Composition Posts

Finding Subjects that Work in Black and White Photography

Just because a black and white photo seems colorless, you shouldn’t think that color is irrelevant to a monochromatic photo. Choosing to present an image in black and white can call attention to the colors of the subject in a way that is all the more intense and powerful because it is implied and subtle.

Generally, if you want to make effective monochromatic photos, you must learn to think in black and white. To think in black and white, you should start by changing the way you look at the world through your viewfinder or LCD. (See “Using In-Camera Black and White for Pre-visualization” below.) The goal is to see the world in terms of implied colors, and also to make careful note of the gradations of gray in your subject.

It’s quite possible for a black and white photo to show a range of grayscale gradations from pure white to absolute black. In fact, most strong black and white images include this entire range. However, you’ll observe that most good color photos (with some notable exceptions) do not—because pure white would appear as a highlight blow out, and pure black as impenetrable shadow. Put simply, most color photos don’t exhibit as great a range of grayscale tones as good black and white photos.

The clear implication is that one thing you should be looking for in your black and white imagery is a large grayscale range. Put another way, learning to see in black and white means learning to see contrast before everything else.

The traditional building blocks of photographic composition are shape, design, and form. When you are working in black and white, these building blocks are not obscured by an attractive scrim of color—so the edge becomes paramount.

Good black and white compositions rely on the treatment of the edge, whether it is presented in a black-on-white composition or in the context of white on black. In either case, the edge can be simple or graduated and complex.

The edge matters! Correct use of an edge in a black and white composition leads to the interplay of positive and negative space, and can present an element that is simply not present in a color image.

This is a “Sundial” shell in informal usage, Architectonica a bit more formally. By whatever name, it is a very small shell: The specimen shown in this photo is less than an inch across. My idea was to create a monochromatic image that emphasized the contrast between the white lines and the darker portions of the shell’s spiral. At the same time I wanted to imply the color gradations in the shell’s spiral and emphasize the patterned nature of the shell as a whole. - 85mm macro lens, six exposures with shutter speeds ranging from 1/8 of a second to 4 seconds, each exposure at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted; images combined in Photoshop, and converted to monochrome using LAB inversions in Photoshop and Nik Silver Efex Pro.

Unfortunately, in real life it can be hard to find edges that intervene between light and dark areas in a photo. Finding these edges takes something special—the ability to see in black and white. While there are no simple rules about what kind of subjects work best in monochrome, here are some of the areas in which I specifically look for black and white imagery, or think about when I create this kind of photo:

• The predominance of light: Photos that are mostly about light in as pure a form as possible can lend themselves to monochromatic treatments.

• Shadow play: Strong and compelling shadows are a natural subject for black and white.

• Compositions with little natural color: If your subject is interesting, but has little color variation, perhaps because one color strongly predominates, then it may be a natural for monochromatic treatment.

• Heed the range between light and dark: If a subject exhibits an extreme range of lights and darks, this may be objectionable in a color image, but may work well in black and white.

• Inherently graphic: Intentionally omitting the color is an act of abstraction, and it is therefore not surprising that many images with abstract characteristics—for example, where the subject matter is not entirely clear—work well in black and white.

• Simplicity: An image without color is likely to be perceived as a simpler image than one with color, so one should look for compositions where simplicity is an important virtue.

• “Good bones”: Black and white imagery displays the underlying composition for all the world to see in a way that does not usually occur in color photos; therefore, compelling compositional “cheek bones” are an important attribute of good black and white.

• Patterns: Repetitive patterns can present the opportunity for abstraction that can yield interesting monochromatic compositions.

• Grayscale subtlety: Subjects with many subtle layers of gray may work particularly well in black and white.

Walking through a local farmers’ market one day, I found an astonishing array of tulips grown by a local farmer. I couldn’t resist them and brought some home to photograph. As the tulips aged day-by-day in their vases, I enjoyed watching (and photographing) the flowers’ fantastical shapes and forms. When first cut, the tulips started out somewhat closed, but grew into their beauty as they opened. With this tulip, a petal fell to the ground while the rest of the flower was still radiant. This missing petal allowed me to peer inside with my camera, and to capture the tiny world of beauty within. I usually think of flowers as a photographic subject with a great deal of color, so for me to create a monochromatic floral image, I need to see something special about the composition that lends itself to black and white. In this case, the fine gradations within the petals, and the unusual contrast between the petals and the interior of the flower, made me think of black and white. - 85mm macro lens, seven exposures at shutter speeds ranging from 10 seconds to 4/10 of a second, each exposure at an adjusted aperture of f/64 and ISO 100, tripod mounted; exposures processed and combined in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop, textured background added in Photoshop, converted to monochromatic using Photoshop adjustment layers.

Using In-Camera Black and White for Pre-visualization

One technique that can be useful to help you view the world in black and white when you first begin to intentionally make monochromatic imagery is to use the in-camera capabilities of your camera for pre-visualization. This works in two ways:

• You can use a black and white “preset” in your camera to make a monochromatic image—this is usually created from a copy of an image you have already shot. Note that I am not suggesting you use this copy as a final image, but it can be helpful to review to get an idea of how the black and white version might turn out.

• Depending on your camera, you can use “Live View” combined with a black and white preset to review potential monochromatic images on your LCD.

Photographing in the slot canyons near Page, Arizona is a wonderful—but difficult—experience. While the light and striations in the rocks make for exciting compositions, and the light can be truly magnificent, the reality of blowing and abrasive sand makes it hard to complete a bracketed sequence of exposures like this one without subjecting one’s camera and lens to the gritty elements. It is also the case that most images present Antelope Canyon (shown in this image) in full color. And the colors of Antelope canyon are indeed magnificent. But as I studied my bracketed sequence of images, it became clear to me that the level of detail and contrast created by the myriad levels of gray made this image an excellent candidate for monochrome. Following post-production on the image, I was pleased to see that my hunch had been correct—and the absence of color makes this image both more dignified and striking than it would be if color were present. - 18mm, four exposures at shutter speeds ranging from 1 second to 10 seconds, each exposure at f/22 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; images combined in Photoshop, and converted to monochrome using Photoshop and Nik Silver Efex Pro.

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