Mastering the Art of Black and White Photography

In the early days of photography, photographers had no choice but to shoot in black and white, as it was the only available medium. Then, in 1936, the invention of kodachrome gave colour photography to the world. But black and white photography didn’t die off, instead it flourished. Modern black and white photography at it’s best is art, and many photographers regard it as the purest form of photography.

So why does black and white photography command such acclaim? One reason is that colour is a distraction. It takes attention away from the visual building blocks of a great photo; texture, tonal contrast, shape, form and lighting. A photographer shooting in black and white has to learn how to use all these elements to create a memorable image.

Another reason is that color photography, much of it mediocre, is so abundant that black and white makes a refreshing change.

From an artistic viewpoint; color depicts reality. Black and white is an interpretation of reality.

1. Learning to See in Mono

The key to successful black and white photography is learning to see the world in monochrome. It’s important to understand that not all subjects are suitable for black and white. There are certain types of photo that rely on colour for impact. Think of Steve McCurry’s famous Afghan Girl portrait, for example. The rich colours are an intrinsic part of the image’s power.

The successful black and photographer recognizes this, and searches out subject matter that looks better in black and white.

As you’re evaluating your subject, try and imagine how it will look in black and white. Pre-visualise the result after you’ve post-processed (or developed and printed if you use film) the image using your favourite techniques, such as adding textures and toning. With practice, your vision will become very accurate.

A good tip for digital SLR users is to shoot in the RAW format (which you should do for the best quality colour to black and white conversions anyway) but set the Picture Style (this is Canon’s term – check your instruction manual if you have another brand of camera) to a black and white mode. The photo will be displayed in black and white on the camera’s LCD screen, and you’ll have all the colour information in the RAW file for your conversion afterwards.

To help you learn to see in black and white, we’ve included both colour and black and white photos in all our examples.

2. Texture

Imagine the wall of an old building, or rusty metal, or weathered wood. Anything old normally has lots of texture, and textures look great in black and white.

Texture is affected by the lighting conditions. Low raking light, typical of the golden hour of light near sunrise and sunset, makes texture stand out sharply. The soft light of an overcast day can also bring out texture, though it may need some help in post processing by techniques such as increasing contrast.

The worse light for photographing texture is harsh midday light. The flatness of this type of light hides texture.

This photo of a statue has beautiful texture. The light was very soft, so I increased the contrast using the curves tool in Photoshop CS to bring out the texture.

Fig. 2

3. Tonal Contrast

We’re used to seeing in colour. When colours are converted to black and white, they become shades of grey. Light colours become highlights, and dark colours become dark tones. The differences between these shades is called tonal contrast.

Black and white photographers utilise tonal contrast to make good photos.

The photo above, another doorway in northwest Argentina, uses tonal contrast to create a dramatic scene. The light tones of the door frame and the paintings have created an impressive image.

Fig. 3

4. Shape and Form

Shape and form are two very important visual elements. Every object has both shape and form. Shape is how the subject looks in two dimensions. A silhouette, like this photo of tree branches, is an example of shape in a photo.

Fig. 4

Form is how the subject looks in three dimensions. Photos are two dimensional, and like painters, photographers have the challenge of depicting three dimensional objects (their subjects) in a two dimensional form (the photo).

Black and white draws attention to the shadows and flowing lines that depict form. Use lighting to make your subject look three dimensional. Side lighting reveals form by casting shadows. Front and backlighting obscure it.

Fig. 5

The form of the body of the old car in this photo is revealed by the shadows and the reflections on the metal bodywork.

5. Lighting

The word photography derives from the ancient Greek for ‘painting with light’. Photography is light, and the quality of the light determines the quality of the photo.

Black and white gives the photographer freedom to take photos in all sorts of lighting conditions. The best light is still created by the sun when it’s low in the sky. But with black and white you can also take photos during the middle of the day and on overcast days, which are difficult lighting conditions for colour photography.

The secret is to make sure the light suits the subject. Midday light, for example, can be great for architecture but poor for portraiture. An overcast day is ideal for taking portraits, but poor for landscapes.

Fig. 6

This portrait was taken at the end of an overcast day. The soft light is very flattering.

6. Subjects for Black and White Photography

There are certain subjects that are ideal for black and white photography:

Portraiture

Without colour, attention is focused on the eyes and face, and the textures of the subject’s clothes. Sepia toned photos, such as the one below, are very flattering and often used by commercial portrait studios.

Fig. 7

Elderly people, with wrinkled and time worn skin, are wonderful subjects for black and white. The above photo is of an elderly indigenous lady in Bolivia. Her weathered skin and hat, modelled on the style of helmets worn by the Spanish conquerors, make an evocative and timeless portrait.

Fig. 8

Both of these portraits were taken outside on cloudy days. This type of light is very flattering for portraits. Direct sunlight creates harsh, ugly shadows across the face, and should be avoided.

Landscapes

Black and white is a very effective medium for landscape photography. It draws attention to the shapes and forms of the components within the landscape, and the quality of light.

Fig. 9

This photo, taken on the Bolivian altiplano, is reduced to a series of shapes and blocks of light and dark tones in black and white.

Architecture

Our towns and cities are full of modern architecture constructed from metal and glass. Look for the shapes these buildings make against the sky.

Fig. 10

Old buildings have beautiful weathered surfaces full of texture. Ancient castles, cathedrals and churches also make great subjects. The photo above was taken in Oxford, England. The university’s ‘dreaming spires’ reach into the sky.

Travel and Street Photography

Travel photography is about capturing the memory and emotion of a place that you’ve visited. Black and white photos have a timelessness that is suitable for travel. This photo, taken a few years ago in Argentina, could nearly have been taken a hundred years ago.

Fig. 11

Still Life

Black and white works well for all sorts of still lifes. Without colour, the emphasis is on the shapes and forms of the subject, and the quality of the lighting.

Fig. 12

I photographed these ornaments in a church in Guatemala. Black and white emphasises the shapes of their wings and the textures of the background.

Nudes

Nudes are recognised as one of the oldest subjects for artists and photographers. Black and white nudes are timeless, and by removing colour, help elevate the subject matter from something that is potentially smutty by treating the naked body as an art form.

 

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