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Black and white photography made easy – Part 1

I remember my first photos, taken with a black and white film camera, and they were less than impressive shots. My abiding memory is of images that were flat and grey, with very little variation in tone, and I was delighted when colour film became the norm. Today I realise the reason for these lacklustre black and white images. There was no emphasis on any of the elements that make a good photograph, let alone a good black and white photograph, it was simply point and shoot and hope for the best. Having said that, I do remember a photo I took of my bicycle (my pride and joy at the time) placed against a wall. It may have been accidental, but I did compose the photograph so that the dark bicycle stood out against the lighter background, and it may have been that contrast between dark and light that helps me remember the image today.

Although my own efforts at achieving good black and white photographs were not very successful, due to lack of knowledge and decent equipment, the concept of black and white photography has always interested me. Many of the photographs that I have been drawn to over the years have been black and white images. I love the simplicity that lack of colour offers, but also the richness which this can bring to an image. Although they don’t appeal to everyone, I really like the black and white street images of Vivian Maier. They are a record of a place and time and, in my opinion, they are more effective as black and white images than they would be had Vivian Maier had access to colour film

I feel the same about the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, named the father of candid photography, whose iconic black and white images are revered by photographers all over the globe. Even though Cartier-Bresson was shooting with black and white film, his photographs have strong composition which was a result of waiting until all the elements took shape before taking his shot, and this was one of the keys to the success of his images. Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (1932), named by Time magazine as one of the 100 images that changed the world, is considered to be one of Cartier-Bresson’s best images. In the photograph a man leaps across a puddle of water, while the action is mirrored on a poster behind him. The dark figure against the light background immediately draws your eye, as does the reflection in the water. When photographers didn’t have the advantage of using colour in their images, they had to produce fantastic shots to capture their audience. On examination of this image you can see all the various photography techniques used by this master photographer

As is obvious from these and many other iconic images by some of the world’s best photographers, black and white photography is an accomplished art and not an area in which all photographers will do well. As a learner I have just about dipped my toe into this area as, although I love to look at good black and white photographs, I am well aware that black and white images are not simply colour photographs ‘de-saturated’. While this may be one method of achieving the desired effects, creating a good, as opposed to a mediocre, black and white photograph involves much more. It is for this reason that I have been reluctant to try black and white photography but, with some research into what makes a good black and white image, study of the black and white ‘masters’ and lessons from a photographer who works mainly in black and white, I have made some attempts to produce my own black and white images.

I have divided this article into two parts. Part 1 will consider how you decide which images will look good in black and white and part 2 will consider how, once you have chosen the image, you can begin to create the best possible black and white version of that image.

How do you decide which image will make a good black and white photograph?

The first thing I realised about this type of photography is that not all images look good in black and white. Although some photographers shoot exclusively in black and white, for many it will be a case of assessing images to see which would make good black and white photos. So, the first question we need to ask is, do some photos lend themselves to black and white better than others? The answer to this, of course, is yes. A good black and white image begins when you frame your shot. Colour is important in a black and white image because of the way colours convert into grayscale. Using complementary colours in our compositions, like red and green, blue and yellow, will give good tonal contrast when you convert your image to black and white. Beginning with an image that has good tonal contrast makes processing easier as it saves pushing the sliders too far, which can affect the quality of the image.

I captured this as a colour image but felt it had the potential to make a good black and white conversion. The strong contrast in the foreground means the different elements stand out

Whether we take our shots intentionally as black and white images, or want to convert our colour images to black and white in post processing, there are a few important variables to consider.

1. Contrast

As mentioned above, good black and white photographs need good contrast. It is widely accepted that the best black and white photographs will have some portion of the photo near to pure black and some portion near to pure white. This provides contrast between the darkest blacks and the lightest whites. Since not every photograph translates well into black and white we need to learn to ‘see in black and white’, to see good contrast between dark and light, to notice all the shades of grey that an image should have if it is to become a decent black and white image. In other words, seeing in black and white is being able to judge whether a subject will make a good black and white image.

Looking back, my early images with my kodak camera had no contrast to speak of; they did not have varying tones of grey and I didn’t know to look for that type of contrast. As a result, the images often looked flat and dull. Today it is easier, with all the vibrant colours in the world around us, to seek out contrasting tones for our compositions. Even in a landscape of trees, there will be many shades to allow for tonal contrast.

2. Shapes and lines

When you remove colour from an image, shapes and lines become more important. A silhouette shows how, without colour, we rely on shape to identify an object. Shapes are particularly important in a black and white image as they help to make sense of the photograph. Strong lines and patterns also lend themselves well to black and white photography as they give us elements that will stand out and provide contrast to lighter elements.

In this image there did not seem to be good contrast in the original colour version but there was something about the subject that made me want to try it as a black and white image. The simplicity of the subject set against the desolate landscape and the line of posts leading the eye to the lighthouse in the distance, do, to some extent, make it a candidate for black and white conversion

3. Texture

Textures really stand out in a black and white image and they can serve to create contrast. Texture can also create emotion in a black and white image. Smoother textures create a calmer, more balanced mood in the photo while a rough texture, such as a wave crashing on the rocks, can add to the intensity and drama of an image.

In black and white this image appears very cold and gives a lonely feeling, and that might be the effect that is required in certain situations

Sky can provide good texture for b&w images

4. Shadows

Shadows are more significant in a black and white photo than they are in a colour image. In a black and white image, shadows are given equal visual weight to the other elements, while in a colour image the subject is given more visual weight. For this reason, shadows add a greater visual impact and sense of drama to a black and white image.

5. Composition

A good black and white photograph is not good simply because it is black and white. As with all the iconic black and white photographs that we have been given over time, composition is key to a good black and white photograph. Composition is important in all types of photography. When we pay attention to composition, we are deciding how we want to place elements in our image, how we want our image to look. We make decisions about main subject, supporting elements, foreground, background and light. In black and white photography composition is equally important as, in addition to these considerations, we will also want to include contrast, shape, texture and shadows to the best effect. If we begin to ‘think in black and white’ it can help us decide how best to compose our image.

A leading line is a common compositional tool. In this black and white image it can be used to add to the drama created by the menacing clouds

6. Emotion

Most of the iconic black and white images are full of emotion. The classic image, Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange is an excellent illustration of this. Lange captured a series of images in a migrant encampment in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. In the pea-pickers camp she encountered hunger and despair, and these are the emotions she depicted through her photographs. No one could view the image of the migrant mother without reading the fear, desperation and worry on the mother’s face or without interpreting the child’s despair from the body posture that is captured on camera.

By highlighting elements such as shape, contrast, shadows and texture in our compositions we are attempting to create a certain mood or emotion in the image. In many ways, choosing black and white can increase the storytelling potential of an image by stripping away the distraction of colour and helping us express emotions through our photography.

Facial expressions are highlighted when the distraction of colour is taken away

To sum up:

How do you decide which image will make a good black and white photograph?

· Make sure there is good contrast between light and dark tones

· Look for shadows, strong patterns, lines and textures

· Try to ‘see’ in black and white. Think: how will it look in black and white?

· Be inspired by black and white photography

In part 2 of this article I will consider how to improve our black and white photography by creating the best possible black and white version of our images.


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