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.
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.
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.