In the quest to improve your photography, sometimes the best approach is to slow down, concentrate on the basics, and be purposeful and deliberate. Working in black and white will do that. Making still life images will do that.
Combine the two, and you get black and white still life photography – which is an excellent way to make some great images and become a better photographer while you’re at it.
The power of monochrome
I will often use the terms monochrome and black and white interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference.
Black and white photos are just that: images with tones from white through black and all shades of gray, but with no color information whatsoever.
A monochrome image, on the other hand, might have a color tint. For instance, you can create a warm, sepia-toned shot or a cool, cyanotype photo. A single color – with various shades – would be present in the image.
But note that this article applies to both black and white photography and monochrome photography equally.
Why black and white?
Early photographers had no choice because they couldn’t shoot in color. Monochrome images were all they could make.
Of course, this ultimately was not a serious limitation; many of the most iconic photographs ever taken are black and white. Surely even non-photographers have seen what might be one of the most famous black and white still life photos of all time, “Pepper No. 30” by Edward Weston. And I can confidently say that Weston’s photo would not be better if it had been made in color.
Today, the default choice of most photographers is color. Because our world is in color – as are most of the photos we encounter – “seeing” in black and white is a skill you must develop.
You must learn to look at a subject with an eye toward the basics – the “bones” of an image, if you will. Shape, form, tone, and texture are those bones, and the best black and white images play to those strengths, where color is unnecessary and even a distraction.
Learning to see in black and white will, of course, make you a better black and white photographer. But if you can see in black and white while recognizing and taking advantage of the structural elements of a subject, you’ll become a better color photographer, as well.
Color then becomes an enhancement to an already-good image – one with a solid “bone structure” of shape, form, tone, and texture.
Why still life?
My two favorite genres of photography are probably still life and landscape.
It could be because they are so opposite. In landscape photography, you can rarely move the subjects in your scene, you compose by where you stand, and you don’t have much control over the light. Often, you must wait for the light to be just right, and you must be ready if and when such a moment happens.
Still life photography makes you the master. You set the scene, deciding what to add in and take out. You arrange the objects for the best composition, you choose the camera position, the lighting, and any additional components comprising your shot.
Then, when you’re satisfied and ready, you take the photo.
In a word, still life photography give you complete control.
Then add another distinct advantage. Consider this definition:
“A still life is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which are either natural (food, flowers, dead animals, plants, rocks, shells, etc.) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, etc.).”
A real advantage of still life photography is that your subjects are still. They don’t move.
So in still life photography, it won’t matter if your shutter speed is 1/30s or 30 seconds. Being able to have such flexibility over your choice of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO is huge, and it opens up all kinds of possibilities that other genres of photography don’t offer.
Light painting is one of those unique possibilities. Since you don’t have to deal with a moving subject, you’re free to “paint” a subject with light during an extended exposure.
And this makes for some dramatic still life shots:
Lighting for black and white still life photography comes back to the advantage we already identified:
The lighting instruments you choose, the modifiers you use, the number of lights and their placement – it’s all within your control.
Let’s break this down a bit more:
- White balance – Since you’re processing in black and white, you can ignore the color temperature of your lighting instruments. And this frees you up to use all kinds of light sources, from flashlights, LEDs, and daylight to candlelight, fluorescent lights, and incandescent lights. Yes, as you convert an image into black and white, the color tones will respond differently. But you can handle adjusting your black and white tones if your white balance is initially off. I’ve often “rescued” impossibly bad color images simply by converting to black and white.
- Placement – We spoke about the “bones” of shape, form, tone, and texture, which exist in all photos but are more readily apparent in black and white. In black and white still life photography, you get the opportunity to accentuate these “bones” with your careful consideration of lighting placement and control. Want to emphasize texture? Rake a hard light across the subject from the back or side at a low angle. Do you want a soft look? Try a broad light source, like a softbox, that illuminates the subject from the front. You can light your subject to create the look and mood you’re after. As the saying goes, “No rules, just right.”
A camera trick to help your visualization
In order to make this trick work, you must shoot in RAW.
(Also, I highly recommend you shoot in RAW all the time. Here’s why this is important.)
Now, when shooting in a RAW format, your camera will always capture a color image (and that is what you want).
The playback image you see on the rear LCD, however, will not be the RAW file. Instead, it’ll be a JPEG representation of the image.
So if you want to get better at seeing in black and white, why not switch the JPEG to black and white while keeping the RAW image in color? That way, after taking an image, you can immediately see it in monochrome – but you’ll still keep all the color details for post-processing later.
Bruce Wunderlich, a fellow dPS writer, describes how to set up your camera to do this. He promotes it as a way to better compose color photos, and it is good for that – but if monochrome is where you’re headed, it’s even more beneficial.
So read Bruce’s piece, set up your camera accordingly, and you will have a real aid in making black and white photos.
Editing for black and white
After a session of black and white still life photography, you’ll bring the images into post-processing as RAW color images.
Yes. Even if you’ve set up your camera using the recommendation above – where the LCD displays your images in black and white – your actual RAW images are still in color.
That’s a good thing. It’s during editing that you will convert your photos to black and white.
This will allow you to determine how various colors will be converted to monochrome. For instance, back in the black and white film days, you could darken the sky by shooting with a red filter. Because the red filter would block most of the blue light, the sky was rendered very dark on the black and white film.
Today we can create those effects during editing. When converting from color to monochrome, you can adjust the luminance of specific colors (e.g., you can darken the reds, the blues, and the yellows), thus affecting the overall look of the image.
Lightroom offers a nice black and white conversion tool, and there are a number of good articles on black and white conversion in Lightroom, such as this one by Andrew Gibson. You may also wish to try other methods of black and white conversion. A popular option is the Nik Silver Efex Pro plug-in from DxO, but there are dozens of other programs and methods for converting from color to black and white.
Without the limitations of having to make the color in a photo “look right,” you are free to creatively take the tonality in your black and white images wherever your creativity leads you.
Age your photo
Here’s another fun black and white still life photography trick:
Replicate a vintage black and white look!
First, make sure you find the right subject. I recommend working with old collectible objects. Then capture the shot and enhance it afterward with effects such as sepia toning.
It can be a fun and instructional exercise to gather some objects, set up a pleasing composition, light it, photograph it, and create a monochrome file complete with sepia toning.
Black and white still life photography: Now go do it!
You can and should read up on the concepts and techniques of photography, but there’s only so far “book learning” will take you.
Black and white still life photography will slow you down, make you think, concentrate your efforts, and force you to really study things.
You just have to dive in and do it!
So gather some subjects, decide how to arrange and light them, determine where you want to place your camera, what focal length you will use, how you will expose the image – all of those things.
Think about what you’re doing, what you’re trying to communicate, and why you’re making the photo.
Take your shot, evaluate it, consider what might make it better, and shoot it again.
Then repeat! There’s no hurry. You’re making photographs, not taking snapshots. You are the master when you practice black and white still life photography.
And that, as they say, is the beauty of it. Go make some great shots!
As always, leave your comments, questions, and photos in the comments section below. Best wishes!