At the dawn of photography as we know it, when everything was fresh and new, your only choice back then was to shoot in black and white. Exposing images onto glass or metal plates gave way to the film and chemical process. It wasn’t until 1936 that Kodak gave the world colour photography. However, black and white didn’t die off like the black and white TV, in fact it flourished.
Which ever way you look at it, colour distracts you from the heart of what should make a great photo. Things like texture, composition, form, lighting and good old storytelling can be swamped and made inconsequential by colour. It’s not to say colour is an invalid medium. Black and white photography can be seen as your interpretation of what is real, whereas colour can feel more like a record of reality.
That may all sound a bit mystical, but in essence, many photographers would argue that black and white is probably the purest form of photography.
We could fill an entire website on its own with the intricacies of the black and white art, but there are some simple tips that can help you on your way to discovering why black and white photography is such a prized, creative, medium.
You would imagine that the starting point would be to grab your camera, set its functions to black and white mode and start shooting. Many photographers always shoot in colour, just so you maintain as much tonal variation in your Raw image as possible. It just gives you more data to play with when it comes to the conversion process.
A key word in the last sentence was ‘Raw’. Always shoot in Raw format. You want to record as much scene data as you can without your camera trying to process the image for you. Although it might sound odd, you need to develop the ability to ‘see’ in black and white. A great visual aid is to shoot Raw, as we’ve said, but also set your camera’s picture style to black and white. It displays a black and image on your LCD screen, but all the colour data is still there.
In its most basic form, a photo in black and white is made up of several components. Texture is a key ingredient, black and white loves texture. Harsh midday sun knocks everything flat, but the light glancing across a scene at sunrise or sunset makes texture ‘pop’ out of the image.
Tonal contrast is another important consideration. A flat image with very little contrast will not necessarily convert into a great black and white shot without some serious post-processing, although in some cases, low contrast images can be very visually appealing if done well.
Shape defines how an object looks in its simplest form, as an outline or silhouette only. Images based on shape alone can be graphically intense.
Form in a shot, shows how something has depth and dimension. How an object is lit and casts shadows within its environment is the key to showing its form.