It’s hard to beat the power and drama of good black and white photography. There’s a reason that monochrome has survived and prospered as an artistic medium despite the arrival of color photos. But how do you harness the power of black and white for yourself? The key is in your composition.
The problem with composition is that it’s such a vast topic it’s easy to lose track of the various principles and the ways you can put them into the practice. So let’s keep it simple – I’m going to give you three things you can concentrate on. Put these into practice and you’ll see a dramatic improvement in the composition of your black and white photos!
#1 – Simplicity
Simplified composition helps give your black and white photos more power by focusing attention on the main subject.
The above landscape photo is a great example. The composition is about as simple as you can get. It works because I used a neutral density filter and a long shutter speed of 90 seconds to blur the water and clouds. The result is a black and white landscape photo with a minimalist style composition.
This principle also applies to portraiture. Keep the composition simple to focus attention on your model. An easy way to do this is to use a short telephoto lens with an aperture of around f/2.8. Get in close and make sure there are no distractions in the background to pull attention away from the person you’re photographing.
#2 – Texture
One of the interesting things about black and white is that it brings out the interesting textures in your subject. You can use this characteristic to make your black and white photos more interesting.
This photo of some old wooden boxes is a good example.
There are two interesting things about the composition of this image. First is the pattern created by the repeating shapes of the boxes. Second is the texture of the wood.
The absence of color in black and white helps emphasize texture. You can take it further in post-processing by applying Clarity or other tools designed to bring out texture (such as the Structure sliders in Silver Efex Pro 2).
Texture and contrast
You can take this idea further by using the contrast between smooth and rough surfaces. Some objects are more tactile than others and have lots of texture. Others have very little.
You’ll see this technique used a lot in long exposure photography, where you can take advantage of the juxtaposition between a subject with lots of texture, such as a concrete jetty, and one that has very little, like water blurred by using a neutral density filter and a long exposure. The earlier photo of two rocks is a good example.
Here’s another. I used a shutter speed of 3-minutes to blur the clouds and the water. As a result, there’s a strong contrast between the concrete in the foreground, the jetty in the distance, and the surrounding water and clouds.
#3 – Tonal Contrast
Tonal contrast is where you have light tones and dark tones next to each other. Now we’re getting to the heart of black and white photography! This technique is not nearly as effective in color because of the way that colors that are similar in tone, such as red and green, still create a powerful contrast. Tonal contrast is the main factor that separates black and white photography from color.
The easiest way to explain how tonal contrast works is with some examples.
In the first (below) there’s a strong tonal contrast between the white and black stones. Your eyes go to the white stones because they are in the center of the frame and because they provide a strong contrast against the black stones underneath them.
Another subject where tonal contrast is used to good effect is portraiture. In the portrait below the model’s light-toned skin contrasts with the dark background. The key to making this technique work is to make sure the background is in shade and that it contains no distracting highlights.
So far both examples have shown a light toned subject against a dark background. But you can turn it around by placing a dark subject against a white background.
That’s the technique I used in the following portrait. I photographed the man during carnival in Spain. He was dressed for the occasion and had even painted his face. I placed him against a bright, sunlit building to take advantage of the tonal contrast between his dark skin and the white wall.
There are many factors that make up a good black and white photo, but the composition is one of the most important. If you want to make a strong black and white photo, then focusing on these three key factors – simplicity, texture, and tonal contrast – is a great place to start.
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