What does it take to really master black-and-white as a photographer? If the perfect flash or reflector was the only thing required, we’d all be winning prizes by now. No, what’s required is a daily practice where you go straight to your edges and allow yourself to truly explore the world in black-and-white. For some, taking your big camera here, there, everywhere, is a realistic option, but for most of us, the most practical way to develop our eye for black-and-white is to play around with our smartphones.
Luckily, with one or two taps of a screen from that magnificent piece of rectangular plastic, you can begin to see the world in black-and-white, as anything you shoot can be edited in a flash, transporting you into a photography practice that demands you pay attention to essentials or lose the magic in one fell swoop. Confining yourself to this medium trains your eye in a new way and makes room for you to focus in ways that are easy to forget when you have the full benefit of color at your fingertips.
Shooting in black-and-white forces you to look for the light, for the lines, for the shapes and shadows that create images that are interesting and have the mark of fine-art photography. Gone are the tricks of hue, saturation or vignetting to draw the eye in. In black-and-white photography, you have to focus on the subject itself. You have to notice where the light falls and what gets created when what was once in color is now in shadow.
This is a critical point in the development of a photographer because work that moves into black-and-white forces us to create images that are timeless, classic and connected to that vintage feel that suggests a history beyond the frame. Black-and-white deepens our abilities, helps us learn where lines are strong and composition is inherently present. And, because it’s not easy and can be downright unforgiving, it invites us to expand our capacity to really see a shot, which is a hallmark of every great shooter.
So, where to begin? As you consider your quest to master black-and-white, save room for this: Sometimes the most effective way to break into a new medium is to leave behind your quest for perfection and shoot with the kind of naive enthusiasm you had before you had any idea how your camera worked or what you could really do. Take on a beginner’s mindset, throw your perfectionism to the wind, and focus on these basics in spontaneity, composition, curiosity and authenticity.
Five Everyday Ways to Approach B&W Photography
1. Look around the edges.
The difference between a good photographer and a great photographer is an exceptional eye. Learning how to see means looking for what’s out of place, what’s unusual, what’s not yet revealed in your landscape. Anyone can photograph a cereal bowl or a coffee cup, but the seasoned shooter knows that the real juice is what’s just outside of the frame. Make it a daily practice to look outside the perimeter of your viewfinder. What’s lurking? What’s a little bit off? Choosing to shoot the unnatural, the uncommon, the weird breaks down perfectionism and takes you deeper into your craft. Converting that to black-and-white is one way to make sure the subject is the thing. So look a little farther every day, until you can see the lines, the shadows and everything else that’s calling to you along the surface.
2. Keep it simple.
There’s elegance in the truth. Yes, you can spend hours setting up the very best shot, or you can strip down to the most essential elements and capture exactly what you see, the way you see it. Learning how to trust your eye means knowing that the very best shots are rare moments when the elements collide to reveal something startling, amazing, new. Notice when you’re layering on the filters or pushing everything to social media out of fear of the simple image not being enough. Dare to peel back the layers and see what’s really there, in its most unrefined glory. That means looking at what you’ve got in black-and-white first, and trusting what’s laid bare in the frame as the real thing.
3. Composition first.
Any experienced photographer knows that bad decisions in the field are saved time and time again by brilliance in the editing suite. With the click of a mouse and the swipe of a hand, good composition can be restored where once was none. But relying too heavily on editing can slowly eat away at the most core requirement of good photography: gorgeous composition. Resist the urge to shoot now, fix later, and see what happens when you let the color fall away and make composition your priority first and foremost. Notice where your eye fills in the frame when you’re setting up the shot and adjust for maximum impact. Where you place the focus is as important as any magic you can do tapping and swiping in those little boxes after the fact. The unforgiving nature of black-and-white will demand better composition from you and make everything sharper, clearer when you let color be the thing again.
4. Shoot badly.
The greatest mistake emerging photographers make is staying close to what works after they’ve achieved some level of proficiency in a certain area. Same goes with preferences for editing. Challenge yourself this year to keep pushing the boundaries for yourself by taking chances, especially when you’ve not quite yet mastered the desired outcome. You make your very best strides when you go a little too far. So shoot longer, wider, in light that’s a little bit too low and in flare that’s hitting you a little too bright. On the outskirts of your better judgment, you’ll find your own distinct way of shooting in black-and-white that makes your images uniquely your own and, along with it, a path to mastery that you didn’t know existed. In this sense, editing into black-and-white is a smart move, and all that excess in shadow and light becomes the very thing that makes your image uniquely you, an authentic work of art.
5. Give us what you’ve got.
You can keep a thousand images on your phone or you can load those babies up and share them with the world on Instagram, Facebook and beyond. Learning how to let go and have your images be seen is an important way to improve your work. Way too often, what we consider to be shoddy work actually carries a kernel of brilliance, and the only way to see it is when another photographer points it out. Learn to see value through another perspective. By sharing your work online, you create connections, receive feedback and discover aspects of your own gifts that might not be apparent otherwise. You can also solicit others for critique and review who you see as more developed than you are—a valuable process for anyone who wants to have their work taken more seriously. So hashtag to your heart’s content to find the other photographers out there who are playing with black-and-white the same way you are. Discover how many people are restricting their editing choices to master black-and-white, composition, light and shadow, the same way you are.
Jen Lemen is an award-winning photographer and nature-based coach working with people in transition. Her images have appeared in The New York Times, the Huffington Post and on
PBS.org. In 2008, she won the Name Your Dream Assignment contest, sponsored by Microsoft and Lenovo, which allowed Jen to photograph stories of hope and elemental courage from around the world. She’s a coauthor of Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters’ Guide to Shooting from the Heart and the founder of hopefulworld.org.