Can you visualize the scene in front of you in black and white? It’s not easy to do at first, with an array of bright colors competing for your attention. Look a little closer, however, and you may recognize the broad potential for expressive imagery. Of course, not every situation lends itself to this artistic style. There are, however, certain characteristics one can look for to identify the best opportunities.
1) High Contrast
A subject with dark shadows and bright highlights would not be ideal for a color photograph. In fact, it’s one of the reasons techniques like HDR have become so popular. Yet, for black and white photography, this type of high-contrast light can be extremely effective. The harsh mid-afternoon sun is no longer a detriment, but an enhancement. This is a major shift in the way one thinks about exposure. To help recognize these chances, look beyond what is immediately evident and pre-visualize the scene in grayscale. A scene you passed on in color may prove quite dramatic in black and white.
As is always the case in good art, rules are meant to be broken. The same is true with black and white exposures. You have even more flexibility as shadows can be inky black, and highlights can clip the histogram while retaining their visual appeal. To maximize the dynamic range of the camera, use the ETTR technique (expose to the right). Rather than a muddy exposure, you’ll enjoy the crisp contrast of the full tonal range.
2) Shape and Form
In the absence of color, shapes and patterns become more pronounced. Lighter tones will stand out boldly when placed in front of a darker area. This is an effective way to emphasize the important parts of a subject while minimizing distractions. To compose this way, think about the process of subtraction. What can you remove from the image that’s not essential to the story? As you simplify, the design of a photo will get stronger.
Even something as simple as a shadow on the ground can be used creatively. To the human eye, detail is evident in the pavement, but with a camera it can be rendered as inky black. For some photographers, this may be a very different style of seeing. To practice, I recommend taking a photo hike in which you search for nothing but shadows. You may be pleasantly surprised by how many interesting shots you find.
3) Texture and Detail
It has been said that a person’s eyes are the window to their soul. Their character however, can often be revealed in their hands. In black and white, the subtle details that often go unnoticed become more evident. Wrinkles and texture, for example, benefit from a deeper, more textured appearance. This method is especially effective when using flat or overhead light. Typically this direct light would be undesirable, but in grayscale it can be preferable to that of a softer, diffused quality.
4) Drama and Mood
Blue skies are often used to symbolize happiness. You’ll see this pattern in magazine ads, television commercials, and even movies. Black and white images however, are associated with a different variety of moods. The precise emotion is ultimately up to the viewer, but a few common themes include solitude, contemplation, and pensiveness. Photographers of all genres can work with these traits to effectively portray their vision.
Use your imagination to visualize the mood you want an image to have. A great place to start is to study some of the masters. While Ansel Adams’ landscapes in black and white are very well known, go further in your research. For example, look at the emotion in Edward Weston’s famous “Pepper No. 30.” Another fine representation of this medium is “White Sands, New Mexico” by Ernst Haas. Of course the list goes on, but these are a good place to start. A visit to a local library will undoubtedly prove inspirational, as you may discover work by artists you were not yet familiar with.
5) Dark Spaces and Silhouettes
Subjects that linger in darkness are sometimes more compelling than well-lit scenes. Using black and white photography, we have the ability to show the world in a completely different way. Instead of eliminating the shadowy areas, use them to your advantage. An empty space can actually be an effective method of composition. This type of artistic exposure is more edgy than a literal interpretation.
Take a look through your own catalog of images. There will likely be a number of photos that would be quite dramatic as a black and white. As you convert them from color, experiment with different post-production filters to see how it impacts the scene. For example, a blue filter may lighten the sky dramatically, whereas a yellow filter will make it darker.