Ansel Adams, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. What do these three have in common? Well, besides being famous, they all shot their masterpieces in black and white. Perhaps because of their exceptional work, shooting in black and white has since evolved into a way to transform a film from one of mediocrity to one with style, class and edginess. Who would honestly say that color would improve movies like Schindler’s List, Citizen Kane, or Sunset Boulevard? These movies enjoyed a vintage, artsy feel due to the stark contrast of their black and white cinematography.
However, capturing good black and white footage isn’t as simple as dropping the color from your footage. You’ll also need to know how to light, shoot and properly edit your footage so that you can achieve the full impact that shooting in black and white can give to your next masterpiece.
Turning Colors Into Shades
Let’s be honest. Besides the occasional in-camera effect, most camcorders shoot in color. Worse yet, most camcorders can only preview color footage to your viewfinder or EVF. This is usually a good thing since shooting in color allows for more flexibility in post, but it also means that you’ll have to dedicate some time to learning how to see gray shades in a world of vibrant color. It may require a little work, but doing so will drastically improve the results of your black and white cinematography.
In order to “turn off” your color vision and start seeing the world in black and white, it can be helpful to look at color photos or videos side-by-side with photos or videos that are in black and white. This way you can see how the light intensity, color saturation, shapes and texture affect your footage once it’s converted to black and white. What you’re likely to find is that the hue of a color (or a pure color without tint or shade) doesn’t really have an impact on your footage. Instead, the brightness of the color (or how dark or light a color is) is what makes the real difference. For example, if your subject is wearing a dark red lipstick, it’s likely to show up as a very dark shade of gray when converted to black and white. Also, green leaves often show up gray and navy blue shades show up as almost black.
You’ll also find that a loss of color can change the focus of a shot.
You’ll also find that a loss of color can change the focus of a shot. For example, let’s say you’ve shot some gorgeous footage of a subject wearing blue against an orange background. While that may be sufficient contrast when using color, when you convert it to black and white, your subject may become a floating head. The problem lies in that fact that you may have had plenty of color contrast, but without dark and light contrasts, the black and white footage looks flat. To fix that mistake, you could have had your subject wear a light blue shirt against a dark orange background. This would have given the scene both color and brightness contrast and would have made your subject pop once again.
As you’ve already seen, black and white cinematography tends to look best when applied to high contrast footage. So for the best results when lighting for black and white, you’ll want to create dramatic shadows and highlights while still keeping a full range of midtones. This is often best achieved with a strong backlight and keylight. That’s because without color to lead viewer’s eyes in the shot, the only areas that a viewer’s eyes are going to be drawn to will be areas of sharp contrast. For example, shooting a closeup of an eye can really pop in black and white due to the strong contrast between the white of the eyes and the pupil. Or when shooting a building, having a shadow on one side of the building while the rest of the building is fairly bright will serve to bring out the shape of the building that would be lost if it was lit too evenly.
That being said, it’s still very important to be able to capture a wide range of grays in your image. Otherwise you stand to lose a lot of detail. The grays are especially important for capturing the proper tone in skin and the gradual depth of objects in your scene. That’s why overcast days are some of the best times to shoot landscapes in black and white. Doing so not only solves the typical problem of muted colors, but gives you a plethora of grays that give an outdoor scene plenty of detail. The real trick is to make sure that the image not only includes a healthy gray level, but pure blacks and pure whites as well. Otherwise, your image will simply look washed out.
After you’ve made sure your scene is properly lit for black and white cinematography, it’s time to shoot the image. First, let’s make sure that your camera is set up properly. We’ll begin with our gain; or ISO. If you recall, black and white imagery can draw attention to details and texture in your image that may be overlooked when shot in color. This is usually a good thing, but it can quickly go south when an image has almost any noise. To solve this, it’s a good idea to turn down the gain or ISO settings in your camera to the lowest level that can be achieved. This way, those expensive actors you so dearly paid for will still be the center of attention.
Add even more contrast to your scene by deepening the blacks, brightening the whites, and punching up the midtones.
Next, when it comes time to set the exposure of your camera, it’s important to find an object that is perfectly middle gray. Typically, this object is something of importance in the scene such as a sky in a landscape shot or an actor’s skin when shooting talent. This way, you can adjust your shutter speed and f-stop until the rest of your image is both brighter and darker than your object of importance.
Though being able to “see” in black and white is a useful talent, you may still be wondering if there’s a way to tell if your image is going to look just as good as you’ve envisioned. Thankfully, there are some easy ways to do this even on cameras that don’t have a proper black and white mode.
By far the easiest method for seeing how black and white will affect your image is to use a field monitor for your camera that has a black and white feature. This feature is often found in the exposure control area of a monitor since it’s often easier to see if your overall image is too bright or dark when the color is removed. Some cameras even have this feature built in. The RED ONE, EPIC, and SCARLET cameras all have the ability to check exposure in black and white right in the camera’s exposure control menus. DSLRs such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II and the Nikon D800 actually have a picture style for the express purpose of monochrome shooting. Don’t be misled by the name though. You can actually use the picture style to shoot video in monochrome as well. Even better yet, most consumer camcorders have the ability to shoot in black and white as a preset or mode. With these kinds of cameras, you can simply switch into black and white mode and let your camera do the rest.
Converting Color to Black and White
Compared to the previous steps for black and white cinematography, converting your footage to black and white will be a walk in the park. That’s because the process almost never takes more than a few steps to achieve.
One of the most common ways of converting color footage to black and white is to simply desaturate your footage using your editing program’s saturation tool. You just need to set the saturation to zero percent and your footage should be color free. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a masterpiece of modern cinema on your hands. You’ll first have to use curves or other color correction effects to add even more contrast to your scene by deepening the blacks, brightening the whites, and punching up the midtones. Doing so will give your footage that artsy, punchy feel that can only be achieved with black and white footage.
For those on tight time constraints, converting your footage to black and white can be as simple as using a preset in most popular editing programs. Adobe Premiere Pro has an effect under Image Control called Black & White that will convert your footage in one quick click. Similarly, Final Cut Pro has an effect under Image Control called Desaturate that can also promptly kick your color to the curb. The fact is, almost every popular video editing software has a way to quickly convert your footage to monochrome. The only thing to consider is how much control you want over the look of your image.
Making a Black and White Masterpiece
As you can see, shooting in black and white is not only a great way to give your footage an isolated and artsy feel, but it can also improve footage taken on overcast days, make textures stand out, and turn the attention of the audience to details that you want them to see. With just a little bit of practice and by following the tips we’ve outlined above, you may someday shoot a masterpiece that rivals even the most critically acclaimed black and white films made in the Golden Age of cinema.
Light falloff is an important factor to consider when lighting for black and white cinematography. By placing your lights closer to your subject, you’ll end up with areas of intense shadow and intense highlights. On the other hand, by placing your lights further from your subject, you’ll get shadows that gradually go from black to white. Though you’ll start to lose light intensity as you bring your lights further back, the expanded range of grays in your shot will make your black and white footage look more professional and will add bring back detail that high contrast lighting tends to lose.
To find out how the masters in Hollywood work with black and white style, rent a few black and white movies for the weekend and watch their director’s commentary or behind the scenes footage. The 1998 Tobey Maguire/Reese Witherspoon movie, Pleasantville, directed by Gary Ross has some complicated scenes that combine black and white footage along with color. The behinds the scenes look at this explains in some detail how they achieved this.
The 2011 movie The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius and starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo was an equally challenging movie – it was shot, acted and themed as a silent movie from the end of its era. The behind the scenes features commentary mentions putting Bejo in bright dresses, so the hue would stand out among other lightly-colored dresses in a lineup in the black and white scenes. Behind the scenes and director’s commentaries are a goldmine of training tools for how Hollywood gets things done, and sometimes they use very simple, consumer-like techniques and props. Well worth watching.
Daniel Bruns is an award winning cinematographer and editor.