Before the invention of Kodachrome in 1936, the only medium that was available to the mass of photographers was black and white photography. With the invention of color printing one would think black and white photography would see it’s demise, but instead, it caused the medium to see a surge in popularity. Loved for its simplicity and raw attitude toward the photograph, learning the art of black and white photography is an expertise that everybody should consider.
To break up a black and white photo, you have to take contrast, shape, form, lighting, and the subject into consideration as separate entities. Color is said to distract away from the subject, so using a black and white scheme can allow the focus to rest on your subject, whether that be a landscape, cityscape or nature. With color photography everywhere, black and white photography allow a much-needed change in the photography world, like a breath of fresh air. But it comes with challenges too.
Below you will find a list of 5 key elements to use in your black and white photography to make stronger photos. Whether you just focus on one of them or include several of these elements in one photo is up to you and your creative choice.
Key elements that will improve your black and white photography
Texture – allow your audience to ‘touch’ your subject
Texture is great for giving a sense of atmosphere or a feeling of closeness to a subject. When you can see the pores in an elephant’s skin, it is almost like you can feel and touch it. Or when you can see the vein structure in a barren tree stub. Because of the details, the viewer easier gets a feeling of the place and your subject. An old building, rusty metal, or anything old and worn typically has a very visible, beautiful texture.
Texture depends on the light around whatever it is you’re trying to capture, so avoid the light that takes place at midday. The lighting around that time will be harsh and disrupt the raw feeling of the black and white photo.
Unfortunately for the artist set on working with black and white photography, we are not used to seeing the world in black and white, so changing our thought process to a gray scale can be difficult. Light colors convert into bright gray tones in the black and white photo while dark colors convert to dark gray or perhaps black. This seems logical enough, but we often only focus on the colors in a scene, and not on whether the scene has adequate bright colors and dark colors to give good contrast. To get a better practical understanding of this, you need to familiarize yourself with being aware of not only the color, like green but whether it is a light or dark green you see in front of you. This should give you a better chance of making images with a better tonal contrast.
You can also tweak the way i.e. green colors translate into black and white, by using color filters either mounted on your lens or using it as an effect in post-processing. Color filters can help you achieve better contrast when you convert an image to black and white.
Shape and Form
While tonal contrast has mostly to do with color, shape and form have to do with what you are capturing. Shape is the subject in two dimensions while form is the subject in three dimensions. Differentiating between shape and form is important when it comes to black and white photography as a lot of the creativity behind an image ends up being based on the lines, shape, form or texture of the scene because there is no color left to carry the weight.
Every photo or object, whether in color or black and white, has both shape and form. Imagine a photo of a silhouette of a tree; the silhouette is the shape of the subject. One of the ways to make the shape prominent is to move around it and find an angle of view that lets it stand out from the surroundings. Alternatively, you can contrast it against a well-lit background allowing the subject to become underexposed like a silhouette.
The challenge lies in figuring out how to capture a three-dimensional object, like a building, and transferring it into a two-dimensional photo.
Lighting is one of the most important factors in any photograph, whether it is color or black and white photography. As you probably heard, the word photography on Wikipedia was derived from the Greek word for “painting with light,” so there’s a lot of focus on lighting in photography right off the bat. Black and white photos allow a little bit of freedom with lighting because colors don’t become construed depending on the area or light that you’re taking pictures in. By seeking out sideway lighting at the beginning or end of the day, you will get even lighting and soft shadows that prevent your photos from ending up flat and uninteresting. Low-angled light from the side enhances both form and texture while a subject that is front-lit will look flatter and show fewer details on the surface.
By bringing your attention to one or several of these elements in your photo, you are on your way to improving your black and white photography and your journey into the monochrome world.
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