7 black and white photography tips

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Even though you would be hard-pressed to find a camera without a b&w setting these days, there's still plenty of photographers who ...

Even though you would be hard-pressed to find a camera without a b&w setting these days, there's still plenty of photographers who rarely consider it. Here’s tips on how to master the dark art of black and white photography from a monochrome enthusiast.

The very first photographs were once all shot in black and white. This dates back to 1839, after Mr. Daguerre discovered a method to fix an image captured inside the camera obscura he called this the Daguerreotype. Black and white photography was the only available medium, at least until 1936, when colour photography was born with the invention of Kodachrome. Overnight, this invention opened up the world of colour photography. Decades later black and white photography remains prevalent among digital photography with almost all consumerlevel cameras offering a black and white (monochrome) feature. It’s also easy to transform colour photographs to monochrome in the digital darkroom, your editing software. However, just because it’s simple to achieve black and white images, it’s not as straightforward as going out shooting in colour and then converting. If you want your images to evoke a response and standout in monochrome you’ll need to put some thought into your shots. Here are my 7 tips for mastering the art of black and white photography, or at least learning to see what works and what doesn’t in monochrome.

black and white photography tips

Black and white photography tips: Learn to see in Monochrome

The key to successful black and white photography is learning to see in monochrome. Basically, this means you should pre-visualise your images before taking the shot. Not all images will work in black and white, some images rely on colour for impact, and therefore they may not be as powerful in black and white. For example, in colour photography we tend to compose images around elements of colour, often working with complimentary colours to build a strong visual statement. However in black and white photography, most colours have the same brightness and/or tone, so the image will appear dull and flat. This is possible to overcome with some post-processing, although it is good practice to recognise elements such as contrast and tones, and build upon that, rather than relying on photo editing software. Removing colour from our vision will bring out the hidden details, textures, and shapes. Essentially, it comes down to observing a scene and analysing the core elements by their strengths and weaknesses. Understanding what elements make a strong image will significantly improve your monochrome photography. This can also benefit your colour photography. It’s all about thoughtfully putting the pieces together and understanding the tonality of a scene. One way to make this an easier process is to think consciously as you shoot, at least until you’ve grasped the fundamentals. A few elements to keep an eye out for are: Shapes, patterns and textures, light, contrast and tone. Keeping a mental note when you are out shooting will aid you in viewing your environment in black and white.

black and white photography techniques

Working with Shapes, Patterns and Textures

Once you start to see beyond the colour palette of a scene, you’ll begin noticing other elements such as shapes, patterns and various textures to build a compelling composition. For me, black and white photography is very similar to street photography, where you have an open canvas and must deconstruct and/or exclude certain parts of a scene to compose the strongest possible image. Keep an eye out for interesting juxtapositions and striking repetitions that could be used to grab your viewer’s attention. Look out for different lines, curves and other distinguishable shapes that help divide your frame into the ‘rule of thirds’. Repetitive patterns work well when there’s a break between the formations this can give your composition some tension. Any objects with defined texture will usually look great in black and white.

Tonal Contrast

Tonal contrast is important in all types of photography, however it becomes more apparent when you start shooting in black and white. The tonality of an image is what gives a photograph atmosphere and mood. Some images are dark and punchy with distinctive definition of contrast, while other images may be more subdued and softer in appearance. To capture stronger monochrome images it’s essential that you understand tonality and how to effectively use it when hunting for your next shot. The easiest way understand tonal contrast is by categorising into three simple categories: high, medium and low. An image with high tonal contrast will consist primarily of white and black. Medium tonality is a balance of all three, while low tonal contrast is when an image looks more washed out, usually just with grey tones.

The use of directional light is also an important factor that will affect the amount of contrast present in an image. Shooting in harsh light can aid in defining certain parts of a scene, making your subject standout from the rest of the image. It’s also possible to enhance contrast during post-production, however it’s good practice to try and get the desired result in camera by understanding the fundamentals.

black and white photography tips for beginners

Effective Use of Light 

Lighting is the single most important element in any image. Without light it wouldn’t be possible to capture a photograph. Different lighting will give your pictures different moods. When colour is removed from an image, the quality and efficacy of the lighting is dramatically transformed. Harsh light tends to be more effective, creating dynamic tones in shadow areas, and giving a monochrome image a more edgy and contrasted aesthetic.

Soft and/or subdued light has an opposite effect, often producing a dull or flat look.

The benefit of shooting in black and white is the ability to get striking results when the light may not be favourable for colour photography. As an example, shooting during the middle of the day when the light is sharp can give some great monochrome images. The secret is to make sure that light is suitable for your subject. Go out at different times of the day and see how the light falls on your subjects. If your images aren’t working than it’s likely due to unsuitable light.

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Experiment with High-Key and low-Key

You’ve probably heard photographers mention the term ‘high-key’ or ‘low-key’, but what does this mean? High-key simply refers to images that are typically brighter with a light range of tones, often a lot of whites with very few black or mid-tones. Opposing highkey images are low-key images, which focus on the shadows, true blacks and darker tones, with very few white tones. These images are often more moody with deep contrasts.

Using high or low key can be an effective way of capturing a scene in black and white, as we are using the tones to bring out certain elements within a scene. It’s best to experiment with exposure to grasp what kind of subjects work best under different lighting.

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Black and white photography tips: Discover the Relationship between your Subjects

Once you see start seeing the world in black and white you will begin to recognise the importance of composition, without the distraction of colour within a scene. For example, you may have a strong foreground element, but the background is distracting due to a certain colour that is weakening your narrative. When colour is stripped from a scene the focus becomes solely about the relationship between the subject and the rest of the scene. No longer will you have to contend to uncomplimentary colours and hues; instead you’ll be drawn to the structure of how to compose an image with the key elements.

An example could be photographing a model with bright red hair against a reddish brick wall. Your subject’s hair will become lost in the background due to the similar colours, which will lose its effect. In monochrome you won’t have to contend to this, allowing you to focus on your subjects relationship to the background. I recommend for anyone struggling with composition to try shooting in black and white, as it will define certain elements and give you a better understanding of compositional value.

when to use black and white photography

Visions of the Past

Black and white photography definitely has a timeless quality, which can often provoke an entirely different emotion and response from your viewers. A common reason a lot of photographers choose black and white over colour is for that timeless quality, almost as we’ve stepped back in time (how to be a photographer). As mentioned earlier, black and white photography was the only medium with black and white film. When we view a photograph we are viewing the past, but when we shoot in monochrome it has the power to freeze the present moment and transpire us into the past. Colour photography can have the same impact, however monochrome is more relatable to the analogue/film days. These images tend to evoke this sense of throwback, which can become a truly beautiful aesthetic in image making.

For example, I took an image in 2016, in Kolkata, India. The old Classic Ambassadors are an icon of the past, however when I converted to monochrome it took on a whole other level, an almost bygone atmosphere that set the scene of an earlier time. It could have well worked in colour, but in black and white it really encapsulates life before the present. When you start to envision your subjects, think how you want your audience to respond or feel, as this will help envision a shot and give your images a quality that you may have never imagined.

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