Black and white has been around as long as photography itself, and even though we can now produce the most spectacular colour images, this enduring photographic format continues to fascinate. Even today photographers all over the world still produce arresting and eloquent visual images in black and white, images that seem to have a particular resonance with the viewing audience.
You might wonder what it is about black and white photography that makes it so popular: when people are asked, they come up with a number of reasons, prime amongst which is the nostalgic element. Even a black and white photograph taken last week can look old-fashioned, especially if the photographer has been careful to exclude any contemporary details. It can immediately transport people back to their childhood or an earlier era, triggering memories of days gone by. Add to that the effects of shadow, light and dark, and the way in which texture can be highlighted, and it becomes easy to see love black and white, too.
But there’s a real skill to achieving effective images in black and white, especially now for a generation of photographers who have been brought up working in colour. However, it’s a format well worth experimenting with, whether you’re interested in creating gentle nostalgia, gritty reportage or fine art images.
Follow our top ten tips for black and white photography and in next to no time you’ll be creating fantastic monotone pictures of your own.
1. Try Different Formats
For powerful images without the distraction of colour try experimenting with your digital camera’s black and white setting, with black and white film and by using editing software to turn colour shots to black and white. Depending on the style and effect you’re looking for, one will be right for you.
2. Lighting Is Important
Pay extra attention to the lighting – because black and white photographs generally show more contrast than colour ones, if you don’t get the lighting exactly right they can appear too dark or washed out.
3. Composition Is Key
Composition takes on a whole new level of importance as the distractions of colour are removed. Spend extra time considering the composition of your image through the viewfinder.
4. Make Textures A Focus
If you want to play with texture, use the intensity of your lighting to bring interesting textures to the fore – the rough surface of a brick wall, the weave of a piece of fabric, the fur of your sleeping cat, the calluses and creases on a labourer’s hand… In this way, black and white photography can give a new depth of meaning to what might be an everyday picture if taken in colour.
5. Check Your Frame Before Hitting The Shutter
For a timeless image of buildings or landscapes, make sure you avoid including factors that could date the picture such as cars, people, pylons or street lamps. For timeless portraits, keep clothing as simple and classic as possible; it is definitely a wonderful way of making wedding photographs look ageless.
6. Play Around With Effects
Experiment with images that are either monochrome, black and white or greyscale. Each of these effects will give slightly different results depending upon the brightness of the light.
7. Tip For Film Users
If you are using black and white film you should be aware that it is generally more sensitive to blues than it is to greens and reds. This means that green landscapes can appear darker than you would expect, while blue skies can be lighter or brighter.
8. Film Choices For Black & White
If you want to achieve the sort of grainy images of early press photography, try using film – Kodak Tri-X is the professionals’ choice.
9. Have A Go At Digital Toning
If simple black and white is too stark for your purposes, try using digital toning to introduce sepia, blue duotone or tritone to soften your image. Sepia will give your photos a nostalgic patina, while the other two can be used to bring out highlights or darken shadows.
10. Play With The Channel Mixer
If you are converting colour pictures to black and white on your computer, use a Channel Mixer to give your images a wider range of contrast – simply desaturating the colours to greyscale can result in a dull, flat image.