The visual power of black and white photography is indisputable. I have always been a fan of black and white photography but as a predominantly commercial photographer my assignments are almost always for an end result in colour. Having said this, with digital photography and shooting in the RAW mode it is easy to convert the image to anything you want. Although it is interesting to see how the image looks once converted to in black and white, it is not quite the same as deciding at the onset to do so. In this article I am essentially talking about taking digital photos in monochrome rather than with film.
There is something so compelling about a black and white photograph. In galleries, for years I have always found myself stopping, looking and studying a black and white photograph in far more depth than a colour one. Why is that? I think it is because we live in colour so we don’t see B/W the same way so we look and find more in the image than we would notice in a colour photograph.
When taking any photograph, a number of elements come into it and especially so for black and white. A black and white photograph needs to show a lot of contrast, a dull grey photo is of no interest whatsoever. So make sure that either in shooting mode or in post-production the picture is as contrasted as possible. This is particularly applicable to landscapes and the actual focus of the photo. There should be light and dark areas of your photo.
In black and white photography you can create a mood, make something dramatic, turn the banal into the extraordinary. There is the possibility to interpret what you see, the way you want it to. The composition, always an important part of taking any photograph is absolutely essential whilst shooting black and white.
The textures are also of paramount importance. Sand, sea, bark, leaves, grasses, clothes, facial expressions and many others are all textures that can be enhanced to create an interesting and intricate image that makes you want to keep looking at it. Shapes are important too and the actual framing of the photo can make a huge difference.
Dramatic light works beautifully in black white photography, far better than in colour. A ray of light in a landscape or using a certain light in a portrait, creating strong shadows and bright hi-lights can make an image haunting and beautiful. In portraiture for example a black and white image would not be lit in the same way as one shot in colour. In general I prefer B/W portraits to colour anyway and never tire of looking at those done by Irving Penn, Seydou Keita and Malik Sedibe.
When printing black and white the quality of the print is vital. Ilford Silver Gelatin prints are to me the best there are and it is possible to make these prints from a digital image. These days very few people print their photos, they will make a slide show on their computer or publish them directly online.
As a young photographer arriving in Egypt I wanted to take black and white photographs and set up a dark room but rarely had enough time to really work at it, as a lot of the work was in the dark room. Today, it is easier, you don’t need to take a separate camera. Software such as Lightroom, Photoshop and Capture One enable you to turn out a decent black and white photograph without it taking so long. Do use separate colour filters in the post-production though as this greatly affects the final result. Each colour represents a shade of grey and by adding a colour filter you can change the tones and contrast of the photo. I often shoot with a yellow filter then do the rest in post.
I really got back into black and white photography again whilst living here in Paris. True, I love the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Edouard Boubat and others who produced marvellous B/W street photography images that have gone down in history, but I found that Paris with its fairly miserable weather just looked way more appealing in black and white! I found myself actually seeing the image in black and white and found it exciting.
Whilst taking photography tours of Paris in poor weather, I often suggest they take black and white images. I advise shooting in mono-chrome, adding a yellow filter if the camera has that option and framing carefully, looking for contrasts, textures and shapes. Street photography always looks great in black and white anyway, as colours don’t get in the way of what you’re shooting.
I have done and still do quite a lot of industrial photography and this too can look stunning in black and white. I work a lot in Africa and the Far East where the colours can be absolutely stunning and I am invariably asked for colour, but I do sometimes convert images to B/W and if I’ve time I’ll shoot some in mono-chrome. What happens when the colours are so rich and diverse, is that it is easy to use the colour as the main focus whereas with black and white photography you are looking for more. On my next trip, which is to India, I will definitely try and go past the rich colours to the textures and contrasts of black and white.