Black and white photography possesses a certain aesthetic that expresses a lot of power and strength in a simple photo. That’s why it’s worth your while to at least give it a look-in, and experiment a little.
Many photographers look up to Anselm Adams as the master of black and white photography. He was a master. But don’t forget that he used film cameras, and he developed his own techniques and theories about how to take a black and white photograph.
I’m referring to digital cameras, and digital processing in Photoshop while I write this article.
Henri Cartier Bresson, was also a master of black and white photography. But when we look at his work, and compare it with Anselm Adams’ work, we are forced to understand that your photography is a very personal expedition into understanding how to capture those fleeting moments that we find so attractive.
Black and white photography requires a little more sensitivity than when you are just taking shots, and finding out how it looks afterwards.
It’s a discipline in itself. But it’s so rewarding.
Black and white photography will help you appreciate the whole process of photography at a deeper level.
And when you return to take colour shots, you’ll discover that your eye for colour composition has improved.
Digital photography has opened up wide pathways for photographers. The options to experiment, to change an image, and to process the whole thing to a point that matches your own expectations is possible.
I like to think of the pixels in the camera as tones. That’s what we are working with, not rolls of film, and not, at first, ink on paper. Tones of light.
If pixels are our pigment, then the camera is our brush. We choose which setting, or size of brush, to use when we look at the subject that we want to photograph. Shutter speed, F-Stop, and ISO settings. Those three things are a lifetime of study.
Black and white allows us to think in terms of pure tones. The scale of tones that we see are all representative of colours on the scale between white to orange through to red, blue, green, brown, and black.
Any photograph looks great when we are able to set the camera so that the pixels reflect the light, and so that the colours are intense enough to create vivid and harmonious tones across the frame.
This is why working in manual mode is important when taking photos. Especially, in black and white. You want that type of control.
The shot above is of a man walking up some steps. I took the shot quickly, after noticing him; I had been looking for my first shot of the day, and there it was. My thoughts were already in black and white.
Colour gets complicated, and nature doesn’t always serve up harmony. People, crowds, and city scenes aren’t necessarily natural colour schemes that offer balance. So, colour photography has basically two problems attached.
One is that the colours we see are different once captured, we must adjust, often toning down the primary colours to balance a photograph. Secondly, the colours in a photograph can clash, and cause problems with distractions. A good composition can be ruined by too many bright colours in an image.
The photo above was intentionally black and white. I took it in colour, but knew that I was composing a black and white photo. The reason I saw this photo in black and white is that I like the simplicity of compositions like this. I was sitting on some steps waiting for a configuration of people to stop and stand on the square. I didn’t want feet moving, or arms swinging. So, I managed to get a quiet moment as people, standing separate from each other, did their own thing and created a beautiful moment of black and white life.
The white carrier bags are important. They create points for the eyes to stop at, and rest a moment. Then you can study each figure individually.
Both of the above photos are very different, both work well in black and white. The point being, it’s not the composition that determines if black and white is better than colour. It’s your own sense of composition, sensitivity about the moment, and how you feel black and white photography will support the mood of the image.
I find that black and white can lend a strong sense of graphic design to a photo, but it can also create an atmosphere of melancholy to a photo. Maybe, that melancholy is just what it needs. Especially on rainy days.
The dark shadows, the bright lines of a structure and the people who wear clothing that catches the sun, or the street lights, can offer a lot of opportunities for bringing up highlights, and creating shadows that are airy and deep.
Henri Cartier Bresson had no problem with dark shadows that are impenetrable to the eye. It helped him frame the point of interest in his photos in a powerful way.
Ansel Adams worked with theories of gradation from shadow through to the highest points of light.
It’s all your choice, based on your own personal taste about what makes a good composition in light and darkness.
To study photography, the art of it, it is essential to spend time with the old masters.
Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams, Helmut Newton, Sebastião Salgado. This last photographer, Sebastião Salgado,is an example of absolutely mind-blowing photography. A modern master.
Don McCullin, originally a war photography turned landscape photographer, is somebody to learn from; his work is dark, sombre, and beautiful.
Much of his landscape work reflect his own thoughts and feelings. A man who had seen too much of the horrors of war, the darkness of human deeds that war reveals, can be seen in the tones and shadows of his beautiful landscapes.
There is a trist tone that twists and turns through the hills and valleys in his photographs. A tour de force in how photography can express human emotions – even when we didn’t intend it.
That’s the beauty of black and white. It brings out the rawness of life. Colour can destroy the mood, black and white photography enhances the motifs we see, and helps us to show the truth of the moment. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
When we take a black and white photo, we must think about the many areas in the composition. Which areas will bring out textures, and which areas do we want To keep in shadow?
Black and white photos allow us to grab at the tooth that we can see in a texture and keep it. Even the texture of a shirt has a “tooth”, as does a wool top, or a felt hat, or a pair of leather shoes. Each fabric reflects the light differently. We can strengthen the expression of a shot when we remember these points and ensure that our camera settings are going to enhance those areas of the composition.
In a landscape photograph, we should think of the grass, or the rough stone of a mountain side. The smooth surface of a plain, with clumps of heather and grass, can all be taken advantage of.
The way to do this is to adjust the settings, the shutter speed and the f stop so that you will pick up things in detail, after sharpening, of course.
If you are using a crop-sensor camera, be careful about raising the ISO too much. The sensor in a full frame camera is bigger and more powerful than the crop frame camera.
The above black and white photograph, was taken in colour. I was waiting for a train, it was just about to come into the platform when I saw that the view was interesting. So, I quickly got my camera out and took the shot. I knew it would be black and white.
The green of the bushes, and the colour in the person’s clothing at the end of the station, where too distracting from the whole composition. So, it went back and white the moment I began to process it.
How to take black and white digital photographs is an interesting subject, which requires a lot of talk, but more action. I could go into settings. My opinion on this is that the settings I use on my camera aren’t much good to you. Our camera’s capacity to deal with light is based on the sensor, the lens, and the combinations between ISO, F stop, and shutter speed. Different cameras, different qualities of outcome.
You have to be honest about the camera you use, and get to know what the sensor can do in terms of picking up light in dim scenes, and how far your lens will allow you to go before the focus starts to get edgy.
Black and white photography is a wonderful way to learn more about photography. You can learn from the painters of years ago, the photographers of the twentieth century, and you can learn about tone values from both black and white photos, and colour photos.
I encourage you to take your camera and go out and take photos of architecture, people, parks, woodlands. Or, stay indoors and set up an interesting still life that is based on tonal compositions instead of the bright colours of fruit.