Seeing In Black & White

As much as I like color, there’s just something that’s compelling about black-and-white images. Maybe it’s the purity, grit or tension, but black-and-white continues to be a popular medium in photography. Thanks to digital capture, we can convert any image into black-and-white, but not all color images are created equal when it comes to black-and-white photography.

Some images convert nicely into black-and-white, while others lose impact and look flat. Why? Certain subjects have light and color characteristics that favor black-and-white photography; the trick is learning to see in black-and-white and recognize scenes that will render beautifully without color. Use the guidelines below to start seeing in black-and-white.

 

FOCUS ON STRONG GRAPHICS

Remember the elements of design? Line, shape, form, texture, pattern and color are the building blocks of strong graphic images. But when we photograph in black-and-white, we lose one of the elements of design—color. To compensate for this, we need to photograph black-and-white scenes emphasizing other, present design elements.

I look for strong shapes and leading lines in my black-and-white images. I try to simplify my image and rely on clean bold lines to draw the viewer into the frame. Clean shapes also photograph well as black-and-white. I often look for visual handrails—what I call the lines and patterns that give the viewer a natural path to follow through the image.

Texture is one of my favorite black-and-white elements. Gritty, rugged subjects, whether it’s a man’s face or a weathered railroad car, photograph well as black-and-white. I was on an assignment recently photographing a transportation museum and spent hours just photographing textures. If I had been thinking in color, I would have left after a few shots. But thinking in black-and-white, I spent half a day photographing peeling paint and rusty bolts.

 

CONTRAST IS A GOOD THING

Color photographers try to avoid contrast, but black-and-white photographers seek out contrast. Why? Contrast adds degrees of separation and stretches the tonal range of black-and-white images. This isn’t to say you can’t create a good black-and-white image in overcast light, but oftentimes contrast creates more “punchy” black-and-white images.

Hand in hand with strong contrast is having an image with a wide tonal range and clean blacks and whites. Images that stretch to both ends of the tonal scale will photograph better than images with low contrast and lots of gray components. You want a clean white and black in your image, and lots of shades of gray in between.

 

SEE IN BLACK & WHITE

We see the world in color. I’ve spent my entire career photographing brightly clad extreme athletes in colorful environments. I use color relationships in creating my images. I look for complementary colors like red/green and yellow/purple to add that extra pop to my shot. But what looks good in color doesn’t always look good in black-and-white. Complementary colors look bland and almost merge with one another when converted to black-and-white.

The key is seeing tonalities, not colors. While colors often separate nicely in an image, only different tonalities separate cleanly in black-and-white images. If you photograph a subject with a wide range between tonalities, then it should work well as a black-and-white image. The final image should have good definition and contrast.

 

GET OUT YOUR FILTERS

One way to correct muddled black-and-white images is to use filters. Black-and-white photographers have long used physical color filters to enhance their photographs. Color filters that match a color in the photograph will strengthen the color, and create more contrast and separation in the image. Colors include red, orange, yellow, green and blue.

Red filters are particularly popular with landscape photographers. A red filter will transform a blue sky to almost black and make puffy cumulus clouds jump out. Foggy scenes get better definition when you use a red filter. Contrast will be greatly enhanced. Orange and yellow filters have subtle effects on an image. They may add just an ounce of contrast or help accentuate certain colors in a scene for better contrast. Green filters are often used with green vegetation to give grasses and plants more separation from other colors in the scene. Blue filters reduce contrast in most black-and-white photographs, so I rarely use a blue filter.

There are some other filters that also help create striking black-and-white images. Polarizing filters add contrast to color photographs, and do the same with black-and-white images. If I find a scene that would render well as a black-and-white, I always try a polarizer. Sunny scenes will get more pop from a polarizing filter, but also try using them on wet vegetation and scenes with water.

Polarizing filters have the most effect when your camera angle is perpendicular to the sun. If you use a wide-angle lens like a 24mm or wider, your sky will be darker in one part of the image than the other. This is less apparent when you’re photographing landscapes without the sky.

Another filter that works really well with black-and-white images is a neutral-density (ND) filter. ND filters reduce light and allow the photographer to shoot at slow shutter speeds. I never leave the house without my 10-stop Mor-Slo filter from Singh-Ray. This filter allows me to shoot at a speed of one minute and longer in the middle of the day. Fast-moving clouds stretch across the sky, and lapping ocean waves turn into cotton. The mystery and drama created by these moving elements look terrific in black-and-white.

 

IS NOISE REALLY BAD?

As sensor technology has evolved, so has the ability of digital cameras to use incredibly high ISO to photograph dark scenes with minimal noise. Even more important for the black-and-white photographer, the quality of the noise is more pleasing than it used to be. I remember in journalism school choosing black-and-white films based on the grain characteristics. Grain, the equivalent to digital noise, was a desired quality in many black-and-white photographs. Even today, black-and-white conversion software offers grainy effects to simulate old black-and-white film emulsions.

How does this affect shooting digital black-and-white images? If I find myself, for example, photographing the Charles Bridge in Prague at twilight at a high ISO with noise, I don’t worry about it, but rather embrace it. Grain looks good in many black-and-white images. But on the other hand, since I’m shooting in color and will convert my image to black-and-white in postprocessing, I avoid unnecessary noise in my images upfront. Better to add noise later in postprocessing than try to reduce it from a noisy image.

 

USE SOLID CAMERA CRAFT

Remember, it’s very important to create clean, simple images when photographing in black-and-white. Focus on clean subjects with strong graphic elements. And use the right camera craft to create strong images. If y
ou need to get closer to your subject, walk closer or put on a zoom lens. If you have competing background elements in a portrait, shoot wide open to blur the background and create separation. If you have a beautiful cobblestone street leading into a quaint French village, get on the ground and shoot at ƒ/16 for maximum depth of field. Highlight the gritty texture of the cobblestone street leading to the village with a low, fresh perspective.

Digital photography has given photographers the best of both worlds. We can create stunning color photographs, and also convert our favorite images to black-and-white. But the trick is knowing what makes a good black-and-white image. When you put your eye against the viewfinder, just remember to see in black-and-white. 

You can see more of Tom Bol’s photography at tombolphoto.com.

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