6 Essential Elements for Your Black and White Photos

A black and white photo taken in the Big Bend region of South Texas with magical lights and contrasts.
A black and white photo taken in the Big Bend region of South Texas with magical lights and contrasts.

Nostalgia

For many photographers who remember the days of black and white television and who began the art of photography when autofocus did not yet exist, black and white photography has a nostalgic aspect. For them, black and white is the only way to freeze a scene.

Many people often tend to think it was better before. Humans have a habit of truncating reality in their memories. Photography is no exception to this human behavior, especially black and white.

Many photographers swear by black and white for the wrong reasons. Reality is not so simple.

Not all scenes to be photographed are suitable for this technique.

Nostalgia for the old days is not a sufficient criterion to solely use this photographic technique.

Black and White Always Starts With Color

Today with the use of a digital camera, all pictures are taken either in RAW, JPEG, or TIFF.

Ideally, black, and white is photographed in RAW format, which is based on light levels only. Once the picture is taken, it is displayed in color on the rear screen.

Then you will have two solutions:

  • The first solution is to transform your photo into black and white using your camera body. All cameras have a conversion function. The result is often flat and not very dynamic. However, I often use this technique in the field because it gives me a better idea of the mood of the photographed scene.
  • The second solution is to use specialized software with a computer. This is the best solution because you will be able to increase dynamics, contrasts, and tones.

On many cameras, if you photograph in JPEG or TIFF, you can directly acquire a black and white picture. But to get an interesting and polished result, you will have to configure the post-processing menus of your camera. The process is a bit complex and quite long. Moreover, your settings will not adapt to all scenes.

The Use of Black and White Color Filters

Quite paradoxically, color filters are especially useful in black and white photography. Color filters are also called contrast filters.

In black and white, the colors disappear. They are replaced by grey levels.

Light intensity becomes the only important data.

The use of a color filter allows you to lighten areas of the same color and darken areas of a complementary color.

Color filters allow you to modify, correct and balance contrasts in a photo.

  • A yellow filter absorbs blue light. It darkens a blue sky. If there are clouds in the sky, they become denser.
  • A red filter also absorbs blue light, and green. The skies appear very dark, as if night has fallen.
  • A green filter lightens foliage but darkens red objects.

Today, many photographers think that the use of a software filter is sufficient to achieve beautiful black and white contrasts. This is a mistake. Nothing replaces the optical filter. The software makes the filter stronger but does not replace it.

Seeing in Black and White

As I told you before, the picture displayed on the screen at the back of the camera is always in color.

You must keep in mind that a color photo will not necessarily make a good black and white picture.

For example, in a color photo, a red center of interest will contrast greatly with a green background. However, once transformed into black and white, the colors red and green will appear in similar shades of gray. They may lose their contrast.

A simple rule of thumb to know if a color photo is well suited for black and white is to observe the contrast.

Indeed, in a black and white photo, there is no color. One of the ways to guide the gaze to the centers of interest is to have a dramatic difference between dark and light tones. Therein lies your contrast.

Seeing in black and white implies choosing simple subjects, clear negative spaces, and watered-down compositions.

You must be careful not to add any disruptive elements.

You need to be straight to the point by immediately sending your message to your viewers.

Seeing in black and white means choosing your lighting carefully to achieve the best possible light contrasts.

Do not forget that the differences between the light and dark areas will help the eye to focus on the areas of interest in the photo.

To see in black and white in nature is to look for shadows to accentuate contrasts.

When to Choose Black and White

Black and white is an interesting technique for highlighting shapes and lighting of photographic elements in scenes that lack color.

For example, winter landscapes that lack color (and are essentially monochrome) are well suited to black and white.

You can concentrate on bare vegetation with no leaves. There are no green colors or colored flowers. The trees are bare.

Composition and contrast become the essential elements to highlight in the photos.

Rules of Composition Become Essential

In black and white photography, the absence of color means that the gaze must be guided by the composition of the photo.

You have to pay great attention to the way the subjects are placed.

Rules of composition and framing become essential.

For example, the rule of third parties and strengths is useful for highlighting areas of interest.

Framing linked to the golden section with the golden spiral is another way to ensure good framing.

Perspectives and Vanishing Lines Become Important

Perspectives and vanishing lines are both reinforcing elements that improve the reading of a photo.

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They become essential in black and white photography because they guide the eye to the important photographic elements of the image.

For black and white nature photos, you may greatly rely on geometric shapes.

Emphasizing the reading of a photo with geometric elements makes an image easier to read.

Some Elements to Make Black and White Photos

I believe that there are 6 elements that allow you to compose a black and white photo harmoniously:

  • Textures. They are an important attribute of the centers of interest of a black and white photo. You must therefore identify and focus on them. In nature photography, wood, leaves, and mineral shapes are essential assets.
  • Light contrasts are essential elements for a good black and white photo.
  • Lighting.
  • Shapes.
  • Patterns: these are the elements that are repeated in a photo.
  • Lines: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, force, perspectives, curves, and vanishing lines. Lines should lead the eye to the centers of interest.

Finally

Black and white photography is a creative photographic technique suitable for fine art photography.

It is an interpretation of the scenes you wish to photograph because in nature, everything is in color.

This is a technique that is difficult to access. Making strong photos with a direct message requires a lot of experience.

Black and white forces you to focus your attention on the essential elements of the composition.

The use of shapes, lines and textures are essential ingredients when following this treasured recipe that evokes nostalgia for many people.

 

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