It’s easy to see why photographers work in color. It’s powerful and evocative and helps you capture mood and atmosphere.
Plus digital technology means that it’s much easier to produce good quality color photos than it ever was with chemistry based photography.
So you may be wondering why some photographers are so prolific in black and white.
The answer is partly that black and white photography is beautiful. It’s an expressive and timeless way of capturing the character of the places we see and the people we meet.
It also improves your seeing and compositional skills. Working in black and white makes you a better photographer.
Let’s explore some of these ideas in more depth.
1. Black and white gives you a different way of seeing
Your photos are no longer about the colors in the scene or dependent on the color of the light. Instead you’re looking at texture, shape, line, light and shadow.
It requires a different mindset. There’s nowhere to hide. If your photos aren’t well composed, they fail. Working in black and white helps you appreciate the importance of composition in photography.
Let me give you an example. What do you see in the above photo? At first glance, it’s a photo of an old building. But look closely and you start to see more.
You might notice the way the human figures give the scene scale.
Or the patina of the textures on the ancient walls.
Or the way the light picks out the form of the square towers.
All these things are easier to see in black and white, without the distraction of color. You can look at the scene and see tones, contrast, light, shadow and texture rather than color. This is what I mean by a different way of seeing.
2. Black and white helps you with composition
Good black and white photos use the basic building blocks of composition. These include texture, line, shape, pattern, form, placement and negative space.
Learning to base your composition on these elements, not color, helps you create stronger images.
Many years ago I read an interview with American landscape photographer David Muench. He works in color. But in the interview he described his style as working in black and white with a layer of color on top. You can convert any of his photos to black and white and they’d work just as well.
Let’s see how this works. Here’s a photo I made in northern Spain a few years ago. It works in color. The subtle shades of blue, gray and green capture the mood of a cloudy summer evening.
But it works as well, if not better in black and white.
That’s because it’s a well composed photo that uses texture, foreground interest and aerial perspective to create mood and depth.
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3. Black and white lets you shoot in more types of light
Color and light go together. Photographers make the best color photos when the light is beautiful. That means working in the golden hour, or during dusk.
Using black and white extends the hours in which you can shoot. The emphasis is on the composition, not the color and quality of light.
Light is still important, but if you find the right subject you can shoot in harder light.
This is something I was aware of when I was in the south of Spain. Even in the winter on a sunny day the light was hard and uninteresting for color photography. But it was great for making black and white photos that used light and shadow with bold, graphic compositions.
4. Black and white gets you thinking like a fine art photographer
I took up photography as a hobby in 1990. I soon became attracted to the idea of black and white photography because I liked the idea of creating prints in a darkroom.
A good quality print is a piece of art. You can hang it on a wall, give it to a friend or sell it to somebody.
Digital photography is a great advance and I’d never return to a chemical darkroom. But an idea that has got lost is that of using photography to create a tangible object like a print.
It’s much easier to create a good quality color or black and white print with a decent digital camera, Lightroom Classic and a good inkjet printer than it ever was in a darkroom.
You can also make good quality photo books using services like Blurb, something that’s only been possible for a couple of decades (Blurb was launched in 2006).
Working in black and white encourages you to think with a fine art photographer’s mindset. Making objects, like prints or photo books, is part of that process.
5. Black and white improves your developing skills
Regardless of which software you prefer to use to develop your photos, working in black and white requires learning new skills. It encourages you to experiment with plugins like Silver Efex Pro, DxO FilmPack and Exposure. Any new developing skills are a beneficial addition to your skill set.
The next time you have a few spare hours on your hands try going back over old photos that you have developed in color and looking at them with a new eye.
Pick the ones that would work well in black and white, and convert them to monochrome. Try a plugin (download the trial if you don’t own it).
You can also look for themes and subjects that work together in black and white. For example, here is a set of photos of old cars. I made them in different countries and never thought of bringing them together until I developed them in black and white.
I hope the ideas in this tutorial encourage you to give black and white a try, especially if you have never tried it before.
You can learn more about black and white photography with my latest ebook The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments. Don’t forget you can buy it today for just $10 (the price goes up to $14 on July 1).