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Why and How: 8 Photographic Tips for Seeing in Black and White – Part 2

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Black and white photo of a manta ray in Maldives.
This black and white photo of a manta ray is part of an underwater photo project dedicated to black and white.
 

Keep in Mind the Definition of a Photograph

In a previous article, I defined a photograph as having two components:

  • Its aspect. This is the visible component, or what I call the “container”.
  • Its meaning. This is the invisible, intangible component, or what I call “content”.

These two components are necessary and sufficient to define a photograph.

If the meaning is missing, you only have a picture. That is to say, a hollow representation of what is real.

 

Remember the Purpose of Light in Photography

In a previous article, I explained to you that light is the binder used to combine all the inert materials in a photograph.

Light is the link of all the visual elements of your photograph. With it, you will highlight your composition and your framing.

I have previously explained that:

  • Light defines shapes.
  • Light defines lines.
  • Light creates textures.
  • Light determines colors.

Without light, your compositions and your framing would have no photographic flavor.

In black and white, the colors do not exist. When using light, you must be meticulous with shapes, lines and textures.

Cameras offer an excellent tool for analyzing the tones of your images: the histogram. As I pointed out in another article, there is no ideal histogram. It all depends on the scene you are shooting. However, your histogram should never be pasted to the left as you lose details in the dark areas. It should also not be pasted to the right as you lose detail in the light areas. The histogram should always be perfectly defined between the left and the right of the rectangle.

 

Tip # 1: Learn to Watch the Tones of Your Scene

In a previous article, I explained to you that the tonality of a photograph is its visual aspect in terms of the distribution of tones and the gradation levels between them.

The different tones at your disposal are a palette that allow you to create interesting and creative photographs.

The tones apply to parts of a photograph. The tonality is the general rendering of the photograph.

There are three main types of tonality:

  • The dark tone: the photograph is rather dark with low lights or dark colors. Low key photos in black and white are dark toned photos.
  • The clear tone: the photograph is rather clear with highlights or bright colors. High key photos are light tone photos.
  • Neutral tone: the photograph is neither dark nor bright. This is called balanced tone.

There is no universal tone. It all depends on what you want to convey.

To take black and white photos, I recommend that you carefully analyze the tones of your scenes. Do not specifically focus on the tone. Pay attention to each of its components.

Cameras offer an excellent tool for analyzing the tones of your images: the histogram. As I pointed out in another article, there is no ideal histogram. It all depends on the scene you are shooting. However, your histogram should never be pasted to the left as you lose details in the dark areas. It should also not be pasted to the right as you lose detail in the light areas. The histogram should always be perfectly defined between the left and the right of the rectangle.

 

Tip # 2: Learn to Look in Color

This advice may seem paradoxical, but to create good black and white photos, you have to learn to look in color.

In a previous article on color in photography, I explained that a color has 3 attributes:

  • Color: red, blue, green. It is the name of the color.
  • Tone: the balance of light and darkness.
  • Saturation: the purity of color. The higher the saturation, the more energy the color has. The lower the saturation, the less energetic the color.

If you want to see a color scene in black and white, I recommend that you pay no attention to the hue and the saturation. They have no impact on the rendering of a black and white photo.

  • Take the following test in your favorite photo editor.
  • Take a color photo. Turn it into black and white. Keep the result.
  • Saturate the colors of your photo. Turn it back to black and white. Keep the result.

Compare the two black and white photos. You will not see any difference.

Never forget that the saturation in a photo gives energy but it has no impact on the color for a transformation in black and white. Be incredibly careful especially with complementary colors. It is just an illusion. The complementary colors give strength to a color photo but have no interest in black and white.

In black and white, only the tones are important. You have to learn to look at colors that have light tones and dark tones.

When analyzing a color photo, study the shadows, highlights and mid-tones. Do not look at the energy of the colors.

 

Tip # 3: Learn to Look at Textures, Shapes, Patterns and Lines

In a black and white photo, the colors are absent. They are useless. It is for this reason that you should pay close attention to the following:

  • Strong lines.
  • Textures.
  • Shapes.
  • Light colors.
  • Sharp areas.
  • Clear areas.
  • High contrast areas.

In a previous article on the definition of a photograph, I discussed how a viewer analyzes a photo. His gaze is attracted to the elements I have just listed.

Photographic language aims to organize photographic elements to express your thoughts.

It is this particular technique that I teach with my ACANP method during my photo workshops.

 

Tip # 4: Learn to Look at Light and Shadows

Light defines the different elements that can be used in a scene. It is for this reason that it must be understood. It is your medium.

Personally, I really appreciate lights that stem from the side. I find that an asymmetrical light best highlights the textures.

If the scene you are photographing has strong lights, it will be a high-key type.

If the scene you are photographing has strong shadow areas, it will be a low-key type.

 

Tip # 5: Choose Scenes with Large Tonal Differences

The tonal differences in a scene are judged in color. Choose the widest possible pitch differences. This technique will allow you to define the entire contrast in black and white.

The more you learn to look at the tones in your scenes, the better your black and white photos will be.

 

Tip # 6: Choose Scenes with Details Visible in Dark Areas

I notice that black and white photos often have very dense blacks without any detail. In photography, it is said that black color has no detail.

When exposing a scene that will become a black and white photo, try to make the details visible in the dark areas. This can be difficult to estimate on the ground, but it has many benefits if accomplished.

By highlighting the details in the dark areas, you will have created an attractive area of your photos. They may not initially attract the eye of the viewer, but the addition of slight detail causes the eye to question an area for a longer period of time. You will also avoid the terrible mass imbalance that happens when details are not captured in the dark areas.

 

Tip # 7: Choose Scenes with Extreme Contrasts

Black and white photography is a creative technique in which the management of contrasts is crucial.

The contrast of a photograph is the difference between the lightest and the darkest area.

The ideal for black and white is that this contrast is as large as possible. Indeed, the human eye loves contrasts to better decipher the content of a photograph.

When you are in the field, arrange to find a point of view that will give you the most contrast possible.

 

Tip # 8: Find a High Light Area

In a black and white photo, the eyes of a spectator are always drawn to highlights of an image first, before other areas. It is for this reason that you must integrate at least one high light area in your composition.

A highlight must be located on a strong point or in a place where you want the spectator to look. It is a technique that I use very often in my compositions.

 

Finally

These eight tips should allow you to exercise your gaze on the field to see in black and white. Remember that this creative technique is challenging to master. You will need time. Once you have learned how to utilize this advice, do not hesitate to practice these techniques permanently, regardless of terrestrial or underwater photography. I advise you to write down on a sheet of paper the points that stand out to you. Skim these points as a refresher before a photo session that is dedicated to creating black and white photos.


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