Like most photographers who got into the medium before digital, my first photos were black-and-white. It was popular with students because it’s much easier to work with than color film and chemistry when you’re developing and printing your own work. Shooting in black-and-white is also a good practice for developing your visual "vocabulary" because it really forces you to concentrate on composition without the distraction of color.
There’s a timeless quality in a black-and-white image, making it a classic choice for family portraits. Black-and-white is also a great option for scenes rich with detail or dramatic light.
Although you can always convert a color image to black-and-white—and, in fact, that’s the workflow we recommend for creating these images—for the best ones, you need to be thinking in black-and-white when you’re shooting.
1. PAY ATTENTION TO SHAPES AND FORMS
This is always good practice in order to create strong geometric compositions, but it’s especially important for black-and-white photographs. Removing the element of color focuses our attention even more directly on the shapes and formal relationships in the frame. Without color to convey mood and emotion—or serve as a distraction—the way you arrange the shapes in your composition creates the visual tension you need for an engaging image.
2. TRY ABSTRACT COMPOSITIONS
Successful abstract images detach the subject from how we would normally perceive it. Abstracts work particularly well in black-and-white because by removing color, we push the subject even further away from the ordinary. Moving in close to a subject, or framing it in such a way as to eliminate the horizon or other spacial clues, enhances the disorientation that can help attract and hold attention to your photo.
3. TEXTURE IS KEY
In addition to the arrangement of shapes that anchor your composition, try to include elements that have surface textures. Texture adds another layer of interest. The direction of light can dramatically affect how a texture will be rendered, so if you’re working with available light, try photographing the subject at different times of day and see how the texture changes. If you’re using an artificial light, place it at a variety of angles until you find a setup that accentuates the texture and adds depth and dimension to your photograph.
4. CAPTURE A WIDE RANGE OF TONES
One of the reasons why Ansel Adams is so revered was his ability to capture an incredible range of tonality in his images. The Zone System, which he helped develop and promote, breaks down the range of tonality from pure black (Zone 0) to pure white (Zone 10). The remaining zones are one stop apart, with Zone 8 being twice as dark as Zone 9, Zone 7 twice as dark as Zone 8, and so on.
Though the Zone System was developed for exposing film, the basic principles are just as applicable with digital. An ideal black-and-white exposure will have a range of tonality that spans all 10 zones, from pure black to pure white and everything in between. Careful exposure is part of this, but so is getting good light. Compose images that contain this range of tonality, and be prepared to add more light if needed.