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Brilliant black and white photos are created in two steps. The second of these is post-processing, and is very important. But before you get to that stage, you have to learn how to see and compose photos in black and white. This is just as important as processing – it doesn’t matter how creative or clever you are in Lightroom or Photoshop, if the image is badly composed, or the subject just isn’t suitable for black and white, then you are going to struggle to make a half-way decent monochrome conversion, let alone a great one.
I thought it would be interesting for you to look at some of my favourite black and white photos and learn why they work in terms of composition.
Puerto Aysen is a small port town in south-west Chile. The weather is often cold and miserable, even in summer. It rains a lot. I was wandering around the outskirts of the town when I came across these old wooden boats. Initially I was attracted to the atmosphere of the scene – there was a soft rain, and in the original uncropped photo you can see the hills on the horizon fading through the drizzle. The scene worked in colour (see below), but in the post-processing stage I also realized that it would come out beautifully in monochrome.
The reasons the image works well in black and white are:
I went to Dongtai Road antiques market in Shanghai, an open-air street market comprised of stalls and shops where you can buy a variety of genuine and fake antiques, plus kitsch ornaments and souvenirs. I found the watch that this vendor was offering quite amusing. I didn’t want to buy the watch, but I asked if I could take a photo. The answer was yes.
Why the image works in black and white:
I got in contact with John via Model Mayhem and we arranged a portrait shoot. The setup was simple – I used an 85mm lens (with a full-frame camera) and a wide aperture of f/2.8 to blur the background. The portrait is lit by natural light – John stood underneath an archway so the light fell from his left (camera right).
Men can be great subjects for black and white portraits because there is no pressure to retouch skin. Black and white emphasizes texture – the texture of skin can be a beautiful thing that doesn’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) need retouching as often as some people think it does.
Why this photo works in black and white:
Analyzing these photos is a simple exercise but it brings up several elements that work well in most black and white photos – texture, line, shape, tonal contrast, and simple composition. When you find a subject where these elements come together, you know you have the potential for a great black and white photo.
What do you think is important for a brilliant black and white photo? Please let us know in the comments. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think.
Editor’s Note: We recently ran a series of articles this week featuring black and white photography tips. Look for more on this topic below.
My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images.