Here are some of the main elements you should be keeping in mind as you start out on your black and white journey. Naturally, as you develop in both skill and confidence, you will find through trial and error what works best for your particular creative vision, which you will want to be seen by the world. It is by no means an exhaustive guide, but hopefully it can set you on your way by outlining what are generally regarded as the essentials for black and white photography.
Shoot colour and Raw
A lot of modern cameras have so-called creative functions that give you the option to capture your images in black and white at the outset. Doing this may actually result in a loss of tonal range. If you shoot in colour and especially in Raw format, you will be capturing the full gamut of tonality that your camera’s sensor can see. This is a much better starting point with more control than an in-camera mono image. It won’t stop you if your camera can’t shoot Raw, and you have to use jpegs instead; just keep them in colour.
Keep your ISO low
The lower your ISO, the less grainy the images will be. If it means you need a tripod to handle slower shutter speeds, then that is a good thing. Shooting from a tripod tends to slow down the shooting process and can be more considered. Too often a camera’s ISO setting will be left on auto, pushing up ISO speeds to make sure there is no camera shake. The downside is that higher ISO equals higher noise in your image, which will only be exacerbated by the post-processing stage. You can always add grain, if you think the image will somehow benefit from it, during the processing stage.
The best conditions
The truth is, there aren’t necessarily any best conditions in which to shoot black and white. Some mono shooters actually prefer to take their shots on overcast and generally dark days. The low contrast seems to be a draw for these photographers. Certainly, a grey cloudy sky can be made to look very moody and dramatic, as opposed to a blue sky with white puffy clouds. A lot of it will come down to your personal preference and mono conversion technique. However, just because it’s overcast it doesn’t mean there aren’t any interesting image possibilities to be found out there.
See the light
Your image can stand or fall on the quality of the light in the scene. It is generally held that midday sunlight knocks detail flat and creative possibilities are more limited. For landscapes particularly, the first light of morning or the last light of evening is a much more prized commodity. Light glancing across the land picks out details, throws long dramatic shadows and enhances contrast. You can use this great light for mood and drama that is absent when the sun is at its zenith.
Consider your subject
Trying to think in black and white – that is to say, trying to visualise the scene in front of you with all its colour absent – is a good skill to try and develop. The simple question you have to ask yourself at the outset is whether the resulting image would be improved by being in black and white, or would colour be the best thing for it. At the end of the day not every image will work in black and white. Sometimes the removal of colour can also remove differentiation between objects that could easily be distinguished were they in colour.
The basic rules of thumb that apply to general colour photography also apply to black and white. The rule of thirds, golden ratio, leading lines, framing and viewpoint are all well-established guidelines that can make even the simplest scene stronger with some care and attention given to the composition of the final shot. Now, having said that, sometimes rules can be broken. If you find your scene somehow doesn’t conform to a standard rule, take the shot anyway. Now and again it’s refreshing to shoot something ’just because…’!
Shape and form
In black and white particularly, shape and form become very important to the success of the image. Converting to black and white means you can no longer rely on any colours in the scene to define or differentiate your subject from its environment. You need to be able to take the shapes, lines and forms available in the shot, and use them as the method by which the image is given an obvious focal point or object of interest.
The shift from colour to black and white often reveals details that might otherwise have been hidden under the obscuring cloak of colour. Colourful items in a shot can be distracting, as we’ve already mentioned, sometimes to the point of masking very interesting but perhaps subtle patterns that can only be appreciated once colour is removed from the scene.
Texture adds interest
Can you imagine how flat and featureless our world would be without texture? You need to bear that thought in mind when you shoot for black and white. A mono image and texture are inextricably linked, and part of the overall success of an image depends on there being elements that can show depth, dimension and contrast. Textured objects reflect light in interesting ways and draw the viewer’s eye into the scene. A combination of textures in your mono image is a winning formula.
Take time to familiarise yourself not only with the work of some of the greats of black and white photography, but also your contemporaries. Flickr, the image sharing website, is a great place to gain inspiration and see what other photographers are doing. Flickr also collaborated with the U.S. Library of Congress to create ‘The Commons’, an expanding database of publicly accessible images where you can search and view many of the world’s public photography archives. Also, try a Google search for Ansel Adams, Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, David Bailey and Man Ray.