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Colour and Monochrome

Making a monochrome image

After many years working exclusively in monochrome I had got used to visualising an image as a black and white print at the time of taking the photograph. Now having gone back to shooting in digital colour I still find myself seeing certain images as monochrome compositions.

Summit Rocks is a prime example of such an image which was subconsciously seen in monochrome as soon as I looked through the viewfinder. These cracked granite rocks sit on the top of St. Davids Head in the far west of Wales, and were photographed in the early afternoon on a partially overcast day with the sun breaking through occasional breaks in the clouds. In other circumstances and with different lighting I might well have concentrated on the contrasts between the red and grey granite and the yellow lichens. However on this occasion the diffused lighting cutting through the clouds and the form of the rocks seemed immediately to dictate a monochrome image.

Two exposures were used to build the starting colour image to cope with the wide range of tonal values between the shadowed rocks and the bright backlit cloud edges in the sky.


Original Greyscale Channel mixer 33/33/33 Channel Mixer 80/15/5


Photoshop offers a number of ways of converting colour to monochrome. The most straightforward, greyscale conversion, is a simple one-click operation, but will not necessarily bring out the best in an image. Simple greyscale conversion is the equivalent switching from colour TV to black and white or using panchromatic black and white film followed by printing on a medium grade paper; it's a faithful representation of colour as monochrome, but can be a bit flat.

Greyscale conversion of the summit rocks composition yielded a mono image with a nice range of tones, but lacking in punch. Switching to using channel mixer as an adjustment layer in conjunction with a curves adjustment layer allowed a range of conversion mixes and contrast adjustments to be combined to the best effect.


The third image above shows the result of applying the channel mixer with a equal balance in each channel, plus some tweaking of contrast. The image now has more impact, but doesn't have the range of tonal contrasts that I wanted. Changing the channel mixer settings to those shown on the right had the desired effect, slightly boosting the contrast in the sky and changing the tonal relationships between different areas of rock. The latter is most clearly seen in the heightened tonal difference between the areas of red and grey rock weathering which can be seen in the starting colour image. 


I tend to use these or similar settings quite a lot when doing monochrome conversions, I guess because they tend to give the same results as using a fine grained but rather high contrast mono film like Technical Pan with a red filter, which was my favoured combination for monochrome photography.
Why monochrome ?

I don't believe there are any hard and fast rules as to why a particular image or composition might work better as monochrome than colour. Certain compositions immediately suggest a monochrome treatment, while others can work in either colour or monochrome. 

Images which are already primarily monochromatic with low colour saturation are prime candidates for exploring the potential of a monochrome interpretation. Summit Rocks falls into this category, the pastel colours of the rocks and the greys of the sky are already partially monochrome.

I have certainly taken images which I feel work equally well in colour or monochrome. These images are typically small scale compositions which explore colour and texture contrasts where the contrasts seem to work equally well in both interpretations. Pebbles and Quartz and Pebbles and Quartz II are two such compositions based on the same subject, a tide cut gully on Mewslade beach.


Pebbles and Quartz  Pebbles and Quartz II


Of course sometimes nature is not purely either monochrome or colour, and images can reflect this, either as seen or in interpretation.  Rock Head and Rocks, pebbles and waves are examples of compositions which while being colour images, are predominantly monochromatic with muted colour overtones and seem to work well. I've tried both of these images as pure monochrome, but prefer the low saturation colour interpretations - nature works best in these cases.


Rock Head  Rocks, pebbles and waves 


Conversely some images while being essentially monochromatic would not actually work in black and white. Crevasses and pool is an good example of this; converting to monochrome would lose the single point of colour in the glacial pool which is the essential element of the whole image.

What makes a good monochrome image? I follow an old adage - if it works don't fix it. If an image was seen as monochrome that's what it wants to be; if it was seen in colour that's what it should be. Photoshop and other similar programs allow many interpretations of an image with much greater ease than was possible with film and wet chemistry, however this can lead to hours of wasted tinkering with images. I think the digital colour or monochrome decision is best treated as the same choice that has to be taking when deciding which camera body to use when making a composition on film; but of course you do get to change your mind afterwards.

For more on monochrome conversion and some downloadable Photoshop actions for running on your own images go to Photoshop Monochrome Conversion Actions. If you want to explore the more complex procedures involved in converting colour to monochome infrared go to Photoshop Infrared Conversion Actions.

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