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If you’ve never tried black and white photography before, you may be wondering what the appeal is. After all, 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, definitely not. 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) and a bright future.
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. Many of the color photos we see on a day to day basis are mediocre and simply don’t catch our eye.
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 to do so. 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.
What you’ll learn in this course
In this mini-course I’d like to share some of my passion for black and white photography with you, and help release your creativity by teaching you how to create beautiful black and white photos in Lightroom Classic.
Join our 5 Steps to Better B&W Photography free email course!
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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 five interviews I’ve carried out with photographers who work predominantly in black and white (the links take you to my old website).
I’ve chosen these interviews specifically to show you an eclectic selection of work that includes timeless subjects such as portraiture, the landscape and the nude.
Look through the work of some of these photographers, taking a few moments to consider the way that they use light, composition and tone. Don’t worry if these terms don’t mean much to you yet, we will cover them in detail in subsequent lessons.
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 gain an appreciation of black and white photography, and the skills and creative vision of photographers who choose to work in monochrome.
Interviews with black and white photographers
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the first lesson in our mini-course about black and white photography. In the next, you’ll learn more about the factors that go into making great monochrome images, and how to tell which of your photos will look good when converted to black and white.