If you want to make dramatic black and white photos then subjects with interesting texture are a good place to start.
To give you an example, here are two photos that I made recently.
Every week I walk past a metal container in a car park close to my house. One day I noticed that it had some interesting textures. So I returned with my camera to see if I could make some good images.
It’s an ordinary subject, but the photos show how you can get good results. The key was to use the white lettering on the side of the container.
There are three compositional ideas at work here:
- Texture: the metal has beautiful textures (enhanced in Lightroom Classic using Clarity).
- Tonal contrast: The white letters create contrast against the dark metal.
- Simplification: I moved in close to create a bold, graphic composition that uses the shapes of the letters and numbers.
Concentrating on those three elements (texture, tonal contrast and simplification) is a good way to get started making black and white photos as it gives you just three things to remember and think about. Here’s a photo I made that takes this idea just about as far as it can go.
Using texture in a subtle way
These are close up photos, but same idea also applies to landscapes and other photos with a wide view.
Here’s an example.
I was drawn to this scene by the juxtaposition of the beach huts with the grass in the foreground. These are the compositional elements that make the photo work.
- The beach huts have strong, geometric shapes. They contrast with the organic shapes of the grass.
- The textures of the grass contrast against the texture of the wooden huts. Both are natural materials, but the look and texture are different.
- The sky has some white clouds that adds interest to the composition.
Texture is still an important part of the composition, but it’s more subtle than the photos of the metal container.
Another technique you can use is to contrast textured elements against elements with very little texture.
Let me show you how it works with a couple of seascapes. I made the first (below) with a shutter speed of one second. It blurs the water, but there’s still plenty of texture.
In the second I used a shutter speed of 210 seconds to blur the sea completely. The result is that the rocks in the foreground (textured) contrast with the sea, which is smooth.
With subjects like water you can control texture using shutter speed. With scenes like this I recommend making photos with shorter shutter speeds (around one second) and longer ones (120 seconds plus). Afterwards you can compare the results to see which you prefer.
Textured subject, blurred background
Another way you can apply this idea is to make a photo of a textured subject against a smooth background. To get the best results you’ll need to use the widest aperture settings of your lenses. Setting the aperture to f2.8 is a good start. You can experiment with wider apertures if you have prime lenses. If you have a zoom, use the widest available aperture.
Here are a couple of examples. I made the first with the aperture set to f1.6, and the second with an aperture of f5. The second image shows that you don’t need a prime lens for this technique to work.
The technique is easier with close-up photography, as the amount of depth of field at any given focal length and aperture setting decreases when you get up close. I made both photos below with an aperture of f3.5.
Texture in post-processing
All post-processing applications have tools for enhancing texture. They key is to use them wisely. Anybody can go into Lightroom Classic and push the Texture and Clarity sliders all the way to the right. But do you need to do that?
A lot depends on how flat the light was when you made the photo. If you made the photo in soft light (on a cloudy day for example) then you’ll need more Clarity and Texture to bring out the textures.
Let’s take one of the first photos I showed you as an example. Here’s what it looked like out of the camera, with a straight black and white conversion. I’ve compared it side by side with the finished photo so you can see the difference.
The only changes I made to this photo were in the Basic panel. I set Clarity to +100 and added contrast with the Tone sliders. Those simple tweaks transformed the photo.
That approach is okay if your entire photo is sharp. But you need to be a bit smarter if part of it is out of focus. In this situation use local adjustments to add Clarity and / or Texture to the sharp part of the photo. Leave the blurred part alone to emphasize the difference in contrast.
Here’s the photo of the seascape from earlier, with and without local adjustments.
This screenshot shows the mask that I created with the Adjustment Brush.
Then I applied Clarity to bring out the texture.
I’ve only touched on post-production techniques here, but hopefully you can see that with a little bit of thought it’s possible to develop your photos to bring out the textures in your black and white photos.