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Black and white photography has been around for nearly 180 years, ever since Louis Daguerre introduced the daguerreotype process to the world. It is still hugely popular despite the rise and ease of color photography. And yet, whenever I look at other people’s black and white photos, I see the same mistakes over and over. Are you making any of these? Let’s find out!
Ouch! This is a big one. It’s the single worse thing you could do.
To understand why, you need to appreciate the difference between Raw files and JPEGs. Raw files contain all the information captured by your camera’s sensor. A Raw file is not a finished picture file. It has to be processed (using software like Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw) and converted to a JPEG or TIFF file in order to be usable.
You can think of a Raw file as the equivalent of a negative (as in from film photography). You can’t send a Raw file to a photo library or a magazine any more than you could send a negative. You need to process the Raw file (or scan and process the negative) first.
JPEG files are created by the camera. It takes the information captured by the sensor, processes it (much like you would do with a Raw file in Lightroom, but according to the camera’s built-in parameters), compresses it, discards the unused information, and saves it as JPEG. They don’t necessarily need processing in software like Photoshop or Lightroom, although most can be improved by doing so.
Using the Raw format gives you the following advantages.
So please, don’t use the JPEG format any more for black and white photography. There are, however, advantages to using your camera’s monochrome mode, as discussed in my article Mastering Monochrome Mode.
Black and white is not a method for rescuing poorly crafted color photos. If your photo is bad in color, it will be bad in black and white too (although there are always photos that work better in black and white for compositional reasons).
There is nowhere to hide in black and white. In color, if the lighting or composition isn’t as good as it could be, the emotional impact of the colors in the photo may rescue the image (or, depending on how you look at it, cover up its shortcomings). Black and white images rely on factors like tonal contrast, textural detail, line and strong composition to work.
That’s why some photographers consider black and white to be a kind of higher art form than color photography.
Before digital cameras and Lightroom came along, many pro photographers used a professional printer to print their images. Creating top quality black and white prints in the darkroom is hard, and it was often outsourced to professionals.
This was a beneficial arrangement that let photographers concentrate full-time on photography and left printing to the specialists. Perhaps the best known pro printer in the UK is Robin Bell, who has worked with big names such as David Bailey, Terry O’Neil, and Eve Arnold.
Nowadays it is much easier to create beautiful black and white images in programs like Lightroom, Photoshop, or Silver Efex Pro 2, than it is to master the chemical darkroom process. But, sadly, many photographers don’t get to grips with the basics. The result is that their black and white photos are not nearly as good as they could be.
Take the time to learn how to use your software properly and your photos will get better.
One of the advantages of black and white is that you can often shoot in lighting conditions not suitable for color photography. For example, on a cloudy day you can create beautiful black and white seascapes with a tripod and neutral density filters (this is called long exposure photography). Yet, in color, you would really need to shoot close to dawn or sunset to make the most of the scene.
But what some people do is use black and white to shoot in lighting conditions that are simply unsuitable for the subject. Using black and white isn’t the solution. The important skill is in matching the light to the subject. This takes a while to learn but it’s very important. Don’t be lazy just because it’s black and white.
Black and white is a true test of your compositional skills. The best monochrome images use visual elements like tonal contrast, texture, line, shape, pattern, and negative space. The emotional power of color can mask poor composition. But in black and white there is nowhere to hide. You have to learn how to use these building blocks of composition effectively.
That starts with learning how to see them. For example, you can’t use lines in your compositions if you haven’t trained yourself to see straight, diagonal, or curved lines in the scene.
The good news is that once you understand the fundamentals of composition in black and white, you will instinctively apply them to your color photos as well.
Have you made any of these mistakes?
Can you think of any other mistakes that photographers make when working in black and white? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
If you’d like to learn more about black and white photography then please check out my ebook Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White.