All my life i’ve taken photographs in colour. It’s only once i started getting serious with it as a hobby did i begin gravitating to the possibilities offered by monochrome photography. There is a charm about monochrome photography, an effect that removes the influence of colour and focuses the attention on the composition and subject in the photograph. Obviously, this means that with all the attention on the composition and subject, any errors or imperfections become all the more glaring. That’s the double edged sword monochrome photographs have to endure — an average photograph can easily become a bad one sans colour to hide its flaws, a good photograph can now become great with the focus of the audience focused on the critical elements that make it good.
Why monochrome rather than black and white? Because hues of colour such as palladium and copper may also be used, leading to a particular effect desired.
I use Lightroom for my post-processing, and when i’m converting to monochrome, i use Nik’s Silver Efex Pro v2.0. Both are excellent pieces of software, and are more than adequate for the purpose. Without describing in too much details how it’s done (because it’s easy — a few clicks of the button, and moving sliders to taste), let me focus on my favourite conversion paths and why i like each one.
Here is a recent shot, that’ll act as the colour baseline.
In colour, this photo tells the tale of an old man, in his 70s, which a slight cheer in his half smile and twinkle in the eye. There is a feeling of positivism, reinforced somewhat by the healthy earthen skin tone and fashion of his clothes.
My default preferred monochrome conversion is a customized Silver Efex Pro preset of AGFAPhoto APX 100 film. The light tones are culled by roughly 12% and the contrast is increased by 8-10% depending on the shot. I renamed the custom preset as AGFA APX Silver 100. After applying the preset, individual control points are used to bring out the shadows, improve clarity and structure in specific key spots; this is done on a photo-by-photo basis, each shot will require a slight different treatment.
This conversion tends to create a hyperfocus on the subject, in this case the face, the creases and lines. Less attention is afforded to the eyes in particular, and the half smile is less obvious.
This preset is a customized effect — high structure, high contrast, grain and vignetting. I generally use it for street photography when the tale i want to tell is one of gritty realism, of dark mysticism and allusions of imperfection. Perhaps less suitable for portraits in this context, i include it here to illustrate its possible use in completely shifting the focus off the subject an onto the emotion the subject proposes instead.
If you’re a Lightroom and Silver Efex user, drop me an email, and i’ll be happy to share my basic presets. They won’t necessarily give you an exact solution for every monochrome conversion you’ll ever do, but it’ll certainly work as a base from which you can work on and further customize to personal taste.