In such a brightly coloured world, you might ask yourself why you would ever want to take black and white pictures. But when you see a great monotone image, the impact can be far more powerful and, indeed, much more eloquent than even the most acid-drenched colour compositions.
But achieving such an image takes experience and skill; no wonder it is considered the convergence of photography and art. Follow these tips to improve your black and white photography and you might well find yourself bitten by the b&w bug…
1. Introducing texture
Because of the interplay of light and shadow, texture becomes quite literally more tangible in a black and white image. A rough surface with light playing across it creates shadows and contrast, making every-day, mundane items both intricate and fascinating. But be careful: harsh overhead sunlight can kill this effect, rendering subjects flat and lifeless. Instead, choose a light source that comes from the side to pick out the texture of stone, wood, foliage or skin – this will give added depth to your image. Natural light during the golden hours – first thing in the morning or just as the sun is setting – works best, or use an artificial light source positioned to come from the side.
2. Creating contrast
By limiting your palate to black, white and shades of grey, contrast becomes an important tool for highlighting or obscuring elements within the picture. Dark colours become dark tones, while pale colours stand out and so to be successful you will need to reinterpret the colours that you see in terms of their greyscale tones. Depending upon the subject of your photo, you may want a range of tones – but to add more drama, increasing the contrast can make the dark seem darker and more forbidding, while the light will stand out more brightly.
3. Playing with shape
To understand the difference between shape and form, think of an object with a distinctive outline, for example a tree. If you saw its two-dimensional silhouette, this would be its shape. However, its form is how it appears in three dimensions and this aspect becomes evident through the use of light, shadow and texture. You can also change the focal point to add depth and form to your picture. Experiment with shifting the angle of your light source or by taking pictures from a different position to see how it changes the appearance of shape and form. In black-and-white photography it is often the shadows that define the shapes.
The photographic image is formed by light – light reflected back from the object you’re photographing into the aperture of your camera. With black-and-white photography, the light behaves slightly differently than when you are taking pictures in colour; shadows become more important for illustrating shape and texture. To get the lighting right in your black-and-white pictures you will need to have a thorough understanding of how to manipulate the exposure on your camera.
5. What works in black-and-white?
- Architecture – makes a great subject for black-and-white photography – highlight the graphic shapes, contrasting materials and unusual textures. Take pictures of modern and ancient buildings from unexpected angles for dramatic effect.
- Black-and-white can add gravitas to portraits – as well as being flattering. Soft lighting works better; harsh sunlight will create unwanted shadows on the face.
- Travel photography and landscapes – can take on a fresh aspect in black-and-white. Images can become startling, timeless or given extra meaning; somehow a black-and-white photo often seems to tell more of a story.
- Still lives and nudes – work well in black-and-white as the enhanced contrasts places greater emphasis on shapes and silhouettes.
6. Common mistakes
If your black-and-white photographs look bland and monotone it is a sign that you have not allowed enough contrast into the picture. Remember that strongly contrasting colours may appear to be a similar tone in a black-and-white photograph, rendering it less dramatic than its colour counterpart. Another thing to avoid is bland washed out skies; a pure blue sky on a summer’s day looks great in colour photographs but for black-and-white a cloud-flecked sky will give your picture more intensity. And, of course, there are some subjects that simply won’t work in black-and-white. For example, sunsets derive their beauty from a palette of pink, red and orange; put it into shades of grey and the drama is lost.
Allow yourself time to develop an eye for black-and-white photography. Experience will guide you as to what will work and what won’t and gradually you’ll be able to see the colourful scene in front of you as it will appear in black-and-white. Some of the most memorable photographs ever taken have been in black-and-white; the same pictures in colour might not have raised an eyebrow.
(c) All rights for this article belong to Headshot London Photography – leading London black and white photography specialists. For more information get in touch. For examples for our work visit our professional photography portfolio.