Black and white photography will never go out of style. Its timeless elegance and sophistication cannot be equaled by color photography. However, when color came on stage, black and white was almost forgotten. The new burst of colors that came after a long period of restrictions and limitations allowed photographers to experiment and discover a whole new dimension of creativity.
Today, it seems that black and white photography is making its way back and people are beginning to rediscover the intrinsic beauty and vigor of black and white compositions. This article gives you a glimpse into the beauty and candor that can be achieved through black and white, once you begin training the eye to see the world as an endless stream of grays.
Seeing the world in black and white
Shooting in black and white can have a tremendous influence on the message you’re trying to convey. In some cases, capturing a scene in black and white can add depth by revealing something that’s hidden behind colors. This shouldn’t be seen as a loss of details or detachment from reality (as perceived by the eyes), but more like an exchange, where colors are traded for magic and mystery.
Choosing your subjects can be tough, because some of them might seem more interesting in color than in black and white, and sometimes you may cross the line from fascinating to boring without even realizing it. But, often, an apparently simple scene or a portrait can turn out to be more dramatic in black and white.
When shooting landscapes in black and white, the composition becomes your primary weapon. Make the most of your foreground and include leading lines, shapes, and forms wherever possible. Fog and mist, for example, can lower the contrast and create a soft, dreamy feel to an image. When it’s misty or foggy outside, nature is transformed into a monochrome universe filled with interesting tones and an eerie dream world.
Bear in mind that elements that are closer to the camera tend to show heavier tones than objects that are further away, so think about that when composing your shot. Here are two such examples.
Shooting on overcast days
Overcast days give you plenty of opportunities for taking amazing landscape shots: the focus shifts from the bright sky to the unique forms and patterns created by the clouds. In black and white, the washed out sky is easier to ignore, and dramatic effects are achieved instead. Also, shapes and forms created by nature are easier to use as elements of compositions.
The raw material for black and white photos is light and shadow, so use them creatively. Notice how people, objects, trees, and buildings create exciting shadows and effects.
For example, try shooting a scene at different times of the day and notice how light and shadow affects the mood and creates different areas of interest. Also, experiment with light intensity. For example, photograph a tree on a foggy day, and later, capture the same tree on a sunny day.
Create drama with high contrast
Black and white photography allows you to play around with tonal contrast to create some very interesting shots. Whether it’s a low- or high-key image, increased contrast can have a huge effect on the mood and atmosphere of your composition.
A high-key photo is intensely bright and composed mainly of highlight tones. To create a high-key image, look for naturally light subjects, but make sure that your camera meter doesn’t turn your bright areas into soft gray (it’s best to set at least +1 stop Exposure Compensation).
Here is a good example of a high-key image.
Conversely, you can create some very intriguing low-key images, which are usually dark, including a range of either dark or totally black areas with scattered highlights to achieve photos with high contrast. You can create beautiful low-key images with just one, direct light source in the room with no other available light source.
This high-key and low-key technique is best fitted for black and white photography, especially with portraiture and still-life, which give you some of the easiest and most interesting subjects.
Look for shapes and forms
Since you can’t rely on color to pull the eye toward your subject, you must learn to find shapes, tones, and textures and use them to create emotion and curiosity. Include all kinds of forms that create lines, such as curved, straight, or angled. Well-defined straight lines can also have a great impact in black and white photos.
To be able to highlight an object’s shape and form, you need to have some degree of tonal variation between the subject and the background. Focusing entirely on a silhouette is a great way to achieve this.
Knowing how form and shape can create a story is very useful in black and white photography. As you can see in the image below, the author clearly understood this concept and highlighted the round shapes and wood pattern in the background, creating a wonderful composition.
Look for patterns and textures
Continuing with the concept of shapes and forms, keep an eye out for recurring patterns and textures. Make it a habit to look really look every time you get out of the house. Watch the architecture and public structures for some unique challenges.
Texture adds interest and clarity to black and white photos. For example, the image of a textured wall will certainly look more interesting than a smooth wall, or black and white pavement will look more dramatic than a straight road.
Patterns are appealing because of their unique repetition. Color sometimes distracts the eye from noticing them, but black and white turns images of patterns into far more exciting compositions.
Once you begin to search for patterns, you’ll see them everywhere: roofs, foliage, cars in a parking space, the shoes in a store, rows of bushes, balconies, and more. You may want to use a telephoto lens to capture the elements from a distance and choose one plane in particular.
Make sure to eliminate camera shake by using a shutter speed that’s equal to the focal length. Also, consider using a tripod to help you shoot with longer shutter speeds. Many objects and surfaces have remarkable textures and patterns that make great subjects for black and white, but without proper harsh, angled light, they can go unnoticed.
Black and white filters
Black and white filters give you a better control over how colors are turned into shades of gray. Use them to get the best contrast and mood in your shots. Colored filters can lighten their own color, while dimming their opposites. Yellow or green filters work well for skin tones, whereas red can turn a blue sky into a nearly black area and cut through the haze in a landscape scene.
Polarizing filters also work well in black and white, due to their ability to cut glare and saturate the sky. Another useful filter is the neutral density (ND) filter; it helps you to use extended shutter speeds in bright daylight and gain more control when photographing waterfalls, for example, while also giving you more creative room in post-production.
The easiest way to create black and white photos is to shoot directly in monochrome. In addition to default settings like contrast and sharpness, experiment with different colored effects. Many camera models provide a wealth of funky color effects—use sepia for a vintage mood, or blue to add a cool feel to an architectural view.
The perfect picture
Here is an example of a perfect black and white photo.
Polish photographer Marcin Ryczeck took this amazing photo of swans at a Krakow riverbank. The composition is perfectly balanced, in both tones and elements: the artist managed to put together snow and water, man and birds, all into one perfectly balanced composition.
Black and white photos are a great choice when color does not enrich your subject. For example, autumn landscapes are a classic example of how colors can paint a whole story. But portraits often look more vibrant in black and white, because, without disruptive colors, the weight falls on expression and personality, thus revealing the depths of the subject.
As the great Canadian photographer Ted Grant said, “When you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”
Choosing between black and white and color often means expressing yourself either metaphorically or in a more natural way. Often, a portrait or a landscape full of contrasts or effects is better captured in black and white. The emotions are stronger, and the impact is more vigorous and often more dramatic. In other cases, a black and white photo of butterflies, parrots, flowers, and other colorful subjects may be less striking and flat.
In a black and white photo, you can easily infuse feelings and symbols. The choice is yours: illustration or interpretation? What do you want to accomplish? “Real” or “abstract” compositions? Oftentimes, black and white photography tends to add a spiritual meaning to the subject, a sense of depth that aims to purify an artistic expression based on the belief that essence can be achieved by confining the means of execution.
The more you train the mind to “see” in black and white, the better your compositions will be. There’s no substitute for hard work, so get out there and practice your skills.