Bad Light? Try Black and White

This weekend, I photographed a friendly mountain biking event called Broduro. The Broduro is a casual enduro style race between friends “just for fun” featuring with four timed downhill stages. As a photographer, I like shooting enduro because you get to explore different terrain and angles – the action is a bit more exciting and faster paced than xc style mountain bike racing but you generally get the opportunity to shoot the same riders a few times on different trails, unlike downhill where riders race and practice on the same course over and over again.

The not so fun part of shooting enduro is that the lighting isn’t always great. Sometimes it’s pretty horrible actually, and often the gnarliest and coolest features of the course are in areas with the worst light. This course was no exception, with super thick hemlock forests (meaning really dark) in some spots and small areas of direct bright sunlight between sections.

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Light like this presents a few problems. The most obvious one is dynamic range and contrast – most cameras aren’t capable of simultaneously capturing details in areas of really dark shadow and really bright light. When you try to fix that in post, using HDR software, blending exposures, or selective editing, you can recover some detail but the images start to get an HDR look about them, which isn’t always desirable. Anything involving multiple exposures is also a huge challenge when it comes to action photography.

The more subtle problem you run into with mixed light has to do with color balance. All light has a color temperature (measured using the Kelvin scale). Areas of shadow and shade have a cooler temperature and appear more blue to the eye whereas areas with bright, natural sunlight look whiter, and some sources of light, such as sunlight early or late in the day, candlelight, campfires, and incandescent light bulbs have a warm, yellow/gold hue. So when photographing a mountain biker riding between areas of sunlight and shadow, you can get some really funky white balance issues. Additionally, some lenses produce artifacts known as chromatic aberration (CA) which appear as a colored fringe around high contrast edges. I see this often in shots of riders wearing a flashy kit or where tree branches appear against an open sky. This phenomenon appears more frequently in photos with high contrast and harsh light.

I sent a colleague of mine some quickly edited photos from the Broduro, including some color images and ones I converted to black and white. He asked “Why do the B&W look so much better?”

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The reason is because sometimes the color funkiness from shooting with multiple light sources is really hard to manage, and even when we can’t name what is wrong with the photo, it clearly doesn’t look right. Taking out the color altogether eliminates this subconscious confusion and makes the image easier to accept. My photos from the event also have a bit of noise, because the low natural light forced me to shoot wide open with a pretty high ISO in order to get enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Since we are used to seeing grain in traditional black and white photos, monochromatic luminance noise doesn’t bother us as much as noisy color images, whether we realize it or not. Similarly, we don’t mind black shadows and blown out highlights as much in black and white, because it mimics the look of contrasty film; and muddy whites and faded blacks also are less offensive than because they replicate an antique or aged look. Our tolerance for noise and contrast imperfections in black and white images is much higher because they look similar to what we have seen before in history books and old newspapers. Most of us see our world in color every day, so we expect a higher level of clarity, perfection, and realism from color photography.

Next time you end up with a file that has potential, but you find yourself struggling with harsh, uneven light or balancing the color of light from different light sources, try converting your photo to black and white. Sometimes it beats the effort required to otherwise salvage your photo.

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