The Power of Black & White

The Power of Black & White

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The power of black & white photography

If you read my articles about long exposure photography and intentional camera movement in the landscape you may have noticed a common theme amongst the photos illustrating the articles – most of them were in black and white.

I’ve been thinking about the reasons that black and white photography appeals to me. Regular readers of my articles will know that I’m a big fan of tonal contrast in both colour and monochrome work. I use it as the basis of many of my compositions and it helps me create atmosphere and mood.

But things became clearer today when I read an interview with Joel Tjintjelaar, a well-known fine art photographer who works exclusively in black and white. He is one of the leaders in the discipline of long exposure photography (I interviewed him myself as a case study in my book Slow).

The power of black & white photography

In the interview Joel talks about photos representing the vision, or the essence, of the artist rather than reality. Black and white, in addition to being a beautiful medium in its own right (he uses words like mysterious, nostalgic and dramatic to explain its appeal) is a step removed from reality. Add in changes in tonal values achieved in post-processing, the surreality of long exposure photography techniques and the manipulation of light (also in post-processing) and you finish with a photo (or a work of art, depending on your world view) that is an expression of the artist, rather than the original subject.

Make sense? There are many ways of expressing yourself creatively in photography, and black and white is just one of them, but it certainly is a powerful medium. Trends come and go. Whether it’s the fast film, high grain techniques popularised by Robert Farber and Sarah Moon in the seventies, or the Photoshop based techniques of modern times such as using texture layers or HDR, most of these are ephemeral. They won’t be remembered as anything more than dated trends in decades to come. But black and white will endure.

The power of black & white photography

Learn more about black & white photography

Now that I’ve piqued your interest you’ll no doubt want to learn more about black and white photography. I’ll write about that in the future, but first I think it’s a good idea to go have a look at the work of some of the best black and white photographers out there. I’ve picked out five of my favourite photographers from 500px – looking at their work will help you appreciate the true power of the monochrome image.

Have a think about the following points while you look through their portfolios:

  • Why do you think these photographers have chosen to work in black and white? How would their images look if they were in colour?
  • How important is tonal contrast in the composition of their images?
  • How important are other elements of composition, such as line, texture, form and shape? How does black and white emphasise these elements?
  • How important is light in these images?
  • How far removed from reality are the photos in these portfolios? How do they express the photographer’s vision?

Here are the links:

Hengki Koentjoro

Hengki is an Indonesian photographer who creates beautiful black and white landscapes (read my interview with him here).

Sabrina de Vries

Sabrina is a young Dutch photographer who creates black and white portraits. Some of her work is in colour, so it’s a good chance to compare the way she works in both mediums.

Andy Lee

Andy is a professional film maker and photographer who works in black and white. Tonal contrast is a strong element of his work.

Joel Tjintjelaar

You should definitely take a look at Joel’s work. One of the interesting things about the way that Joel works is his painstaking attention to detail – he may spend 40 hours working on a single image before he is happy with it. This approach is very unusual.

Michael Diblicek

Michael shoots both the landscape and architecture. He is another photographer who uses tonal contrast really well (read my interview with him here).

Mastering Photography

Mastering photography ebook

My ebook Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master black and white photography and take photos like the ones in this article.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!