Why and How: Using the Photographic Language of Black and White

If you are creating or if you have already tried to create black and white photographs, you have certainly noticed that the simple conversion of a color image is not enough.

If you want to create interesting black and white photos for an audience, you must master the photographic language associated with it. This is a crucial step is essential.

Herd of bisons in Antelop Island under a storm in 'Utah'.
Herd of bisons in Antelop Island in 'Utah'. The gathering clouds herald a thunderstorm. This photo uses many black and white photography language codes.

The Little Story Behind This Article

The black and white photography was not always a focus for me.

When I started my career as a professional photographer in 2003, I did like most photographers. I went to illustrative photography for magazines and stock photos.

In this area, only color photography is used. One reason is that illustrative photography must document and illustrate. It can be creative in compositions and framing. But it cannot be interpretative. It must be neutral. Photography is used as a means of reinforcement to illustrate writing.

In 2010, when I decided to become a photographer artist, I started to create color works. In 2011, a client asked me to create a collection of landscape photographs from the Big Bend region in South Texas.

I left for seven days to take the six photographs ordered. The specifications were precise. The client wanted color photos in horizontal format. It was to show wide shots of nature. There should be no roads, no human constructions.

The purpose of this collection was to decorate a main meeting room to create an atmosphere of calm, tranquility, serenity by showing the wonders of Texas.

A few weeks later, I showed the project I had created. I proposed three collections of six photos plus a collection of three black and white photos.

I just shown the black and white collection at the end after the election has focused on one the collections in color.

The client and the designer looked at the three black and white photos printed in small format . Then they looked at me. They spoke to each other in a low voice. Finally, they told me they would change their plan.

They found that the black and white photos had more impact and were more meaningful. They matched exactly what they were looking for in this meeting room.

I asked them what these pictures meant to them. They described them to me in terms of emotions, sensations, memories.

It was then that I realized that black and white was a different interpretative technique. He had his own photographic language.

So, I left for seven days but this time to create a real collection in black and white.

It was from this project that I understood the power of black and white and the impact it could generate.

It was from this project that I started to try to decipher the photographic language of black and white.

In the rest of the article I will explain the outline of these learning years.

Color in Photography

Color in photography allows a natural and concrete representation of reality. In our environment, everything is in color.

The color is very dynamic. Most people love color photography because they just can easily make associations with their experiences and their life. For example, warm tones in color are welcoming. They evoke the family and friends cocoon. The cool tones are reminiscent of distance.

Color photography is rarely timeless. Indeed, it is often attached to an era, a fashion. Personally, when I look at color photos, I am often able to locate them in time.

Black and White in Photography

Light is one of the three essential elements to consider when creating a photograph.

In a previous article, I explained that light defines the shapes, lines, create textures and determines the colors.

Light is your medium.

When you run out of colors, you are black and white. You must then favor the forms, the lines of the textures. These are the essentials that you must consider.

Black and white adds mystery to abstraction because it is mostly visual.

Black and white is timeless. It is often impossible to locate black and white photos in time unless you identify particular elements describing the era.

For me it is this difference with the color that represents all the power of the black and white technique.

Black and white represents for me the French Touch.

The Photographic Language of Black and White

During all these years spent creating black and white photos, I have identified a number of characteristics of the language.

I will list some of them for you . But remember that these are just elements of language. You just have to assemble them using what I call the grammar of photographic language. But this is another story.

Let's now review some elements of black and white photographic language:

  • Negative space.
  • Choice of point of view.
  • The size of the photographic elements.
  • Contrast.
  • Symbolism.
  • Repetition.
  • Symmetry.
  • Minimalism.
  • The high key.
  • The low key.
  • Long exposure.
  • Associations.
  • Abstraction.
  • The silhouette.
  • The separation of tones.

Some of these may appear to you as techniques. Try to go further in your visualization. You will realize that it is much more than that.

Take for example the silhouette. Try to see beyond the technique to achieve it. Ask yourself what it can represent, what is its meaning. You will then understand that it is a real element of black and white photographic language.


Black and white photography has its own language and grammar. Seeing a scene to be photographed in black and white is insufficient. You have to master these codes to build black and white photos that have meaning, impact and that become interesting for the public.

I hope this article has allowed you to demystify the technique of black and white and that it has brought us a new vision on this way of photographing.

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Article published on Friday, February 28, 2020 . Written by
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