Black-and-white photography is totally distinct from color photography. There’s a poignancy to black-and-white images that’s palpable. Maybe it’s because, when color is stripped away, so, too, are distractions. Perhaps the lack of visual interference allows other elements to take center stage.
Light, shadow, texture, line and shape all seem to matter that much more in monochromatic work. How, where and why each of these compositional elements is placed within the frame is significant in providing visual cohesion, as well as for evoking emotion.
The relationship between the blacks and the whites and all of the tones that poetically fall in between work together to tell the story of something that seems to cut to the heart of what’s most important, in the shot and even in our very soul. These are the common threads that weave much of black-and-white photography together, despite all of the genres that are included under a rich and diverse tapestry.
The approach and methods to get to the final image of a monochromatic photograph can be as unique as each image itself. The photographer, as the storyteller, is responsible for why and how each photograph is captured and then, in turn, processed. Although there may be a multitude of ways to achieve a desired result of a black-and-white image, there’s a distinct visual and emotional sentiment that’s universally shared. It’s no wonder, then, that photographers rely on the magic of a monochromatic palette to distill a message, evoke an emotion or share a story through their images.
|"I desaturate the RAW image first thing; it reminds me of working from negatives. I then lighten and adjust contrast. I do like to put a slight vignette on the image—it brings your eye in."|
Perhaps known best for capturing eloquent and compassionate stories of the human spirit, Henry Lohmeyer, founder of Camera Men and co-founder of Our Collective, says of his approach to shooting, "I want to remember the story, the feeling. I want to look back on a photo I’ve taken and feel it. I spend much of my time on the streets, outdoors, shooting from the hip. In doing so, I’ve learned you really have to surrender so much control over lighting, the subject, and many times, your camera. What you can control is your awareness, your eye, your passion." Henry converts the majority of his images to black-and-white, but doesn’t like to use presets or filters. He’d rather just adjust exposure and contrast as would benefit each individual shot. He’s forever drawn to the richness of shadows, and believes it’s in those shadows that magic is found.
|…OR PROCESS IN COLOR?
|"I shoot and edit in color. I start by adjusting details. When I’m happy with the color version, I convert to black-and-white and then just tweak the contrast a bit."|
Swedish iPhoneographer Mia Camp explains why the monochrome palette appeals to her: "I convert to black-and-white to strip the image of distractions and bring out the essential—my images tell my story. Light, texture, color and shape are the backbone of my language." Mia shares, "In my dreams, I’m this ever-exploring, living-on-the-edge kind of photographer, traveling to cool places and meeting interesting people. But, in real life, I’m an introverted observer, using mobile photography to document my backyard adventures." Her processing path is what she calls quite "simple." It usually includes black-and-white presets or filters that bring out the details and enhance the mood of her images.
|COMPOSITION IS CRITICAL
ROBERT X. JONES
|While composition is important in all photography, it’s absolutely critical in black-and-white photography. Without the use of color to inform or direct the viewer, you must rely on contrast, negative space, lines and textures to achieve something visually pleasing."|
ROBERT X. JONES
Photographer Robert X. Jones finds that the landscapes he visits and often shoots for his day job as a wildlife biologist have a forlorn beauty about them, and he looks forward to working in these environments. His approach is unique in that he likes to take his time in between shooting and editing. Says Robert, "My creative process involves taking the photos, downloading them to my computer and then letting them sit there for weeks, maybe months. When I get around to viewing them, I feel like I’m looking at work shot by someone else. The memory of shooting has faded a bit and this affords me a fresh take on the images." As for how he approaches his conversion, Robert adds, "After selecting a few shots, I always start with basic adjustments—cropping, brightness, contrast—and then convert to black-and-white. After that, I usually do additional adjustments and a little noise reduction. I may stop there, but if I want something more moody, I’ll use a diffusion filter."
|"When converting to black-and-white make sure your tones are balanced, as you don’t want too much black, nor do you want blown-out highlights, both of which erase detail. You also don’t want the image to look flat and washed out. Play with Levels in Photoshop to balance the tones, or if you’re using an app filter, choose one that nicely balances them."|
Author and fine-art photographer Susan Tuttle points her lens toward an entirely different kind of landscape: the landscape of self. As for her image titled "Nevermore," she reveals, "Although it’s a self-portrait, I don’t tend to think of it as such, rather that I’m using my body as a model with which to explore form, shape, line, composition and texture. On a deeper level, I feel tapped into an exploration of the inner workings of the collective human heart." Susan often uses what she calls a "makeshift photo studio" and self-timer to create her work and chooses to convert many images to black-and-white because, "It heightens the emotional content of the image and can add a bit of mystery to the scene," she says. Her editing process can include tonal adjustment settings, filters and the Clone tool to remove unwanted pixels. Adds Susan, "I want my work to feel like visual poetry. I wish for my viewers to sense stories behind each image."
|CONTRAST & TEXTURE
|"I look for elements of great contrast or texture. I also keep my eyes open for vintage cars, washed-out brick, weathered paint and other objects in my environment to help add to the timeless, vintage feel of black-and-white instant film."|
What happens when you choose not to rely on postprocessing? Instant film photographer Meghan Davidson puts it this way: "The nostalgic and timeless feel that instant film can achieve is what draws me to shooting with it. Since I’m not using postproduction to convert my images to monochrome, I need to think ahead and decide beforehand that I want to shoot in black-and-white." Meghan creates portraits and vintage scenes with instant film, adding, "When I want to capture a portrait, often a self-portrait, and I want the image to have an ageless, enduring feel, I shoot black-and-white instant film. Nothing else gives me the same dreamy, timeless, contemplative mood like black-and-white instant film does."