Mastering the Art of Black and White Photography - the Art...

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Mastering the Art of Black and White Photography Andrew Gibson on Sep 10th 2009 Final Product What You'll Be Creating

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  • Mastering the Art of Black and White Photography

    Andrew Gibson on Sep 10th 2009

    Final Product What You'll Be Creating

  • In the early days of photography, photographers had no choice but to shoot in black and white, as it was the

    only available medium. Then, in 1936, the invention of kodachrome gave colour photography to the world. But

    black and white photography didnt die off, instead it flourished. Modern black and white photography at its

    best is art, and many photographers regard it as the purest form of photography.

    So why does black and white photography command such acclaim? One reason is that colour is a distraction.

    It takes attention away from the visual building blocks of a great photo; texture, tonal contrast, shape, form

    and lighting. A photographer shooting in black and white has to learn how to use all these elements to create a

    memorable image.

    Another reason is that color photography, much of it mediocre, is so abundant that black and white makes a

    refreshing change.

    From an artistic viewpoint; color depicts reality. Black and white is an interpretation of reality.

    1. Learning to See in Mono

    The key to successful black and white photography is learning to see the world in monochrome. Its important

    to understand that not all subjects are suitable for black and white. There are certain types of photo that rely on

    colour for impact. Think of Steve McCurrys famous Afghan Girl portrait, for example. The rich colours are

    an intrinsic part of the images power.

    The successful black and photographer recognizes this, and searches out subject matter that looks better in

    black and white.

    As youre evaluating your subject, try and imagine how it will look in black and white. Pre-visualise the result

    after youve post-processed (or developed and printed if you use film) the image using your favourite

    techniques, such as adding textures and toning. With practice, your vision will become very accurate.

    A good tip for digital SLR users is to shoot in the RAW format (which you should do for the best quality

    colour to black and white conversions anyway) but set the Picture Style (this is Canons term check your

    instruction manual if you have another brand of camera) to a black and white mode. The photo will be

    displayed in black and white on the cameras LCD screen, and youll have all the colour information in the

    RAW file for your conversion afterwards.

    To help you learn to see in black and white, weve included both colour and black and white photos in all our


    2. Texture

    Imagine the wall of an old building, or rusty metal, or weathered wood. Anything old normally has lots of

    texture, and textures look great in black and white.

  • Texture is affected by the lighting conditions. Low raking light, typical of the golden hour of light near sunrise

    and sunset, makes texture stand out sharply. The soft light of an overcast day can also bring out texture,

    though it may need some help in post processing by techniques such as increasing contrast.

    The worse light for photographing texture is harsh midday light. The flatness of this type of light hides texture.

    This photo of a statue has beautiful texture. The light was very soft, so I increased the contrast using the

    curves tool in Photoshop CS to bring out the texture.

    3. Tonal Contrast

    Were used to seeing in colour. When colours are converted to black and white, they become shades of grey.

    Light colours become highlights, and dark colours become dark tones. The differences between these shades is

    called tonal contrast.

    Black and white photographers utilise tonal contrast to make good photos.

  • The photo above, another doorway in northwest Argentina, uses tonal contrast to create a dramatic scene. The

    light tones of the door frame and the paintings have created an impressive image.

  • 4. Shape and Form

    Shape and form are two very important visual elements. Every object has both shape and form. Shape is how

    the subject looks in two dimensions. A silhouette, like this photo of tree branches, is an example of shape in a


  • Form is how the subject looks in three dimensions. Photos are two dimensional, and like painters,

    photographers have the challenge of depicting three dimensional objects (their subjects) in a two dimensional

    form (the photo).

    Black and white draws attention to the shadows and flowing lines that depict form. Use lighting to make your

    subject look three dimensional. Side lighting reveals form by casting shadows. Front and backlighting obscure


    The form of the body of the old car in this photo is revealed by the shadows and the reflections on the metal


  • 5. Lighting

    The word photography derives from the ancient Greek for painting with light. Photography is light, and the

    quality of the light determines the quality of the photo.

    Black and white gives the photographer freedom to take photos in all sorts of lighting conditions. The best

    light is still created by the sun when its low in the sky. But with black and white you can also take photos

    during the middle of the day and on overcast days, which are difficult lighting conditions for colour


    The secret is to make sure the light suits the subject. Midday light, for example, can be great for architecture

    but poor for portraiture. An overcast day is ideal for taking portraits, but poor for landscapes.

    This portrait was taken at the end of an overcast day. The soft light is very flattering.

  • 6. Subjects for Black and White Photography

    There are certain subjects that are ideal for black and white photography:


    Without colour, attention is focused on the eyes and face, and the textures of the subjects clothes. Sepia toned

    photos, such as the one below, are very flattering and often used by commercial portrait studios.

  • Elderly people, with wrinkled and time worn skin, are wonderful subjects for black and white. The above

    photo is of an elderly indigenous lady in Bolivia. Her weathered skin and hat, modelled on the style of helmets

    worn by the Spanish conquerors, make an evocative and timeless portrait.

    Both of these portraits were taken outside on cloudy days. This type of light is very flattering for portraits.

    Direct sunlight creates harsh, ugly shadows across the face, and should be avoided.

  • Landscapes

    Black and white is a very effective medium for landscape photography. It draws attention to the shapes and

    forms of the components within the landscape, and the quality of light.

  • This photo, taken on the Bolivian altiplano, is reduced to a series of shapes and blocks of light and dark tones

    in black and white.


    Our towns and cities are full of modern architecture constructed from metal and glass. Look for the shapes

    these buildings make against the sky.

  • Old buildings have beautiful weathered surfaces full of texture. Ancient castles, cathedrals and churches also

    make great subjects. The photo above was taken in Oxford, England. The universitys dreaming spires reach

    into the sky.

    Travel and Street Photography

    Travel photography is about capturing the memory and emotion of a place that youve visited. Black and

    white photos have a timelessness that is suitable for travel. This photo, taken a few years ago in Argentina,

    could nearly have been taken a hundred years ago.

  • Still Life

    Black and white works well for all sorts of still lifes. Without colour, the emphasis is on the shapes and forms

    of the subject, and the quality of the lighting.

  • I photographed these ornaments in a church in Guatemala. Black and white emphasises the shapes of their

    wings and the textures of the background.


    Nudes are recognised as one of the oldest subjects for artists and photographers. Black and white nudes are

    timeless, and by removing colour, help elevate the subject matter from something that is potentially smutty by

    treating the naked body as an art form.

    7. Some Great Black and White Photographers

    All photographers need inspiration. Here are some of my favourite black and white photographers, past and


    Ansel Adams

    Perhaps the worlds best known black and white landscape photographer, Ansel Adams is remembered for his

    beautiful photos of the American landscape. Adams was a master of black and white printing processes and

    pioneered the zone system, a method of analysing exposure to produce high quality black and white prints.

    Martn Chambi

    A Peruvian photographer based in Cusco who photographed the beautiful Andean landscapes and the

    indigenous people of the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

    Bob Carlos Clarke

    An English erotic photographer who sadly comitted suicide a few years ago, Bob Carlos Clarke was

    recognised as a brilliant commercial and erotic photographer.


    Karsh was the pre-eminent portrait photographer of his time. His subjects include Winston Churchill and

    Ernest Hemmingway.

    David DuChemin

    (See the Ladakh and Classic India galleries)

    Travel photographer David DuChemin has a beautiful portfolio of black and white photos taken in Nepal and

    Tibet. His images of buddhist monks are timeless and evocative.

  • Andrew Farrington

    One hat wonders

    Polaroids (flickr)

    One hat wonders (flickr)

    London based fashion and advertising photographer Andrew Farrington has a brilliant portfolio of black and

    white images. He often works on the edges of the limitations of light and equipment, introducing blur and

    camera shake into his photos.

    Nick Brandt

    Fine art photographer Nick Brandt is famous for his black and white photos of African animals and


    Zhang Jingha


    (Mixture of color and black and white images).

    A freelance photographer from Singapore, Zhangs black and white portraits and fashion photos are simply

    beautiful. (

    Lara Jade Coton


    (Mixture of colour and black and white images).

    This young English photographer has created her own unique black and white style.

    Xavi Fuentes

    A beautiful portfolio of seascapes.


    Zoriah is a photojournalist who travels to the worlds conflict zones and troublespots, recording the stories of

    the people whose lives are affected by political and economic turmoil.