How To Do Good Black and White Photography
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS | Darrin Henry
Black and white photographs carry that nostalgic credential which gives them instant appeal, even more so today where the style gets a free pass to the ‘artistic’ table.
But there’s a dark side 🙂 With powerful digital software and in-camera options now so common, post production ‘effects’ such as black and white can be overdone and sometimes used to mask poor photography. Shock, horror!
I’m a ‘colour’ fan when it comes to photography, as some of you may well have realised by now, overall to me it’s just more fun.
But when it’s done well, I do love black and white. Pictures by some of the world’s top photographers is to die for, particularly some of the incredible art nude images. Editorial culture images in black and white are also highly evocative.
Okay then – how do we take good quality black and white photographs?
Here are some basic tips and guidelines you can follow that I find helpful for taking better black and white pictures.
We know composition is key in photography, but when shooting black and white it’s even more crucial. Without colour, photographers need to recognise variations in tones, spot how textures cast shadows and how shapes and recurring patterns alter light and shade. Good composition will frame these features to get the best from the shot.
Harsh Midday Light
Normally it’s photographers and vampires who avoid the midday sun. The golden hour, that glorious soft light in the morning and evening is generally accepted as what works best for pictures. But shoot in black and white and suddenly the harsh shadows inject contrast and drama that is difficult to achieve with colour under these conditions. Sometimes even a bare flash can create the same hard shadow effect. (Making use of shadows in photography is another topic we’ve blogged about)
Blue is the new Black – Colour Tones
Recognising tones is vital for black and white photography. A deep blue sky translates to black when colour is removed. Red and greens have a similar effect. But yellows and lighter shades err more to white. Obvious you may say, but we seldom think in these terms when viewing a scene with the naked eye in vibrant colour. Practise recognising these tonal translations and you will start to recognise when a good black and white picture is waiting to be snapped.
Repeat Offender – Textures and Patterns
I mentioned this earlier, but textures and patterns are the cornerstone of black and white photography so it’s worth ‘repeating.’ I often ask models to bring wool garments to a shoot as they catch the light and throw tiny texture shadows. The parking lines along the street or rows of windows along a building facade are typical patterns to keep an eye out for when shooting black and white.
The Black and White Headshot
Portraits often work well in black and white. A few years ago we did headshots for actors in London who wanted the final work produced in black and white. By stripping away the colour element in portraiture, the character of the human face stands alone, more focused and prominent. Actors use black and white for a better connection with potential employers.
Go Against The Grain – Setting ISO
Finally, set your camera up to shoot with a low ISO. Noise is more evident in black and white imagery. If you want a grainy effect add it later in post production with suitable editing software. In fact, lowest ISO should always (usually) be a priority, even in colour. Obtaining the cleanest, purest master image means a lot more choice later in how the final image may be edited and presented.
How To Shoot Better Black and White
It all takes practise and a lot of trial and error. Practise, practise, practise – it’s a simple formula that works for nearly everything in life, including photography.
And don’t forget, everything here is advice; a guide. Don’t be afraid to break the rules in photography and experiment if your instincts kick in; some of the best photographs come from taking a chance!
Just in case you prefer colour, you may be interested in our post on How to Improve Your Colour Photography.