We live in the age that has witnessed tremendous improvements in digital cameras, featuring richer colors, better dynamic ranges, yet still black and white photos capture the imagination of artistically oriented people. In this article, we explore why do black and white photos have such appeal, and more importantly, how can we leverage them to improve our observation skills and the way we perceive the world around us.
Color is a distraction
We as humans are used to perceive the world around us in color. However, sometimes color can actually impede our vision and ability to spot a good photo opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, color is an important compositional element, and it has its own uses, but a good photographer knows that color is just a tiny bit of a complex puzzle called composition. So, if you are like me drawn to colorful subjects, the following techniques might help you improve your photography skills by temporarily taking color out of the equation.
- Shoot in RAW+JPEG but set image controls to black and white – using this technique will allow your camera to still capture the photo in full color (using RAW), but the black and white preview on your digital camera’s display will give you an idea on how would this image look in black and white. If you want to go for the traditional film look and feel, you might want to increase contrast and sharpness, as well as increase ISO for that cool, vintage look. This will allow you to examine the picture in front of you in a whole new light. And you will still capture maximum detail, giving you an ability to convert your photo in black and white during post processing phase in photoshop.
Focus on contrast, texture, patterns and shapes – with the color component removed, other compositional components become increasingly more important. Contrast plays a critical role, as it will separate dramatic, powerful images from the bland ones. Texture and pattern can also have a significant impact as they become much more prominent in black and white photography. Moreover, if you manage to stick one to two whole weeks by only shooting black and white, you will notice a shift in your observation from shooting a nice and colorful image, towards aligning shapes, observing the lighting and noticing the balance of the positive and negative space in the photo.
- Use Live View to help you visualize the world in black and white – Live View has been introduced to DSLRs only recently, but in my view, it’s an invaluable tool in helping you to improve your visualization skills. Seeing the world in black and white is not an easy task for a beginner, and Live View helps significantly in bridging the gap.
Black and white photography is not affected by overcast skies or harsh lightning – at least not to the degree the color photography is. You will typically see most of photographers that shoot in color aiming for the golden hour (1 hour before sunrise or sunset) when the colors are the warmest complaining about harsh lighting conditions during noon. However, that is when the contrasts are at the strongest, giving way to some interesting black and white photos. The same rule applies to overcast skies. While some photographers will complain about all of their subjects looking bland and uninteresting, a simple switch to black and white mode can help you capture the fine transitions of some abstract subject. Remember, it’s all about arranging shapes, and being aware of the lighting (not necessarily the color of it).
- What are the best photography subjects for black and white -this usually greatly depends on the individual taste. Portrait photographers might discover that elderly people with their wrinkled skin are wonderful black and white photography subjects. Landscapes and architecture photography provide some interesting opportunities to play with arranging shapes. Hint: pay special attention to the clouds in the sky, as they play significantly bigger role in black and white photography then in color.
- Where to begin – if you need some inspiration, check the work of the old masters of photography, such as Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus or Alfred Stieglitz. There are plenty of resources on the web about black and white photography which will give you some ideas.
Bottom line is,
Once you get used to notice the compositional elements for making a great black and white photo, you will see significant improvements in your color photography as well.
It is the same principle where removal of one sense helps to sharpen up other senses.
Submit your Black and White photos to DPStudent Flickr group, and let us know how did black and white photography help you improve your photography skills. Happy shooting.