Great black and white photography has a simple timeless quality. There is something about a good black and white image that can evoke so many emotions. The absence of colour in an image forces the viewer to focus on other elements of the image. It minimises the distraction of colour and attacks the senses with other elements such as tone and texture. Not every image will work well in black and white but when you get it right, black and white photography can be breathtaking!
In this blog post, I am going to show you the ways in which, as a beginner, you can visualise and create stunning black and white images via some very simple steps. The basics of photography will get you so far (and are very important), but there are some additional techniques and ways of ‘seeing’ your images before you even take the picture that will help you achieve outstanding black and white results quickly.
Focus on the Composition
One of the key elements of black and white photography is that it removes any distraction of colour and helps the viewer focus on other aspects of the photo. Elements such as the subject itself, the textures, shapes and patterns in the photograph are all amplified and image composition is key. Look at methods such as leading lines and the rule of thirds to create an engaging image. If you’d like to read more about composition why not check out my previous blog post for some simple hints and tips.
Contrast is Key
One of the first steps in taking AMAZING black and white images is to learn how to see in black and white. Remember I said earlier that not every image will work well in black and white? Often the best colour images to convert to monochrome are those with high areas of contrast. To achieve fantastic black and white images you need to look at your subject in terms of the light and dark. Look for contrast — the difference between these light and dark tones in the scene. Shooting black and white images with high levels of contrast can really add drama and atmosphere to your shots. In the absence of colour, dramatic lighting will add interest to your scene.
You will find over time that training your eyes to look for light, shape, composition and contrast will improve all aspects of your photography – not just black and white but colour too!
Look for Shadows, Textures and Lines
One of the most important things you can do in your quest for great black and white images is to train your eye to look for shadows, patterns, textures, and lines. As a photographer, you should be looking for these things anyway, but it’s especially important in black and white photography.
When considering shadows, try photographing at different times of day, particularly late in the afternoon or early in the morning when the sun is lower; casting long and dramatic shadows which can form the basis of a great black and white photo..
A colorless photo doesn’t mean it has to be bland and boring! In the absence of colours, textures will be amplified and lines more obvious. Try looking for interesting textures in fabric, foliage and even walls.
Look for lines and repeating patterns in architecture. These lines will draw your viewer into the image and keep them there, leading their eye around your photograph.
Be Brave – Try Street Photography!
While black and white photography can be applied in any setting but it’s especially effective with street photography.
Street photography, also sometimes called candid photography, is photography that focuses on chance encounters and random incidents within public places. Although any type of photography is suited to this genre, black and white photography can be incredibly suited to this type of photography. The absence of colour enhances the emotion and captures the vibe of the streets and the people that occupy it.
Set your sights on capturing the emotion of the moment and telling the story of what you see around you in everyday settings.
Editing Your Monochrome Images
I always recommend that you shoot your original image in colour (your cameras default setting) and then convert your image into black and white using editing software. Shooting in colour gives you options you wouldn’t have if you started in black and white mode and also gives you the option to have a colour version too. It’s a win, win situation.
If it sounds like a lot of extra work but it really isn’t. Depending upon what software you use, converting to black and white is as easy as one click in most cases.
If you don’t have editing software yet, many cameras have a monochromatic or black and white setting. You might be able to choose to shoot your image in black and white from the get go. Although you will lose the opportunity to have a colour version, it is very helpful at times to immediately see what your shot looks like as a monochrome image on your LCD straight away.
Whether you shoot in black and white, or convert to black and white afterward, there are a few things you can do to make your black and white images even better using your favorite photo editing software. Try increasing the brightness of the lights and the darkness of the shadows to boost contrast. If you aren’t quite ready to invest in an editing programme quite yet, there are many free programmes available on line. Take a look at Gimp for starters. If you use Photoshop or Photoshop Elements (a great option for the beginner and more cost effective than it’s big brother) then try playing with a levels layer. You will be able to drag each side of the slider inwards to enhance your whites and blacks and also play around with your mid tones too. Be sure not to over do it. Often all your image will need is a little tweak to add a touch more punch to your shot – be sure not to lose details in your whites and blacks! You could also play around with your dodge and burn tools but, as always, be sure to work on a duplicate layer so you don’t destroy the original.
One of the most wonderful things about photography in general is it makes you look. It encourages you to see light, lines and details’ things that would usually pass you by on a day to day basis. What sets a great photograph apart from a snapshot is that the photographer has considered all of the elements to be included in the photograph before they have even pressed the shutter release. One of the greatest skills you can learn as a beginner is to train your eye to ‘see’ a good photograph rather than just recording a scene. Black and white photography really forces you to consider the basic elements of tone, texture and contrast and is great training as you progress through your photography journey.
This weekend, take some time to take a look at black and white photographs you love (try 500px to explore some great photography). Think about why you love them. Look at the use of composition, contrast, line and texture then charge up your camera and try and capture just one breathtaking monochrome shot using all or some of the techniques we’ve discussed in this blog post.
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