Black and white photographers still have to understand colour in order to produce good pictures. In fact, being able to recognise colour tones in a scene is key to achieving black and white photography excellence.
But there’s more. Of course there is!
Secrets To Going Dark | Darrin Henry
In this post we will outline a set of simple guidance points to consider with this genre of photography. Together they are the main ingredients for great images, from classic black and white portraits to rich, sweeping landscapes. We will cover the following:
- Monochrome Photography or Black and White?
- The Nostalgia of Black and White Photos
- Composition Ideas
- Taming The Harsh Midday Light
- Blue Is The New Black – Recognising Tone
- Textures and Patterns
- The Classic Portrait
- Turning Up The ISO
- Practise, Practise, Practise
1 – Monochrome vs Black and White
They’re very similar but there is difference between the black and white pictures, and monochrome photography that’s worth knowing about.
Basically, monochrome pictures are comprised from a single colour scale, such as blue, red, grey, etc. The picture shade will vary from the darkest end of, blue, for example, all the way to the lightest shade without hitting white.
A monochrome can be shot in camera, by photographing a scene made up of variants of one colour – a tightly framed shot of the blue sea, for instance.
The black and white photo on the other hand is comprised only from the full range of the colour, grey. At one end of the scale is complete black, at the other is white. In between is the full greyscale range.
This means black and white images are also monochrome images, however, unless it’s on the greyscale, a monochrome is not a black and white.
That’s a basic breakdown. If you would like more detail, have a look at this from Expert Photography.
2 – Everyone Loves Black and White Photos
Black and white pictures carry that nostalgic credential which gives them instant appeal, even more so today where the style gets a free pass to the ‘artistic’ table.
It’s the vintage photography look which, I think, implies time-honoured camera skills must have been involved in the picture’s creation.
Sometimes I think the ease of modern editing software along with in-camera filter effects, has meant digital black and white photography is often over-done. I also think it’s often used to mask poor photography. Shock! Horror!
But, stickler moans aside, the top black and white photographers do produce the most breath-taking work. High-quality black and white prints mounted in simple, clutter-free frames can be true works of art that add a touch of class to any room or interior space.
Although I’m a big fan of colour, it’s hard not to appreciate black and white photography artists when the work is good. In particular, I love black and white nude photography as an art form. And editorial culture images in greyscale are also highly evocative.
3 – Composition
We know composition is one of the cornerstones of good photography, but when shooting in black and white it’s even more crucial.
Without colour, photographers need to recognise variations in tones, spot how textures cast shadows and where shapes and recurring patterns alter light and shade.
Careful composition will frame these features to get the best from the shot.
4 – Taming The 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 a black and white image at high noon and suddenly the harsh shadows inject contrast and drama that is difficult to achieve with colour, under the same lighting conditions.
Sometimes even a bare flash can create a desirable hard shadow effect. (Making use of shadows in photography is another topic we’ve blogged about)
Black and White Photography Tips – Look out for textures and patterns when shooting black and white photography. Man made structures are often a good source of repetitive patterns, especially cityscapes, such as this office building in Cape Town, South Africa. This was taken from the open top of the double-decker red bus, city sightseeing tour of Cape Town as we drove between the buildings.
5 – Get Your Tone Right
Recognising tones when it comes to b&w photography is vital for achieving best results.
When it comes to black and white landscape photography a deep blue sky translates to black, when colour is removed.
Reds 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 your brain will soon start to automatically convert image to black and white for you, ready to be snapped.
6 – Textures and Patterns
Look out for textures and patterns in a scene. As black and white photography tips go, this is probably the most useful.
I mentioned this earlier, but textures and patterns are the cornerstone of high quality black and white photos so it’s worth ‘repeating.’
Why? Well textures throw tiny shadows which help give your 2-dimensional photo a sense of 3D depth. It adds shape, taking away some of the ‘flatness’ of the image.
I often suggest models bring a wool garment to a shoot, for this very reason.
Patterns are just as important, as the greyscale responds well to sharp contrast changes which helps lead the eye of the viewer through the picture.
The contrast of repeating parking lines along the street, or rows of windows along a building facade are typical modern black and white photography patterns to keep an eye out for.
7 – The Classic Portrait
Black and white portrait photography is timeless. There’s a classy vibe that this style projects which colour just can’t replicate, somehow.
A few years ago in London we did head shots for actors who all needed a black and white profile picture on their portfolios. It was mandatory for their industry.
So what is it about black and white photography prints that’s so special?
By stripping away the colour element in portraiture, the character of the human face stands alone, more focused and prominent, free from distractions. It’s why actors use black and white for a better connection with potential employers. It’s why old black and white photos become more significant with every passing year.
Classic black and white photography was founded on the humble portrait and it’s something that’s not going out of fashion anytime soon.
8 – Going Against The Grain – Turning Up The ISO
Final tip for creating beautiful black and white pictures centres is a technical point – set your camera up to shoot with a low ISO.
Black and white portrait photographers know that noise is more evident in this 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 when shooting colour. Obtaining the cleanest, purest master image means a lot more choice later in how the final image may be edited and presented.
9 – Black and White Photographers All Need Practise
It all takes practise and a lot of trial and error. Practise, practise, practise – it’s a simple philosophy that works for nearly everything in life, including photography.
Time To Give It A Go
And don’t forget, everything here is advice; a guide; suggestions. Don’t be afraid to break the rules in photography and experiment if your instincts kick in; some of the famous black and white photographers play by their own rules!
But hopefully these tips will help point you in the right direction.
Take Our 7-Day Photography Challenge
Hope you’ve found these tips that black and white photographers use, helpful.
If so, you may also enjoy having a go at our 7-Day Challenge, a no-pressure set of 7 exercises to do at home to improve your own photography. We designed this series after completing three Project 365 Challenges and realised how setting a daily target can really improve a photographer’s skills.
Our 7-Day Challenge is a Free Download which you can then save to your laptop or phone for later reference. Good luck, let us know how you get on.