Tips for Black and White Photography

Often times a color picture is just shy of those magic one thousand words.  Turning that image into a black and white photograph can be just the way to make the picture sing.  There are plenty of ways to get a really solid, perfectly tweaked photograph in post-production but without a solid base there is no medium to work with.  Black and white photography is like foul language, red lipstick and one liners: use sparingly.  Black and white photography can have a powerful effect but too much of it is never a good thing.  Being able to recognize stunning subject matter, perfect lighting and distinctive textures will help create a once in a lifetime black and white shot.

Film

When using a digital camera and if possible, always shoot in the RAW.  It gives you the most control in post-production by storing every miniscule detail about the photograph making it easier to tweak individual parts later on.  And even if you know you are setting out to shoot for black and white results, shoot in color.  That's the beauty of digital.  It costs you nothing to essentially be taking two shots simultaneously.  If you do forget this and shoot in the RAW on Black and White mode, fear not.  Even though the playback you see on the display shows a black and white image, it is actually recorded in color.  Some find it easier to avoid that mind trick altogether and just convert later on.  You also want to use a low ISO for black and white photography.  Even for color photography, a low ISO produces the least amount of noise in a shot.  Unfortunately in black and white, the smallest amount of noise shows up like a flashlight.  So in this case, a low ISO is the only way to go. 

Best Times to Shoot

Wouldn't you know that all that time you sat inside on a winter's day cursing the clouds for taking away your natural light was wasted time?  You could have been taking exceptional black and white photographs all that time.  It is as if the clouds are acting as the world's largest diffuser to the brightest flash bulb in the solar system.  Bright yellow sunshine on a blue sky in black and white photographs looks like a giant ball of white on white.  There is no contrast, no texture and certainly no interest.  Take the time to observe shadows the next time the sun peaks behind the clouds.  Those shadows are still there.  So it's not as if your sensor will receive zero light.  Dull days are a good time to focus on outlines against a white sky.  Buildings and other dense structures look great standing in such stark contrast to a washed out background.  Observe the contrast between the sky and chimneys in the shot below.

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Photo: Maggie O'Briant

Subject

There really aren't any limitations regarding subject matter for black and white photography.  That being said, some subjects are better than others.  Portraits are always a great place to try out some new black and white techniques.  The literal lack of color smoothes out skin tones and reduces imperfections.  Yes, we all have them.  Solid colors or at least colors that are similar yield good results as well.  Put those together: portraits of people wearing solid colors are classy.  Still photos also benefit from a little black and white treatment every now and then.  While conventionally romantic or poignant moments craft some superb black and white imagery there are times when stepping out of the subject box will reap some splendid results.  Photographer Tom Stone specializes in portraits of a different kind.  Instead of scheduling times and organizing sets, he casually walks into the San Francisco Tenderloin area to photograph the homeless population living within the neighborhood.  His ability to capture the depth and soul of his subjects is amplified by the simplicity of black and white.  His images speak for themselves.  The private moment captured between photographer and subject is amplified by the landscape in their faces.  Without color to distract, the real story is heard. 

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Photo: Tom Stone

Lines

For all intents and purposes, black and white photographs lack color (they really don't but that is an entirely different article).  So instead they depend on a great deal of lines.  And luckily, a line can be anything.  Grand perspective shots look really great in black and white.  The viewer is forced to pay attention to the scale and structure of the shot versus noticing the various levels of blue in the sky.  It becomes more about the photographers ability to construct within the frame.  Pressure!  In the photo below of the staircase ascending into the Library of the British Museum, you see nothing but lines.  The architectural features of the building are highlighted and brought forth through the use of black and white photography.  The vertical structure is broken up by the ceilings and the shadows cast onto the wall creating a continuous plane through the whole shot.  Yet the stair case interrupts those lines as well.  Every line plays into and off of one another.  Perfection.

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Photo: McGarva of PBase

Texture

In what is quite possibly the most difficult tactile element to photograph, texture is redeemed with black and white still photography.  Ever taken a picture of a brick wall straight on at mid-day sun?  It appears it is flat in the final shot.  The grainy, pitted texture of the wall disappears when the light fills the cracks.  Utilizing the right light source and direction can really bring out the physical features of texture.  If you are dealing with the sun, early morning or late afternoon works best.  That takes care of the horizontal light.  Dance around the wall until you can bring the sun's light in at just the right angle for your vertical plane.  Sounds crazy, but just think about it in terms of two perpendicular straight lines of light and create a cross-hair for the final product.  As you can see in the photo below, the right light can produce clear texture.  There is life to the wall.  By removing color from the equation, the subtleties of the grains, holes, cracks and imperfections become what are most important in the shot.          

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Photo: Sakkra Paiboon            

Composition

Have you ever tried to draw a chair upside down?  Not standing on your head but drawing a chair upside down.  Take out a pencil and paper and attempt to do so now.  See how difficult that is?  You have to pay attention to every detail, every angle and bend of the chair.  That is what black and white photography is like.  Color photography becomes drawing chairs right side up.  With color, you can guide the eye around the frame.  With black and white, you have to use highlights, line, structure and shadows to build a final product.  The focus is no longer on the beautiful tones of red but on the architecture of the scene.  Working with black and white photography will make you an infinitely better photographer.  The eye becomes more trained to what is important.  Eventually, color becomes cherry on the cake.

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Photo: Sylvian Lagarde



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Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant  Personal Blog Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree.  She is currently a freelance writer and photographer.    She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby. 

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