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Dive Photo Guide

Black and White Underwater Photography

By Jason Bradley

Black and white (B&W) photography always seems to have an interesting mystique surrounding it.  Although good black and white photography is often of simple subjects and compositions, it’s usually reserved for those turtleneck wearing, chardonnay sipping, fine art types.  Well I convert a lot of images to black and white, which I think look okay, and I drink more beer than chardonnay.  So you can do it, too.

Black and White underwater photograph


There are many benefits to digital technology and it has made a lot of underwater photographers happy.  Today, we digital divers aren’t limited to 36 frames per dive.  We can proof our images immediately while underwater.  We don’t have to wait for our E-6 processing to come back from the lab, and we can decide on the final look of our image after the actual shoot. Creating black and white photos is one of the big benefits of digital.

If your hair is gray, or starting to gray like mine, you may remember the wall-o-film.  Some photo stores still have them, but they are nothing like they were five, ten, or fifteen years ago.   I remember going into my neighborhood photo shop and seeing that wall behind the counter with dozens and dozens of film types.  There was black and white film, color film, slide film, tungsten film, fast or slow film, Polaroid film, neutral tone film, film with brilliant color, and the list goes on and on. During this time photographers had to decide on a color palette and general look of their image as they bought their film and far before putting on their first fin or snorkel.  Consequently, once a film shooter was on their dive, they were locked into that look, that color, or that grayscale.   Today’s underwater digital photographer gets to be more spontaneous and decide later if they want color or black and white, or even other looks.  Accordingly, and in my humble opinion, our ability to settle on a look in postproduction is the biggest and most misunderstood benefit that has emerged from this technology.   If you like high saturated Kodachrome or Velvia-like color, create it in post.  If you want to make images black and white or sepia tone and add grain to your photo to create and antiquated look, do it in post.


So, for those of you who have been content thus far with your ability to come back from your dive in one piece and with some properly exposed images, let me encourage you to branch out.  Despite what your puritanical film-shooting friend is telling you, to use Photoshop is NOT cheating.  This is where digital has a leg up on film.  

Let’s go over how to convert to black and white, which will hopefully make you a hit at your local chardonnay and arugula-serving fine art parties.

Finding the Right Image

I think some images simply look better in B&W.  The reasons are complex and a bit subjective, but I think there are some basic principles we can follow.  Take this image of a solitary sea lion as an example.  I was actually going to throw this away.  I had a certain kind of sea lion shot in mind during this shoot, and this shot was not it. But before hitting the delete key, I converted it to B&W and was pleased with the results.  Looking back, it is clear why I didn’t like the color version.  The color is dull, it has no warmth and it has no contrasting color, which is often useful to separate subjects and background or other elements of a composition.
Underwater Photograph of a Sea Lion converted to Black and White



With that said, and by analyzing other parts of this image, we can start to get an idea as to what works when choosing an image to convert to B&W.  Here are some criteria for choosing:




  1. Images with ambient light only.  Wide angle works a bit better, but this doesn’t mean strobe-filled photos are bad
  2. Simple compositions with a minimal amount of elements.  This sea lion image has two, the sea lion and the background
  3. Serene compositions that emphasize a clean negative space and where a subject is clearly identified.  In the image with the sea lion, the negative space is the background water
  4. B&W photos emphasize shapes, textures, patterns, structures, and tonality.  Look for images with these elements.



Ultimately, art is subjective, and the best way for you to start figuring out what images are going to convert best from your collection is to get your feet wet.  Start playing with your images in post production and spend time with them.  Convert them to B&W, and then bring them back.  Play with the contrast, brightness, and tonalities throughout your images and you will discover what works and what doesn’t work with your photo style, but the criteria laid out here is a great place to start.

How to Convert Your Images

There are many ways to convert images to B&W.  There are a dozen methods in Photoshop alone and there are all sorts of Photoshop plug-ins and 3rd party programs. Depending on what tipster you talk to, their method is the right one.  So again, where do we start?  

I suggest starting with a RAW workflow—like in color photography.  Although most cameras have a B&W mode, you’ll ultimately have more control shooting in RAW and doing your adjustments in post production.  When converting images with a RAW converter, the adjustments you make are “non-destructive.”  To use simple English, by using a RAW converter like Lightroom or Photoshop’s ACR (Adobe Camera RAW), you can do a whole series of changes without compromising the integrity of the file.  Each time you change the color or contrast to a JPEG opened up in Photoshop, you are degrading the underlying quality of that image.  Since this is not the case with RAW images first edited in a RAW converter, your net result is a better quality file.  I suggest using Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) for your B&W conversions, which is the same RAW converting engine found in Lightroom, and it’s the method of choice for most pros.  Additionally, you can perform simple tonal adjustments to your B&W images before actually opening them in Photoshop.  Here are the basic steps to follow in ACR.

Step One:

  1. Open a RAW file in Photoshop, and it will automatically open in ACR.
  2. Select the HSL/Grayscale tab
  3. Check the box to Convert To Grayscale
  4. Select Auto to have Photoshop control your adjustments or select Default to adjust tones manually



underwater photograph grayscale conversion

Step Two:

  1. Adjust the image’s tones by adjusting the color sliders
  2. Or, select the Targeted Adjustment Tool (TAT) and your cursor will change to a crosshair.  Grab a tone of the image you want to change and as you move the mouse the TAT tool will move the sliders up and down for you

Photoshop RAW grayscale conversion of Underwater Photograph

Image Toning

Split Toned Image of Manatee

Split toning is an effective way to either sepia tone or cool tone images.  You can also do this non-destructively.  Here are the steps:
  1. Select the split toning tab
  2. Slide the Saturation to about 20 as a starting point so you can see the color changes you are about to make
  3. For sepia toning, slide the Hue to a numerical value between 25 and 35 in both Highlights and Shadows until you get the desired effect.
  4. To dial in the final result, slide the Saturation up or down to emphasize or deemphasize the color effect
  5. Slide Balance left or right to accentuate these tonal changes in the highlights or the shadows—if it needs it.  Usually sliding toward the shadows is the way to go.
  6. To cool tone, do the same as above, but adjust the Hue to a numerical value between 210 and 230
Sepia underwater photograph

Beyond this, we can spend hours, days, or weeks talking about B&W as it’s a subject that’s almost as big as photography itself. Digital imaging has opened up so many doors for underwater photographers, and black and white shouldn’t be left to the chardonnay sippers or the museum curators.  As I mentioned, B&W is a great format for highlighting patterns, textures, shapes, and tonalities in the aquatic world, which is a stage that has no shortage of these elements.

If you want to learn more about postproduction, read DivePhotoGuide.com’s Mastering Digital Workflow & Editing, or look me up at www.BradleyPhotographic.com.  Admittedly, I like geeking out on this digital stuff more than I probably should, and I also teach workshops on digital workflow, Lightroom, and Photoshop for nature and underwater photographers
Jason Bradley black and white underwater photograph


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