If you look back to the beginning of photography, color didn’t exist. In fact, it didn’t exist for a long, long time. Even as 35mm film pioneered the way that photography was used and purchased, black and white was king. Slowly, as time progressed, color film began to take a foothold in the industry. Once legendary color films like Kodachrome and Kodacolor became widely available, black and white became far less popular for commercial use. Now, in the digital era, almost every digital camera records information in color. Why then, would I bother viewing my images in monochrome during my shoots, even if I know I’ll deliver them in color?
Let’s talk first about luminosity. Digital cameras will provide you with a histogram that shows the spread of data based on both color and luminosity. This graph lets you know if shadows are too dark to hold detail and whether highlights are blown out or not. The spread of luminosity is also shown along this graph. Higher peaks to the left indicate a low key or underexposed image and higher peaks on the right show an overall brighter image. Histograms also show where color data is in an image, as well as luminosity. In the image below, we see a histogram from Capture One. The grey area is the luminosity; the colored lines represent the brightness values of the various color through the image.
The trick with histograms, though, is that they are relative to each image. On top of that, depending on your lighting, they may not help. Portraits with a high key, white background will certainly show a histogram farther to the right. What if your subject is lit in a dramatic way that gives them shadow and contrast despite the white background? This could certainly lead to an inaccurate histogram.
Because of this, I will reference the histogram to see if I’m losing data in the blacks or whites, but will refer to my screen to view lighting. This is where shooting with a monochrome color profile becomes useful.
Color can be deceitful when it comes to creating a lighting setup. Depending on the skin tone of your subject, it can be difficult to judge whether the light is falling correctly. For example, the color accuracy of lights isn’t always great. This past week, I have been shooting a lot of portraits on the beautiful Credo 60 and some Alien Bees. The Credo 60 has a pretty poor auto white balance function. It’s easy to get distracted by these color problems that can be fixed easily with a white balance adjustment later. Below is an example of straight-out-of-camera auto white balance, followed by a corrected version. In my opinion, modern day raw files allow for such a level of flexibility that color can be perfected in post with ease. This way, I can shoot in black and white for an entire shoot as long as I have an image with a grey card or color checker to work from.
While I do recommend setting a white balance with the use of a grey card or color checker, color can be affected by strobes or even ambient light, depending on your surroundings. To me, it is paramount to get the lighting correct, as you can adjust color so easily with the use of programs like Lightroom and Capture One. It is far easier to adjust the color of indoor lighting that can look orange and unappealing in post than it is to try to dodge and burn your way to a totally different look because the lighting wasn't quite what you wanted.
Almost every camera has a monochrome picture profile. Turning it on will allow you to view your images in black and white on your display while still recording color information. The advantage to this that you can use the color version later should you decide that it looks better. By viewing in monochrome, you can get a much better idea of whether or not your image is achieving your creative vision. In the days of film or even early digital, when file editing was far more limited, you had to be careful as to how you lit, where you were shooting, and how ambient affected flash and vise-versa. With digital platforms having taken over as the primary cameras used by working pros, digital affords you more creativity and an overall easier experience. While you can now completely change an image's mood through editing, I still encourage photographers to focus on the artistry, and compose and light for the final product. By shooting in monochrome, this becomes just a little easier.