Make the Most of Hard Light with Black and White Photography

How to Make the Most of Hard Light with Black and White Photography

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Black & white photography

The quality of light is an important aspect of successful photography – good photographers spend hours chasing the most suitable light for the type of photography they do. That usually means working at the beginning or the end of the day, when the sun is low in the sky and the light has many beautiful qualities.

But what about the middle of the day? Many photographers avoid shooting in direct sunlight in this period, especially in summer, because the light is so hard and strong. You can’t use it for portraits (unless you use flash, which is the subject for another article) or find a place in the shade for your model. It’s nearly impossible to use it for landscapes, because they always look so much better in the softer light, characteristic of the the day’s end.

Perhaps the problem is not so much bad light, but a poor match of light to subject. So the question becomes, is there a subject that you can successfully shoot in strong, midday light? I believe there is. I like to use this part of the day for photographing a subject comprised of strong lines and graphic shapes – architecture.

Black & white photography

Two photos of the same structure (Monument to the People’s Heroes in Shanghai) taken moments apart. In both cases I was exploring the shape of the structure against the blue sky, shooting with a wide-angle lens from ground level looking up. The first image concentrates on shape and line. The second is more abstract. I used a polarizing filter to darken the sky, and photographed the sunlit monument against it for maximum tonal contrast.

This may seem a little strange because buildings are often best photographed during the golden hour, but there is no reason why you can’t shoot during the middle of the day as well. The only drawback is that colour photos of buildings taken at this time of the day, often with a deep blue sky in the background, are usually not very exciting.

But switch to black and white photography and it’s a different story. Without colour, and the strong distraction of a deep blue sky, the photographic possibilities change entirely. Suddenly you’re not looking at the colour of a scene. Instead you’re exploring line, shape, texture, form and shadow. Then, take those photos into Lightroom and there’s all kinds of wonderful, creative things you can do in post-processing to enhance the image.

Black & white photography

Details like this sculpture can work very well in midday light as the hard shadows suit the material it is constructed from. I enhanced the black and white version of this photo in Lightroom by using an Adjustment Brush to increase Clarity and Contrast on the metal surfaces in the image.

Learning to see in black and white takes time, but there are a couple of things you can do that will help.

The first is to shoot in your camera’s black and white mode, but with image quality set to Raw. When you play back your image on the camera’s LCD screen it is displayed in black and white, yet because you are using Raw you have the full colour file to work with in Lightroom or Photoshop.

You will probably find it useful to spend some time looking at your photos on the camera’s LCD screen during the shoot to see how the colour scene in front of you translates to monochrome. As you gain experience you will need to do this less and less, but it can be incredibly helpful the first few times you try.

If you have a camera with an electronic viewfinder, the camera displays the scene in black and white in the viewfinder. This is even more useful because you don’t have to visualize how the colours in the scene will convert to black and white. The camera does it for you and you can concentrate on creating beautiful compositions.

The second is to use a polarizing filter to turn the already blue sky an even darker shade of blue. This can look fantastic in black and white. If you enable the red filter setting in the camera’s black and white mode options it will make the blue sky darker yet, and it may even turn black. Position a sunlit, light-toned, building in front of that dark sky and you have some amazing tonal contrast and the basis for a dramatic black and white architectural study.

Black & white photography

It is easy to be seduced by colour, especially when presented by colour buildings such as these ones in Burano, Italy. This photo was taken around midday, but because the sun was overheard it cast a raking light over the front surface of the buildings, bringing out the textures in the wall. I increased Clarity in Lightroom to emphasize the texture in the black and white conversion.

I’ve concentrated on photographing buildings in this article, but I’d like to hear what other subjects you shoot during the middle of the day. Please let us know in the comments.

Black & white photography

This photo, also taken in Burano, is a study of the shape of the house against the deep blue sky (emphasized by a polarizing filter). The symmetry of the house is broken by the chimney on the left.


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • Keith Starkey

    I think it’s worth noting, too, that color takes a back seat to tonal differentiation for constructing a good back and white shot, particularly worthwhile in the middle of a sunny day. Man, when you can see strong contrast found in interesting shapes, be it a buiding, structure or what have you, the world is yours in Post with a conversion to black and white.

    Thanks for the article.

  • Michtou

    Black and white is often used as an easy “artistic” out for a poor photographer. It loses details. It can be done very well, but usually is not.

  • Michtou

    Black and white is often used as an easy “artistic” out for a poor photographer. It loses details. It can be done very well, but usually is not.

  • Pro Photographer

    Well that opinion is a blank statement that is also very wrong. I expect you said just to annoy photographers.

    Why you mad bro?

  • Michael Strah

    I have the opportunity to shoot a lot here in Mexico with very harsh mid-day light. Vehicles and also shadows on concrete and adobe turn out very interesting, along with the old hacienda type structures.

  • Really…..

  • Davide De Luca

    Thank you, Andrew.
    I used your suggestions in this blog post by starting from a color picture, and created this result: https://www.flickr.com/photos/13300587@N08/16793564781/

    Any comment?

    Cheers,
    Davide

  • Richard Keeling

    Attractive photos and good advice. I’ve come to enjoy midday shooting in sunlight and blue skies, usually with black and white film and an Orange G or Red 25 filter, but just as much fun can be had with digital images and post-processing filter effects.

  • Alda Sykes

    “If you’re photographing in colour, you show the colour of their clothes… If you use black and white, you will show the colour of their soul.”

    We love black and white precisely because it often does show more detail, and you’re not distracted by the colour. It’s not the easy way out by a long shot. Of course it has to be done correctly, like anything else. Converting to b&w will not change a bad photo into a good one.

  • Jethro Nolt

    I love the first picture at the top of this article. Does anybody know what the primary building is at the center of the photo?

  • alireiner

    Another important piece from a valuable site now I can shoot at all hours

  • Hi Jethro, I looked it up, found a few photos online that include it but nothing that says what building it is. So sorry, I don’t know. The photo was taken in Shanghai and the main building in the photo is near the Oriental Pearl Tower.

  • Hi Davide, nice photo, definitely a scene with a lot of potential. Did you try getting down low and looking up at the columns with a wide-angle lens for a different point of view?

  • There’s an interesting photo taken by Alex Webb in Mexico on this page. He used hard light very evocatively and took advantage of the limited exposure range of slide film to turn the shadows black.

    http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2011/10/why-would-a-digital-camera-have-a-bw-only-sensor.html

  • Davide De Luca

    Yes it could have been a really good idea, but unfortunately I wasn’t with my wide-angle lens at the moment 🙁 I was just with my 75-300 and I was able to take just architectonic details of the building.

    But I’ll go back there soon, and then I will use this hint that time. Thank you about it 🙂

    Cheers,
    Davide

  • Ron Olivier

    A bad photo is a bad photo, and converting it to black and white usually won’t make it better or more interesting. On the other hand, some photos just beg to be in black and white, not because they fail as color shots, but because b&w just brings out a more dramatic feel.

  • Francis koo

    I will shoot digital IR camera (820nm) during the middle of the day.

  • Dominic Bolaa
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