Black and white photography applied properly
While colour photography was virtually unavailable for commercial purposes until well into the 1930s and photographers could therefore only print monochrome, which means in different grayscales, the application of black and white today is usually a deliberately used stylistic device. Black and white is often chosen when the dramatic effect is to be enhanced or a motif is to be brought to the fore – especially if the background is busy and composed of different colours and/or textures.
In a world where we are bombarded with an ever increasing deluge of images and information, more and more photographers are very deliberately using this stylistic device as a contrast against the kaleidoscope of colours presented in various media. Black and white photography is on the rise and being used by many professional and amateur photographers. If you would also like to switch to black and white photography or experiment with it, it’s worth taking note of a few tips that can give a black and white photo more expressiveness and depth.
Working with light
In contrast to colour photography, the perception and certain style elements such as lines, textures and contrast change with black and white photos and light and shade in particular become a key focus. No photographic design style relies on perfectly staged light as much as the black and white effect. Which is why you should always be far more aware of how the light falls (backlight, strong contrasts etc.) when staging black and white photos than with colour photography and use the desired result accordingly. As only black, white and the grey shades in between are shown, it is important to always ensure a balance between the light and dark without too much contrast. So always be careful with extremely light or dark areas as important information can get lost in these, which you can no longer recover when editing the photos afterwards. If you want to achieve strong contrasts, then it may make sense to photograph in the midday sun or with strong, direct studio lighting, otherwise you should avoid this though and photograph in the morning or evening light. The same applies to backlight: this should only be used if you want to produce silhouettes.
Black and white portrait photography
While monochrome is only suitable to a certain extent for various genres, for example travel photography, black and white is fondly used as a stylistic device in portrait photography. It puts the person in the spotlight and may accentuate emotions and facial expressions. Faces that have been photographed in black and white sometimes have incredibly powerful expressiveness, which in this genre depends not least on how well the photographer can handle their subject and provide an intimate mood. The person being portrayed can only really let go and look natural and relaxed if they feel comfortable. So provide an easygoing atmosphere and always focus on the eyes with portraits, as these express more than the rest of the face put together and should therefore be in the centre of the image.
Two photographers who generally stage their portraits in black and white and tend to not work in colour in other genres too, are Andreas H. Bitesnich and Lee Jeffries. Jeffries came to photography more by chance and skilfully uses the effects of black and white to dramatically stage the homeless.
Using effects skilfully
Correctly applied black and white photography doesn’t just bring the motif to the fore and ensure dramatic results in portrait photography but in other styles too. So-called “busy” backgrounds, which means a background that is made up of many different colours and structures, can suddenly look much calmer as they are composed of several grayscales instead of many different colours.
The fact that a landscape photo doesn’t necessarily have to rely on the colours of nature, has already been proven by the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams, who made use of the available daylight more than virtually any other photographer. He generally staged his photos in black and white and played around with exposure times and filters in the dark room afterwards to achieve or accentuate the desired effects. For him, the negative was kind of just an intermediate stage on the way to the end product – an approach that was also superbly transferred to the editing of digital black and white photos.
Editing photos afterwards
To create an aesthetically pleasing black and white photograph with depth, the contrasts and grayscales are usually worked on afterwards, i.e. once the photo has been snapped. It is therefore recommended that you take photos in RAW as this allows for the largest possible range for editing photos afterwards. It makes sense to leave the settings for RAW in colour as you can always still decide later whether you want to develop your photo in colour or in fact in black and white. If you set your JPEG setting to black and white, you also get a preview of the black and white photo and can then edit the final result in Photoshop. If your camera doesn’t have a RAW setting, it is recommended that you set the settings to colour. You can get much more out of the motif if you convert colour to black and white afterwards.
But even if you take photos instantly in black and white using a digital camera, it is worth editing them afterwards to achieve amazing effects with just a few simple adjustments.