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Can you visualize the world around you in black and white? It’s not easy to do at first with an array bright colors competing for your attention. Look a little closer however, and you may recognize the broad potential for expressive imagery. Of course, not every situation lends itself to this artistic style. There are however, certain characteristics you can look for, to identify the best opportunities.
A subject with dark shadows and bright highlights would not be ideal for a color photograph. In fact, it’s one of the reasons techniques like HDR have become so popular. Yet, for black and white photography, this type of high contrast light can be extremely effective. The harsh mid-afternoon sun is no longer a detriment, but an enhancement. This is a major shift in the way one thinks about exposure. To help recognize these chances, look beyond what is immediately evident and pre-visualize the scene in grayscale. A scene you passed on, in color may prove quite dramatic in black and white.
As is always the case in all good art, rules are meant to be broken. The same is true with black and white exposures. You have even more flexibility as shadows can be inky black, and highlights can clip the histogram while retaining the image’s visual appeal. To maximize the dynamic range of the camera, use the “ETTR” technique (expose to the right). Rather than a muddy exposure, you’ll enjoy the crisp contrast of the full tonal range.
In the absence of color, shapes and patterns become more pronounced. Lighter tones will stand out boldly when placed in front of a darker area. This is an effective way emphasize the important parts of a subject while minimizing distractions. To compose this way, think about the process of subtraction. What can you remove from the image that’s not essential to the story? As you simplify, the design of the photo will get stronger.
Even something as simple as a shadow on the ground can be used creatively. To the human eye, detail is evident in the pavement, but with a camera they can be rendered as inky black. This may be a very different style of seeing for you. To practice, I recommend taking a photo hike in which you search for nothing but shadows. You may be pleasantly surprised by how many interesting shots you’ll find.
It’s been said that a person’s eyes are the windows to their soul. Their character however, can often be revealed in their hands. In black and white, the subtle details that often go unnoticed become more evident. Wrinkles and texture, for example, benefit from a deeper more textured appearance. This method is especially effective when using flat or overhead light. Typically this direct light would be undesirable, but in grayscale it can be preferable to that of a softer, diffused quality light.
Blue skies are often used to symbolize happiness. You’ll see this pattern in magazine ads, television commercials, and even movies. Black and white images however, are associated with a different variety of moods. The precise emotion is ultimately up to the viewer, but a few common themes include solitude, contemplation, and pensiveness. Photographers of all genres can work with these traits to effectively portray their vision.
Use your imagination to visualize the mood you want an image to have. A great place to start is to study some of the masters. While Ansel Adams’ landscapes in black and white are very well known, go further in your research. For example, look at the emotion in Edward Weston’s famous “Pepper No. 30”. Another fine representation of this medium is “White Sands, New Mexico” by Ernst Haas. Of course the list goes on, but these are a good place to start. A visit to a local library will undoubtedly prove inspirational as you may discover work by artists you are not yet familiar with.
Subjects that linger in darkness are sometimes more compelling than well-lit scenes. Using black and white photography, you have the ability to show the world in a completely different way. Instead of eliminating the shadowy areas, use them to your advantage. An empty space can actually be an effective method of composition. This type of artistic exposure is more edgy than a literal interpretation.
Take a look through your own catalog of images. There will likely be a number of photos that could be quite dramatic as a black and white. As you convert them from color, experiment with different post production filters to see how it impacts the scene. For example, a blue filter may lighten the sky dramatically, whereas a yellow filter will make it darker. If you’re looking for even greater control, there are a number of excellent plugins available. One of my favorites is Exposure by Alien Skin as it offers nearly endless customization. More terrific options include software by Nik, Topaz, and OnOne.
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a week full of features on black and white photography. Look for another one later today and daily over the next week.