Ever dreamed of making evocative greyscale images reminiscent of the pictures that might have been produced in the early Twentieth Century?! Curious about how to make something evocative and dramatic from a monochromatic photograph? Then read on!
Black and White Photography is the art of creating an image from varying tones of grey, from dark (almost black) to bright white! Because almost all digital cameras record in colour, black & white is sometimes considered a technique, or style. Though prior to the 1950’s black and white was the only practical type of photography available. I guess in those days it was just called “Photography” rather than “Black and White Photography”. I’m a huge fan of Black & White photography! The majority of my photographs are made on black and white film and printed in a darkroom! Let me try to explain why I think it’s such a wonderful way to make pictures and how to go about it!
Firstly, now that cameras have been able to easily record colour for the last 70 years or so, why would anybody want to shoot black and white pictures?
Stripping colour from an image adds an element of abstraction, and that can make for a more visually interesting picture! Colour can distract and when it is removed, we are more likely to keep the viewers attention on the subject. Colour photography can be incredibly difficult to execute to a high standard! In some ways black and white is easier to shoot, forcing us to focus (excuse the pun) on the basics of image making such as light, composition, focus, depth of field etc.
Shooting Black and White can open up a greater range of photographic opportunities. Most of you have probably heard the sage advice that the best time to make photographs is in the golden hours, one hour before sunset or one hour after sunrise, as well as dusk and dawn. Whilst that is true for all formats of photography, compelling Black and White images can also be made during harsh midday light, because monochrome images welcome high contrast! The cover image for this post was shot on a very sunny morning! Dreary, overcast days? No problem! Black and White renders those gloomy clouds in a gorgeous range of tones!
Another reason why you may want to shoot B&W is because it often tells a story more objectively, where colour imagery works on an emotional level. I think it's no surprise that many documentary photographers choose to continue working in B&W long after colour was available. A good example of this is Sebastião Salgado! For those who enjoy studying photographers (which is something I highly recommend!), Salgado's book Genesis is a tour de force on high quality, black and white documentary photography! Do a Google Image search for, "Sabastião Salgado Genesis", to see what I mean!
So if you have read this far, you might be sold on the idea that Black and White is worth a try!? Great! Let's talk about how to set up the camera.
Most digital cameras allow the option of shooting Black and White jpeg's and this is where I would start. Buy choosing to set up your camera in B&W jpeg mode you're committing to making monochrome images. Some digital cameras may offer multiple black and white options, such as Fujifilm that offers both normal B&W mode as well as Acros, and in both cases with either Normal, Red, Yellow or Green filter effects. Filtration is important in Black & White photography but for now we just want to get started with the basics. So set your camera up in the most basic black and white mode it has.
If you're using an iPhone make sure to select monochrome mode before you start shooting and you're good to go!
For the analogue nuts out there shooting film, I'd recommend starting with a medium speed, traditional grained B&W film such as Ilford HP5, or Kodak Tri-X, both of them are ISO 400 speed films and will give you great results in an incredibly broad range of conditions.
Once you're all set to go shooting, it will be valuable to keep the following in mind. Strong Black and White photography often has some or all of the following elements. Shape, Tone, Texture and most importantly, a clear subject! Whilst shape is an obvious element, it often works best by including tonality, or texture. These features give the eye something to latch on to and follow. Tonality is best achieved through including elements with varying degrees of light on them. Curved glass and steel also render tones in a very beautiful way! Timber, bricks, stones, sand and snow are all excellent sources of texture, these surfaces may look especially good if they're side lit! Think of sunlight for example, raking the front of a stone facade. In Black and White, such elements will sing!
Portraits are another excellent starting point! Ted Grant, a Canadian photojournalist had this to say about portraits in black and white:
“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”
When making portraits in colour, you will frequently notice the clothing the person is wearing before you pay attention to their expressions, gestures and moments. But take away the colour and you're left with genuinely human traits.
Keep exposure in mind too. Ansel Adams introduced the zone system to the World, he believed that every tone from black (Zone 0) to bright white (Zone 10) should be represented in the image. The Zone system is beyond the scope of this article but by having a good histogram that has coverage from the black point all the way to the highlights close to the white point, you can get very close to a full range of tones.
Whilst we are on the topic of exposure, I think it is also worth mentioning the importance of where the light and dark tones fall on the image. Our eyes are generally attracted to the brightest part of the image firsts, so in most cases having your subject be the lightest tones in the photograph will go a long way to improving the strength of the image. Though, like all guide lines in photography, there are exceptions. Imagine for example silhouettes of kids playing on a beach. A particularly energetic scene, in these situations our eye also moves around the dark figures in an energetic fashion!
Black and white is such broad topic, with so many facets to consider. We have only scratched the surface with this article. But I hope it has excited you enough to go out there and give it a try!