It might just look like my photography has always been in black and white but, in truth, I started out with the traditional colour shots of sunsets and landscapes. The pastel colours fascinated me most, and for a long time I never liked really vibrant photos of people.
There wasn’t one particular moment when I decided to move over to black and white. My perception slowly changed over time, just like my visual photography art developed slowly.
And a photograph may be a snapshot of a single moment but it’s not ever showing you the entire process.
I wanted to explore a little more about the basics of black and white photography, what it is, what makes b&w photos so appealing and why black and white is such a great (enjoyable) challenge for many artists.
What is Black and White photography?
Black and white photography is a way of taking photographs that only show different tones ranging from white to black, with a large spectrum of grey in the middle. In black and white photography, light is your best friend. You use dark shadows and lighter contrasts to create a more dramatic story in a photograph.
Although it feels like colour photography has been around for ages, the first colour image only appeared in 1861. However, black and white photographs had been around for 35 years since then already.
Since then, both colour and monochrome photography have been living side by side, for family photos, portrait shots and artistic inspiration.
When it comes to art, many creative have found that colour photographs can look lifeless and dull. They may not show the bright, inspiring colours that we had in mind. While some artists, such as Cindy Sherman’s colour photography*, make use of this numbing feeling in a photo, others noticed an issue: in art, we want to tell a story in the most simple way, with as much drama as possible, and not everyone’s art suits this more subtle colour approach.
In comparison, the contrasting shadows and grey tones in black and white photography allow us to show more emotions, create suspense and explore a more theatrical perspective.
*Cindy Sherman started with black and white photography, and moved over into colour after a while. When you compare these two photography styles, you’ll notice that there is a true shift in her art with the new coloured photos, and it impacts how she portrays her characters. As Sherman is one of my favourite photographs and artists, I will probably write more about her in future.
Good subjects for Black and White photography
Whenever I mention my photography to a stranger, they automatically assume that I must be interested in taking pictures of landscapes with fluffy clouds and pretty sheep dotted around a meadow. Just a classic yet modern Constable picture. Well, at least that’s the picture I always have in mind when others talk about their photography.
Then, I will quickly say that I take pictures in black and white, which is the moment when I get a puzzled look. As our world appears in colour to us, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine what it might look like in black and white. So, many people cannot actually envisage what I could possibly photograph in monochrome.
But there are a few important subject matters that work perfectly well for black and white photography:
- Animals and pets
- Buildings and architecture
- Abstract elements
Portraits: Unlike in colour photography, you can really bring out the emotions of people in a portrait photograph. Depending on how far away you are, you can show their face in clear detail (and, indeed, our eyes are the door to our soul). But it doesn’t always have to be people. For black and white beginners, it can be easier to start with something that doesn’t move. I really love taking photographs of sculptures because another artist has already captured the beauty of this body in stone.
Animals/pets: Similar to people, animals are also a subject for black and white photography. You can really capture their character and personality in the way they move.
Landscapes: Landscapes are an eternal classic for all arts, from painting and poetry to photography. The reason for this is that the light conditions in the countryside change so quickly sometimes. You can suddenly find yourself photographing a rainbow, while the next moment it starts raining.
Buildings/architecture: Taking black and white photographs of buildings can be a bit more challenging, simply because they are static. Smooth lines don’t create much of a story, unless you have something moving outside or inside the building (think of a lift going up or a car passing by).
Abstract elements: Similar to houses, office blocks or other architectural designs, photographing abstract elements is quite a challenge. You will need to come up with a story in your head, and try to fit this line, circle or other photographed element into the concept of your story.
How to do Black and White photography
There are a couple of different ways to get started with black and white photography. I always like keeping it in the words of Maya Deren: “I make my pictures for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.”
Essentially, you don’t need expensive gear and fancy equipment to go out and work some magic. One of the most basic things you will need for black and white photography is a camera. You can either go for a digital camera (black and white, or colour) or with an old school black and white camera where you need to develop film.
It takes a little bit of trial and error to find out what feels right for you. DSLR cameras are coming down in price but they are not quite as cheap as some of the older Leicas.
With a digital camera, you can preview your photograph and it’s easier to put it through a filter later. While some traditionalists don’t like the monochrome quality of digital cameras, it’s perfectly fine to find out first what works for you and what you want to express.
Saying this, I found that there is a difference in quality in both cameras. A traditional film camera gives you a much greater black and white depth, which you would have to recreate with a noir filter when taking a photo with a digital camera.
Once you have your camera ready, just go out and try a few different subject matters. You will find that it takes quite some time to sharpen your eye for photography. If you have done colour photography before, then it can also take a while to train your eye to see what would look good in black and white.
Generally, it’s a good idea to look at your subject, and observe the lightest and darkest spots, and see how they change. Photography is as much about capturing an object as it is to observe.
Here are some easy ways to add more interest to your black and white photographs:
- Highlight and focus on the contrast between black and white in your photos
- Don’t feel shy to experiment with a few different camera options, such as exposure
- Look at other black and white photos that you like and think about why you like them
- Look out for patterns in your subject matter
- Remember that a deep black always makes white stand out more
- Try to experiment with filters and enhance your black and white photos with Photoshop
- Focus on bringing out the emotions in the subject
Why Black and White photography can be challenging
As our world isn’t black and white but in colour, we need to train our eyes to see what would work best in black and white. Imagining is the real challenge in black and white photography.
But there are many black and white artists and even hobby photographers out there, so why do they work with this type of photography when it takes so much effort? The simple answer is because it’s worth it. Photographers love black and white for different reasons, including the ever-popular aesthetics.
Black and white photography also comes with a lot of nostalgia because that’s how people started to capture their environment in film for the first time. After hundreds of years of painting, black and white photography was the first medium where we could capture our world in a matter of minutes (rather than hours or days).
This nostalgia is within all of us and we can’t really help it, so why is this emotional connection to black and white so challenging for artists? Because artists and photographers want to tell a story, which does not always play in the past. Especially for modern artists, black and white can be a difficult format to use.
When it comes to photography, there is always a little bit of work in applying filters and trying your hand on special lighting or exposure. This is true for colour photography as well as black and white. However, black and white photography usually require a lot more experimentation to play around with light and dark. This can be surprisingly challenging and it takes some time to get a feeling for what works best in black and white photography.
When we see a black and white photo, we almost instantly think it has been taken a long time ago. This goes hand in hand with nostalgia. Just for a few seconds as we look at a photo, black and white transports you emotionally into another time. But with modern art expanding, there is a new revival of black and white photography, and slowly our perception is shifting to something more contemporary. That’s why, many photographers often seek to combine the nostalgia for the past with more funky photography experiments of the future.
What is the difference between black and white and monochrome?
Before we get to the end of this article, I quickly wanted to touch on another point that often causes confusion: the difference between monochrome and black/white.
Many people use both terms interchangeably but they are actually not identical. Monochrome essentially means a single colour. This colour can be blue, brown, red or any other colour on the spectrum, meaning a monochrome photography is just one hue of a single colour but not black and white.
A true black and white photo has no colour at all. It only uses white, grey and black.
Black and white photography has so many different shades, metaphorically and literally. You can use it to portray deeper emotions and bring out contrasts which would never be possible with colour photography.
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