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Most photographers have tried working in black and white at some point, often getting results which don’t match up to their expectations. If you love monochrome and want to learn how to improve your black and white photography then put these ideas into action. You’ll see a definite improvement in your results, no matter which genres you prefer to work in.
1. Forget about color and shoot only black and white
Back in the days of film photography black and white photographers had to learn to visualize how a scene would look in black and white. Today’s digital cameras make the task a lot easier. The key is to set your camera to its monochrome mode (some cameras have several of these to choose from) so that you see your photos in black and white when you play them back.
If your camera has an electronic viewfinder, even better – you’ll see the scene in black and white rather than color. This is a great help when it comes to composing in black and white and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
The idea here is to shoot black and white on purpose. Forget about color, and concentrate on creating compelling black and white photos instead.
If you’re looking for a creative exercise then try working in nothing but black and white for a month, using the rest of the ideas in this tutorial. Your eye for a black and white photo will get better.
2. Look for things that are interesting in black and white
This is a combination of subject (or genre) and compositional elements.
For example, certain subjects work well in monochrome. Examples that come to mind are landscapes, architecture, portraits, the nude, and street, travel and documentary photography. Working in these established genres helps you become better at using black and white.
Then you also need to look for the compositional elements that make black and white photos more interesting.
These include texture, tonality (more on that below), contrast, pattern, scale, shape and light.
You can learn more about these in our tutorial How to See in Black and White
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3. Adapt to the light
One of the problems that photographers struggle with is when the reality of a scene doesn’t meet their expectation.
For example, if you want to go out and take some landscape photos but the weather is cloudy or misty rather than the raking late afternoon sunshine you were hoping for.
Or you might be on location in a city or urban environment ready to take some street or travel photos but it’s raining.
These situations can be discouraging, but see if you can turn it around and make the conditions work for you.
The reason this works is because light is linked to mood and emotion.
Rainy, cloudy or foggy days have a different feel and mood to bright, sunny ones. Look for ways you can embrace the mood and use it to create emotive, moody photos.
For example, I made both photos below on rainy days in China. The rain on the ground, and the subtle reflections in the photo on the left, are integral parts of the composition. It creates atmosphere and helps set the mood of the photos.
Another situation where you might have to adapt is when you’re on location during the middle of a sunny day and the light is harder than you might otherwise wish.
In this case look for ways you can use the hard light to create interesting photos with shadow or strong geometric shapes.
These are techniques that work well in black and white, as the series below (made in Shanghai, China) show.
4. Consider the tonality
The tonality of the photo is important in black and white.
For example, a silhouette is a way of using limited tonality in an effective way.
Otherwise look for scenes containing a full range of tones from light to dark.
Another important element is tonal contrast. That’s the difference between light and dark tones in your photo. Put simply, a light tone next to a dark tone creates contrast and is an effective technique for composing black and white photos.
Here are two examples.
5. Look for active skies
Another way of making black and white photos more interesting, especially landscape photos, is to look for active skies.
An active sky is one where there is something interesting or dramatic happening in terms of cloud patterns and light.
This usually gives you a better result than a clear blue sky or a cloudy sky.
One of the reasons why active skies are so effective is because they don’t happen as often as we would hope for.
Therefore, if you see an active sky, or recognize weather conditions that are likely to create one, then that’s a good time to go out and shoot if possible.
Weather and light are inextricably linked, so this is another way of saying try and get out and shoot when the weather conditions are most likely to give you the type of light you’re looking for.
And if they don’t, remember to adapt to what you find!
6. Look for connection, expression and emotion
These ideas are a bit more advanced, so let me try and explain how it works.
For example, if you’re making a portrait of somebody then you’re looking for that moment when you make an emotional connection with your model. This is when you are most likely to get a powerful expression in your model’s face, like a moment of thoughtfulness, sadness, vulnerability or maybe even a kind of knowing look.
Or you might find you have a connection with a particular landscape or urban environment. Look for ways that you can photograph the things that appeal to you about that landscape. This will result in photos that are much more personal. In the case of landscape photography, this is a process of moving away from the grand Instagram worthy vista to vignettes that are more personal.
For example, a few years ago we had chance to explore some of the dry landscapes near Granada in southern Spain. In one particular place we were looking for dolmens that I had seen photos of. When we arrived, the dolmens were smaller and less spectacular than I thought. But I had much more success photographing a small canyon that we walked through to reach our target area. There was something about the light and rock structures that appealed to me personally. You can see the result below.