How To Appreciate Black And White Photography

How To Appreciate Black And White Photography

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If you’ve never tried black and white photography before, you may be wondering what the appeal is. Isn’t it a little like black and white television or silent movies – an anachronism in our modern, high-tech age?

The answer is no. In the photography world, black and white is considered an art form. Some would even say only the best photographers work in monochrome. It’s a medium with a rich history (look at the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston or Henri Cartier-Bresson for examples), but contemporary photographers use it as well (check out the work of Andy Gotts or Alan Schaller if you need convincing).

The appeal of black and white photography

Part of the appeal of black and white is that it gives the viewer a different view of the world. Color photography is very literal – it depicts the world as it really is. Most of the color photos we see are mediocre record shots with unremarkable composition or lighting.

Color is also a distraction. It pulls attention away from the visual building blocks of great photos like texture, tonal contrast, shape, form and lighting.

Black and white gives us a new way of seeing. When you eliminate color the photo becomes an artistic interpretation. From an artistic viewpoint; color is often seen as depicting reality, black and white is seen as an interpretation of reality, and is immediately received differently by the viewer.

But the real answer goes deeper than that. Black and white photography, at its best, is beautiful. It takes us into a world full of passion and wonder. Black and white photography is art. Black and white is a way to capture the beauty and soul of your subject, and record it in a photo that is also beautiful and has soul.

Black and white and composition

Just as importantly, working in black and white can help you become a better photographer. How? It’s all to do with composition.

Color is very powerful, and tends to dominate the photo so much that it’s difficult to see other elements like tonal contrast, texture, shape, form and quality of light.

Experienced photographers instinctively see these things, regardless of whether they work predominantly in color or black and white. But if you’re just starting out, you may need some assistance. Working in black and white photography will help.

For example, is it easier to see the tonal contrast (the contrast between the model’s skin and the dark background) in the black and white version of this portrait.

black and white portrait

Black and white and creativity

You get the best black and white photos when you decide to work in black and white. Part of that process is looking for compositional elements that look good in black and white (like those mentioned above). It helps to set a monochrome color profile on your camera so you can see the result in black and white when you play back your photos. Mirrorless cameras give you a black a white image in the viewfinder, truly immersing you in monochrome.

A magical part of this process is that it encourages you to think creatively. It’s as if working in the semi-abstract medium of black and white engages a different part of your brain. It’s a process that lends itself to better, more thoughtful photography. It results in stronger compositions and ultimately, better photos.

Appreciating black and white photography

Learning black and white photography starts with familiarizing yourself and enjoying the work of photographers that have already mastered the art of the monochrome image.

To help you out here are a couple of interviews I’ve carried out with photographers who work predominantly in black and white.

Shadow and Light: An Interview with Portrait Photographer Betina La Plante

Ballerinas by Eduardo

Black and white portrait

Practical exercise

Look through the work of some of these photographers, taking a few moments to consider the way that they use light, composition and tone.

One of these photographers (Eduardo Izq) works in both black and white and color. Look at both and see if you can figure out why he chose to shoot some in color, and others in black and white.

This exercise will help you appreciate black and white photography, and the skills and creative vision of photographers who choose to work in monochrome.

Getting started in black and white

There are certain subjects that tend to work better than others in black and white; two in particular are landscapes and portraits. If this is your first time shooting in black and white, then these are great subjects to try out.

I’d also like to give you some good reasons for working in mono with these subjects (or any subject for that matter). If you think about these when you are making photos then it will help you understand why you are using black and white.

1. To evoke atmosphere

Color photos can be tremendously evocative, but so can black and white ones. I think it’s because a mono image leaves something for the imagination, or perhaps because we associate it with photos taken in the past.

With portraits, a good tip for creating mood is to use a wide aperture to blur the background. The idea is to render the background out of focus but recognizable, so the viewer can use his imagination to fill in the missing detail.

Black and white documentary portrait

With landscapes, you can work in cloudy conditions that would result in unremarkable photos in color, but add lots of mood in black and white.

Black and white landscape

2. To simplify the composition

Black and white is a form of simplification. Skilled photographers learn to create images that are uncluttered, maybe even minimalist. This is often easier when you work in black and white.

For example, let’s say you make a portrait of somebody, but there is a red poster on a wall behind them. In a color photo, that’s likely to be very distracting. But convert it to black and white and the distraction goes away. The viewer’s attention goes back to the person, where it belongs.

The landscape photo above has quite a simple composition. But I wanted to make it even simpler, which I did by finding a point of view that excluded the cliffs in the background. This is the result.

Black and white landscape photo

3. To capture character

If your aim is to make a portrait that captures something of the model’s character or soul, then black and white is an excellent choice. There is something timeless about black and white that helps reveal character.

Here are two portraits that capture the personality of the models.

Black and white portraits

The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments ebookThe Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments ebook

Perfect your black and white photography skills with my ebook The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments. It’s like a photography workshop in your pocket, filled with a year’s worth of creative briefs, ideas, challenges, assignments and projects that will help you grow as a black and white photographer.

100 Composition Assignments

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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