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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

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. Enroll in his new Lightroom course for free, or download his free Creative Fade Presets for Lightroom.

  • Steve

    You can get really striking results with black and white and a bit of spot colour can help also

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Artistic-Nature-and-Wildlife/G0000dNdDRq9HKXg/I0000xFdsUBGA8nc

  • catlett

    I am glad that the B&W trend seems to be getting back to pure B&W. For me the spot color is played out to the point of being trite. Much like overused tone mapping and tilted horizons, so many people are using spot color that I rarely see a spot color that I like over the last couple of years.

  • Raghavendra

    i love black and white photography. It captures the little emotions and feelings, Most importantly let the subject speak.

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.in/2012/03/kids-feeding-goat.html

  • Photographer Malaysia

    B/W trends is totally awesome. xD

  • Gonzalo Broto

    The more I experience street photography, the more I like monochrome, it’s fantastic to highlight contrast!

    http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2013/11/empty-streets-of-afternoon-with-some.html

  • Great read, Andrew. I really enjoyed having a multitude of examples on the subject! This was a great way to explore the idea more fully on my own rather than just reading someone else’s commentary on a subject.

    I have a lot to learn when it comes to black and white photography, I still very much see in color, but I do occasionally stumble into situations that work as black and white. I am forcing myself to start seeing in black and white and taking RAW captures with the intention of converting in post rather than playing around in post.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdlais/10657401084/

    I have been very curious and read lots of commentary about using Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro. Right now, I use Lightroom 5 for all of my conversions. Have you used the other software? Is it a worthwhile investment for black and white photography?

  • Eric

    One of the few things I like digital for is black & whites. The sterile nature of digital works well with monochrome. I still prefer black & white film but I can at least appreciate black & white digitals even if they aren’t very archival.

  • Stephen Hoppe

    I use all of the Nik collection and Silver Efex is particularly great. It allows for tight control of contrast and local tones. There are lots of presets to get started with, but I usually just do the default and edit to the look I want using the control sliders. Here is an example, some more are in this set too:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_hoppe/9765376971/in/set-72157633981217496

  • marius2die4

    I also love B&W.In my opinion some picture it is ok to be color and other B&W.Depenfind of what you wanna to create,

    Some of my picture:

    http://marius-fotografie.blogspot.ro/2013/10/miscare.html

  • Guest

    Love B&W put find that most clients want color…

  • art4u2

    Love B&W, but find that most clients want color.

  • do

    i love B&W

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  • ColininOz

    My first 35mm camera back in 1957 , doing my own processing, enlarging, and printing at home taught me to love black and white. Unless you were very rich and very dedicated black and white was what there was ! Sure helps to teach ‘seeing’ in black and white compared to starting off on digital colour. One of the few surviving shots from those days at

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/67900028@N08/6222135220/

  • Cheryl Garrity

    Andrew,

    Great article. The links are great. All those photographs amaze me. With color stripped away, I believe the composition must be stronger. I like the way black and white allow the photographer to simplify.

    I do very few back and white photos, but I am trying to improve. My challenging issue is getting a rich mix of tones. This is the link to my best black and white photograph so far. I say so far because I expect to improve my black and white skills.

    http://www.throughcherylseyesphotography.com/nighttime.html

    I am enjoying all your articles. I revisited your long exposure article while
    reading this article. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise.

    Cheryl Garrity

  • Josh, I have used Silver Efex Pro 2 and I like it a lot. Well worth the
    money, especially as you get all the other Nik Collection software with
    it.

    This article I wrote on my blog will give you an idea of what it can do:

    http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/2013/08/an-introduction-to-silver-efex-pro-2/

  • Ashwin Pradhan

    Dear Andrew,
    Thanks for the tips. I personally relate to black and white photographs more than the coloured ones. As rightly quoted by you black and white photographs have an element of mystery to them. It is further accentuated by tonal variations in grey.

  • Snoops27

    Sorry for being an old fogey (whatever that means), but am I the only one out here who feels that something is wrong with today’s view of photography. Apart from on the “newbies” forums on photog sites it has become almost impossible to find an image which has not been digitally manipulated and distorted by photoshop or similar; and I omit to used a capital “p” on purpose as in my lonely opinion photoshop is used to ridiculous extremes and is being hauted far beyond its actual real life value to photography and its roots. What happened to the real images that the photographer saw through the viewfinder? What has happened to the challenge of going out in foul weather to capture the dark threatening clouds that gathered broodily before a thunderstorm? Do we really think it better to take an “ordinary” shot and digitally turn it into something a lifetime away from what the camera actually saw? These images I see posted on the vast majority of websites definitely have something to say, are without a doubt extremely artistic and have a place in todays Artistic society, but are they REALLY photographs? That’s todays assignment – DISCUS!!! LOL.

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  • KC

    Old fogey? We’re from a different starting point on the photography timeline. We “manipulated” images, too. Looking back, some of it was near to alchemy. Ah, the fun times. The “digital darkroom” changed things, but not as much as people think. Well, it’s definitely “not wet”, or “dark”. I did composites and masks – but with large format film. That’s a lost art form these days. So many of the old techniques are.

    But, keeping to the topic, knowing how to shoot black and white well can change how you work in color. Take a color image and change it back and white. Does it still “work”? If not, why not? Yes, there are some images that only work in color. They rely on color contrast, and that’s fine if that’s what you’re looking for. But something monochormatic, like a very green scenic? Does it work in black and white?

    I enjoy working in black and white. It presents different challenges.

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