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Top Tips for Black and White Photography

 27th Apr 2021

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In the early days of my career I shot loads of black and white photography for businesses needing photos for ads and advertorials in newspapers and trade press. 

Back in those days few such publications were in colour and if they were colour adverts carried a hefty surcharge. So most customers wanted nice contrasty black and white prints which I loved making myself in the darkroom.

Sometimes I'd shoot on colour film so they had an option should they need it long term, but would print in black and white for the initial publication.

Colour negatives don’t have much contrast and it took a lot of experimentation before I mastered ‘publication quality’ black and white hand prints. I loved my darkroom and the excitement of seeing the image come alive in the development tray under that red light was wonderful.

Whether you are a photographer who loves to work on film and develop images in a darkroom, or you’re a modern day digital photo connoisseur, there are definitely specific things to think about when you choose to embark on black and white photography.

I’m going to share some useful tips in this blog to help you get started and ensure you’re approaching this style of photography the right way.

What is black and white photography 

Now I know this might seem obvious to some, but let’s just clarify what this genre actually is.

Black and white photography (B&W), uses different tones of grey (or gray) to create captivating images. It is as old as photography itself, having been around a whole 35 years before the first colour image was ever captured. 

I know that some choose to call it monochromatic photography, but this wouldn’t be entirely accurate...

The word monochrome means ‘having one color’. So you could in fact have a photo that uses a brown hue, with all other colours removed - take sepia for example, it uses red/brown tint in all different hues.

Some of - if not the most - famous photographs still revered to this day are in black and white. What is it that makes these images have that same insurmountable impact when colour is so well used in today’s modern photography?

Why black and white photography is still popular today

I’m going to start by looking at some opinions of well-known photographers past and present. 

“Our lives at times seem a study in contrast… love & hate, birth & death, right & wrong… everything seen in absolutes of black & white. Too often we are not aware that it is the shades of grey that add depth & meaning to the starkness of those extremes.” - Ansel Adams

Well this is just poetic, as the great Ansel usually is. It’s so true, black and white is far more than the opposite ends of the scale, it’s more than contrast, it's all the nuances in between.  

“Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.” - Elliott Erwitt 

When you dream, is it in colour? Are those colours exact or perhaps interpreted to how you want to see them? When we see a colour image, our imagination usually follows a particular note, predetermined by what we are visually aware of. 

When you look at black and white photos, you can imagine them in any colour you choose - likely you’ll revert to something familiar, but you have the choice to picture it as you wish.

“Good black and white photography is not about the removal of color!” - Rob Sheppard

Hear, hear! It’s not about shooting in colour and then deciding, oh I’ll just strip it out post-production and voilà I’ve got an incredible black and white photo. We’ll get onto this more later, but I agree with Rob’s opinion.

“Music photographs in black and white are timeless. I can definitely recount more black and white music photographs I love than I can colour ones.” - Dean Sherwood

This one is great for thinking about genre specific photography. I also love that he talks about ‘timelessness’ - if we want our images to live on through the ages, shouldn't this be a consideration?

ansel-adams                                         elliott-ertwitt

Ansel Adams - The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)         Elliott Erwitt - USA. New York City (1974)

 

Top tips for black and white photography

1 - Search for inspiration

If you’re new to black and white, it can be tricky to get it right. Of course as I always say, just get out there and practice, but it would also be helpful to start with if you spent a bit of time looking at black and white images. 

Study a wide range of styles and think about what the image is emoting. Try to understand the use of shadow, tones, shapes and textures - how does the image make you feel, what stands out and what is just there to help fill the frame.

Perhaps imagine the photos you’re looking at with colour, what colours do you use are they strong and harsh, or soft and mellow. Why do you think you’ve chosen these colours? 

Thinking imaginatively about others’ work will help you when it comes to shooting your own images. You’ll likely find you become more creative and are thinking about the end result. 

2 - See your scene in black and white

First you need to decide if what you are going to photograph will actually work well in black and white, as unfortunately not everything does. 

To help with this you need to spend the time looking at what you want in the frame and try to remove the colour. I know this isn’t easy, you can see colour so it’s hard to imagine it as anything else.

If you’re struggling, just grab your camera and click away to see if it’s looking something like you hoped it would. If you think there’s something to work with, your next step is to experiment.

You should think about what kind of emotion you want your image to create; should it be gentle and calming, or dramatic and intense? 

Once you have a feel for your goal, it's time to adjust your camera settings to capture the image and you imagine it… make sure to consider the following:  

Shadows

It’s important to remember that shadows are different in black and white, they become major elements of the composition. 

If you notice a lot of dark shadowing in your image, the feeling that’s conveyed is probably quite intense and dramatic. Whereas softer shadows that emit more detail can bring out complexity in the image.

Contrast

Again using contrast is going to alter the appearance and the resulting feelings experienced when viewing your photograph. 

High contrast adds to the drama and intensity - it of course affects shadows and gives them a darker appearance. It also helps make light stand out against dark, popular with cities and nighttime scenes. 

Low contrast photos though sporting a softer feel, don’t necessarily have less impact. There are some awe-inspiring photos that use only tones of grey or silver, no black or white is sight.

Tones

In this instance tone is referring to dark and light. You may have heard the terms ‘high-key’ or ‘low-key’. It’s a good technique to understand for creating a particular mood.

High-key is where the tones are lighter than the ‘mid-tone’, so shadows are usually brighter and the image a more light and airy feel. 

Vice-versa a low-key image is when the key tones are darker than the mid-tone ideal. Think dark, emotional and dramatic.

Shape & Texture

When you remove colour, it can be easy to remove familiarity as well. Black and white photos are often by default more abstract. So if you want the elements in your photo to be more recognisable, it's a good idea to think about the shapes within the shot.

Texture is huge in black and white… without it your image could be really flat and lifeless. You can use texture as a replacement for colour, differentiating the grey tones to help identify the subjects in the frame and give personality to the image.

3 - Shoot in RAW (not JPEG)

RAW offers you flexibility that you wouldn’t otherwise get.

You may be planning to do a full black and white photoshoot, but there’s a chance you might actually prefer the shots in colour.  I know what you’re thinking, there’s no way I’m faffing about doubling on photos, that will take forever. 

Don’t get your knickers in a twist. If you shoot in RAW with a colour camera it will always retain the colour information. So you could set your camera to mono, but when it comes to post-production you’ve got the option to convert an image to colour.

Of course this does mean you do need to get comfortable using editing software. I recommend Lightroom - I’ve got some useful courses and free videos, so if you’d like to get yourself up to scratch take a look.

Another great thing about shooting in mono is that you can see the black and white preview in your camera's LCD screen (if it has one) which helps with visualisation. 

If you’re not shooting digital and then you’ll obviously have less freedom when it comes to this. However, you can still get creative with darkroom editing options.

4 - Don’t be afraid to utilise tools

You can control the amount of light entering your camera by using filters. So why not experiment and see how your image changes, you might be surprised with the result and choose to go with a different mood than you originally imagined.

Using flash in natural settings if often a no no. We worry about the effect of artificial light, but flash can be really handy in black and white photography. It helps to create varying shades of grey and can enhance contrast - if you’re going for high contrast, have a go with flash and see how it changes.

Post-production software is also a tool that can be used to make your photos even better. There are specific programs for black and white photography, one in particular is called Silver Efex Pro and it can be used as a standalone product or a plugin for Photoshop and Lightroom. 

5 - Remember photography fundamentals

It can be easy to get swept away with a focus on colour, or ‘lack thereof’, and in doing so you might forget about the all important fundamentals of making a great photo. It would be bad of me not to remind you about these as I wrap up this blog. 

I’m talking specifically about:

  • Composition
  • Lighting
  • Aperture
  • Shutter speed
  • Focal length
  • Sharpness

Getting started with black and white photography

This timeless artform is a brilliant thing to explore. Shooting in black and white can teach you so much about photography, and about your creativity. 

So grab your camera and have a go, remember to think about what we talked about in this blog: 

Decide what you want to emote; see the scene - shadows, contrast, tones, shapes and textures; utilise the tools in your kit and don’t forget the all important photography fundamentals. 

Pop your camera onto ‘Mono’ and train yourself to see in black and white by using the preview. Take pictures in colour and then convert them in Lightroom to see how the image changes,- think about how you might alter the settings to highlight different elements that get lost when you remove colour.

Black and white photography is amazing. When you’re shooting on dull days where natural colours are dampened down and lost, you can switch to mono and focus on shadows and texture instead. You’ll never waste an hour of shooting - you’ll be learning all the time!

Take a look at my 7 Building Blocks to Photography course if you want to learn more about linking the technical and creative aspects of photography. It will teach you to instinctively have the perfect lighting, composition and camera settings for every image.

 

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