The very first photographs were shot in black and white. Decades later, even after the advent of color, many photographers—especially those concerned with creating works of art—continued to shoot in black and white. The format remains popular even today: nearly every consumer-level digital camera has a black and white mode available (for outputting JPEGs directly from the camera in monochrome), and all digital darkroom editing suites have at least one (and usually multiple) means of changing a color photograph to black and white. Indeed, there are expensive plugins available for Photoshop that are entirely devoted to the process of converting a color shot into black and white, and there dozens of groups on Flickr and Picassa and 500px that are exclusive to black and white photography.
Why do black and white photographs continue to exercise this hold over the fancy of so many photographers (dabbling, amateur, and pro) when we have cameras and techniques at our disposal that can capture every color under the sun? We can produce photographs of spectacular color range, with arresting reds and blues and greens and yellows, and yet the simple power of an effective black and white shot can (arguably, of course) leave even the most brilliantly realized color shot in the artistic dust.
A large part of the reason, as I see it, lay in that very simplicity of the monochrome image. Removing the color from a shot changes the focus—it shifts the viewer’s attention from the colors to things that can be more abstract, less immediately noticeable, and it presents the world to us in a way that few of us are used to seeing it. It can, by the very removal of that familiar element, generate an intense amount of interest and a powerful feeling of drama that might otherwise be overwhelmed by the presence of the color. The prosaic can be made into something tremendously interesting, by changing it, in a sense, into something even more prosaic, something even simpler.
As a result of the powerful appeal of black and white imagery, photographers will inevitably continue to try their hand at making monochrome photographs. But it isn’t necessarily as easy as you might expect, and not every color photograph will suddenly make a powerful, dramatic and artistic statement when converted into black and white. To create a spectacular black and white image you need to start at the very beginning, when you are first looking out on an interesting scene, before you ever press down on the shutter button.
A Shift in Sight
Most of us see the world in color. I do, and I’m very happy to have that ability. But to make the most effective black and white photograph possible, you need to develop the ability to abstract away those colors, well before you ever take the shot. The great black and white photographers of the past used to talk about “Seeing the world in black and white.” They weren’t referring to politics or some simple dichotomy of good and bad, but rather literally seeing it in monochrome, seeing it as it would appear once they processed the shot and had the black and white print in their hands.
A part of being able to see the world in black and white is pure, raw experience: the more black and white photographs you take, the better you will be able to understand what scenes and shots will work better in monochrome than in color. This can mean (and has meant, in the digital era) taking tons of color photos and then haphazardly trying the black and white conversion on some subset of them, hoping to get lucky and hit on one or two that really pop in black and white.
But you can short circuit this learning process—or at least help yourself on the way—by making yourself aware of what elements make the most impact in a black and white shot. Some of this is obvious, or at least may seem obvious, but the value comes from actually thinking about it, and considering these elements consciously as you shoot (until you reach such a point that you no longer even need to think about them, because they come so naturally to you). The elements include:
- Shapes, Patterns, and Texture
- Lighting and Contrast
Wait—color? Let me explain the first few, and we’ll circle back to that last one.
Shapes, Patterns, and Texture
When you look past the colors in a scene, some of the first elements you’ll become aware of are shapes and repeating patterns, and texture. In the absence of color, these elements come to dominate the image, and can be a guide in your composition.
Look for interesting forms and juxtapositions of angles. Seek out triangles, in particular, and curves. Try to find shapes that match the Fibonacci Spiral, or at least conform loosely to the Rule of Thirds in the way they divide up your frame.
Hunt for patterns—repetitive formations of structure. And then look closely for that break in the pattern. A brick wall is a great pattern, but it’s also boring, unless you have that scrawled bit of amazing graffiti on it (or whatever it may be that caught your eye and stood out from the repetition around it).
Texture can really pop out of the image in black and white photography. Of course, color shots can have great texture as well, but there is just something about black and white that lends itself to really giving a visceral feeling of the roughness of that bark, or the uneven bumps of that concrete, etc. For example, consider the two shots below, the color version versus the black and white. In my opinion, at least (and your mileage, as always, may vary), the black and white version makes the textures almost come out off the screen, much more so than the color:
And then, of course, look to combine all three—find repeating patterns of interesting shapes that have eye-catching textures.
Lighting and Contrast
When the color information is removed from a photo, the quality and efficacy of the lighting can take a tremendous hit—or it can be incredibly enhanced. I’ve found that soft lighting is less effective in black and white (generally), whereas strong shadows (creating great shapes and patterns) can really come out when seen in monochrome.
In a way, “lighting” for black and white really means “shadows,” since we’re less concerned with that golden hue of magic hour and more interested in the way the light falls on our subject—that is, what unique shadows are created by that light source. Deep shadows have a character all their own, a character that can get somewhat lost in color shots and really make themselves known in black and white.
Contrast follows logically from this. Areas of high contrast—the difference between light and dark—will particularly stand out in black and white shots. If what you are looking at has very low contrast, you will risk having a muddy or uninteresting shot when you convert it to monochrome, because there is nothing to grab the eye, nothing to guide the viewer through the composition. All the grays become the same, and you get a big, flat, gray shot.
Boosting contrast artificially in Photoshop can only help this so much: in reality, you want to change your composition, come back at a different time of day, or change the lighting, etc, in order to realize the contrast necessary to make your black and white image pop.
Tone is difficult to define and describe. It is one of those “know it when you see it” elements of photography. Broadly speaking, it is the feeling evoked by the photograph, by the combination of all the elements I listed above (shape, pattern, texture, light, contrast, etc). Tone can be dark and moody, like something out of a noir film, or can be light and airy, like a painting of a single cloud in an otherwise startlingly blue sky.
It is, holistically, the mood of the photograph.
Black and white photographs lend themselves to setting a powerful tone. In your initial composition, you can concentrate on determining what this tone will be by focusing on the elements I listed above, and then try to mentally abstract away the color.
Experience helps a great deal here, as does carefully looking over the great black and white photographs that other photographers have made before you. Pay particularly attention to how light and shadow can impact the mood of the shot—the tone—and imagine, as you work on your own shots out in the field, how shifting even a few steps left or right might significantly affect the tone.
In short time you’ll be able to look at a scene and get an immediate feel for the tone it will evoke in your viewers when they see it in black and white.
This is an odd one. Color, for black and white photography? Well, if you convert your color shots to black and white in the digital darkroom, as I do, then color actually becomes quite important.
The process of converting a color shot into black and white involves, in most cases, making explicit decisions about the relative intensity the colors in your shot will be when translated into grayscale. You might make your blues nearly black and boost up the relative lightness your yellows and reds and greens in a landscape shot in order to give yourself that eye-catching, deep sky.
If you keep this in mind when you are composing your shot, you can look for regions of strong color differentiation, and use that to, in effect, enhance the contrast of your final black and white shot. The intensity of the blues and reds in a single shot might be nearly equal, when viewed in color (not giving much in the way of contrast), but in the conversion process you can darken one and lighten the other, and create that deep sense of contrast that will pop so much in black and white.
Bonus Section: Using High Dynamic Range to Boost Your Black and White Photography
High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is controversial and I won’t try to sway you one way or the other if you have strong feelings regarding how it is commonly used/abused in modern digital photography. However, few can deny that it can be a very powerful tool when composing for black and white imagery.
This may initially seem counterintuitive. After all, a major draw of HDR photographs is that amazing, hyper-real color that seems to jump out of the screen or print at you. But HDR is really about enhancing the dynamic range of the shot—enhancing the difference between the darkest and lightest parts of the image, allowing more of each to be seen.
And it is, fundamentally, in the difference between the dark and the light where all the magic of black and white photography happens.
HDR can’t necessarily enhance the shapes in your shot, or help you with composition, but it can bring out more pattern and texture than a non-HDR image. It can also significantly increase the perceived intensity of the lighting in a given shot, and, overall, pull up the contrast (or make more room for the contrast to be effectively increased in Photoshop, etc).
If you have always avoided HDR because of those highly overprocessed images that you can find anywhere on Flickr or Picassa, I strongly recommend you try it out for yourself. Keep in mind the strengths of HDR, and the advantages it gives you in scenes that would otherwise be impossible to capture in a single exposure. And remember that you don’t have to overprocess your shot like others do, if you don’t happen to like that effect. Instead, subtly tone map your exposures with an eye toward bringing out that amazing texture or shadow that you saw in person but couldn’t capture with one exposure alone.
Black and white photography, the oldest form of photography, is here to stay. Its unique qualities help ensure it will never completely die, no matter how amazingly accurate or vivid technology allows the colors in our shots to become. There is a very real power inherent in the best black and white images, a power that would often be lessened if that same shot were seen instead in color. By learning to see the world in terms of shape, pattern, texture, light, contrast, and tone, you can start making powerful black and white shots of your own.