has potential before working on a more refined black-and-white conversion.
Peter Scoones viewed colour slides as an anomaly of photographic development, although many more argue the same about black and white.
Had colour film been invented first, the idea of photos in black and white might never have been invented!
Luckily for the underwater photographer it was, and if you are out of the water this winter, dive into your photographic back-catalogue and finish some of your pictures with a black and white conversion.

Silhouetted shots are already monochrome so these consistently convert well to black and white. Always boost the contrast so that subject stands out from the water.
If Snell’s window is present in your shot, try and process it so that the frame of the window is as dark as possible.

Black and white focuses the viewer’s attention on the shape and textures in the subject, so look for colour shots with these characteristics to convert.
An acrobatically twisting sea-lion will look more interesting in black and white than a close-up cute face, which will probably work best in colour.

Photos taken in shallow water in sunny conditions often don’t suit black and white, because the conversion takes away some beautiful colours, and the dancing patterns of light change from being beautiful in colour, to being a distraction in monochrome.
Photos taken in cloudy conditions, with flat, shadow-less light, often convert best.


By waiting for the seal to be framed by Snell’s window, I was able to show off its shape.Taken with Nikon D5 and Sigma 15mm. Subal housing. No strobes. ISO 500, 1/500th @ f/22.

I carefully controlled this black-and-white conversion to keep the manatee light and the water dark.Taken with Nikon D700 and Sigma 15mm. Subal housing. 2 x Inon Z240. ISO 800, 1/40th @ f/10.

Black and white can cut through the murk, which allows me to use the sea-lion’s distinctive silhouette even when it is small in the frame.Taken with Nikon D4 and Nikonos 13mm. Subal housing. 2 x Seacam 150s. ISO 800, 1/60th @ f/10.

Appeared in DIVER March 2017


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