Shooting for black and white

Alpha Tutorial :18 - Shooting for black and white

Nothing is as essential as a black and white photograph. In the absence of color, texture and line gain immediacy, a photograph becomes pure subject free from distraction.

Shooting for black and white is unlike shooting for color; what makes a good color image won’t guarantee a good black and white photo. Here’s what you need to know before you turn your camera on monochrome.

Shooting for black and white

Focus on Contrast

Colors transform into varying levels of brightness in a black and white image, otherwise known as values or tones. A yellow scarf might look distinct against a white background, but when converted to black and white the two light tones blend together. The first trick then, is to train your eye to look for rich tones instead of color when shooting for black and white.

Our eyes naturally focus on color and light intensity, so when color is removed, light intensity takes prominence. Images with varying degrees of brightness look more vibrant in black and white, especially images where there is a high contrast between the brightest and darkest areas. Images with near-uniform degrees of brightness may turn out flat with no clear subject of interest, but can also become minimalist images with subtle tones.

Harsh light and shadows lend themselves well to black and white photography. Not only do they provide scenes with high contrast, the strong shadows themselves can become elements in a composition, giving you shots reminiscent of film noir.

Focus on Form

Another kind of contrast which works well in black and white is the contrast between textures; between objects which are rough and smooth, new and old, jagged and curved. This is because black and white photography is an ideal medium for abstract ideas, shapes and forms.

While color photography feels like a representation of reality, black and white photography is an interpretation of it. Colors can draw our eyes away from line and texture, but black and white photography reveals them. Look for symmetry and asymmetry in your composition, patterns and breaks in repetition, details, interesting textures, and strong lines and shapes.

Photo by Shinya Morimoto.

Photo by Shinya Morimoto.

Shoot in B&W, Record in Color

Set your camera to its black and white mode and shoot only that for an entire day, it will help you train your eye to see in tones instead of color. Depending on how your digital camera’s black and white mode works (if it has one), it will either only save the black and white JPEG or save both a black and white image with a color JPEG.

An alternative is to capture in RAW; you’ll still retain the color information, even though the LCD previews will be in black and white. We recommend that you shoot in RAW and do your conversion to black and white using your computer later. It adds an extra step, but while you can convert a color original to black and white, you can’t convert a black and white original to color, and doing the conversion yourself also gives you more control over the final image.

Understanding Tonality

Understanding tonality, also known as lightness or value, is crucial to shooting in black and white. A selection of colors might look distinct, but if they share the same brightness levels – also known as tonal value – they’ll look the same when converted to black and white. To shoot better black and white photographs, learn to see in tonality rather than color.

Although these blocks look distinct in color, they share the same tonal value and look the same when converted to black and white.

Although these blocks look distinct in color, they share the same tonal value and look the same when converted to black and white.

These colors have distinctly different tonal values, and create high contrasts when converted to black and white.

These colors have distinctly different tonal values, and create high contrasts when converted to black and white.

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