Click here to read the first part of this article, although it’s not required to the understanding of the concepts presented here.
In this article I’ll talk about the key concepts to create B&W images. As I said before many times, these concepts are just known factors that help in the creation of pleasantry and satisfying images, when used correctly. But they are not a failproof way to create great images, that will depend entirely on the photographer’s skills, and of course the acceptance of said image by the public.
The first of these concepts is the colours abstraction during the process of visualization of the final image. This is a skill only possible to be mastered through the comprehension of the behaviour of the colours when converted to B&W. The study of colours theory, the relationship between red and green, blue and yellow, what are tones, saturation and luminance, helps a lot to understand this behaviour. And of course, applying this knowledge by practicing with colours adjustment in Lightroom or Photoshop, using the HSL panel and other related tools … and lots and lots of practice!
Here is a great video to start understanding colour theory!
Digital photography helps a lot to visualize the images in B&W; you just need to set your camera to shoot in B&W, and your images will be automatically converted to B&W.
I captured the camera’s LCD image with my smartphone, and below that, the final image of my masterpiece – “The Sailors and the Lighthouse”! This is just a silly example of how you can study and practice B&W conversion by using digital photography as a tool.
If you want to build a portfolio of great B&W images, to be able to visualize the final images in B&W is an essential skill to harness, only this way you’ll be able to direct your work to the right path. Otherwise, you’ll always work in a try and error approach, which is not very efficient in the long term.
However, the abstraction of colours is not the only way to visualize a B&W image. When you remove the colours of an image all it remains is light. The contrast between light and shadow is what will form the image, the shapes, the textures, the patterns, everything. So, light becomes the most important aspect of an image when working in B&W.
B&W images are essentially, created with contrast. Some would say “Look for intense light and deep contrast compositions!”, but that is just one of the possibilities. You can work with all levels of contrast, from the very deep to the very low contrast composition. It’ll all depend on your intention. A strong and marked contrast will give you shapes, textures, lines, in summary, a great level of definition. A low contrast composition will allow you to create minimalist and abstract images. Those are just two basic and obvious examples of the unlimited possibilities when using light and contrast to compose an image.
In this image taken at Campinas’ Municipal Market, you can see the strong contrast between the areas illuminated by the harsh morning sun and the shades created by the thick awning.
Remember that colours are how we naturally see the world, the way we’re used to see it, and many elements are already impressed in our brain, and as long we can easily identify it, we’ll immediately associate it with its real, colourful, aspect. Tomatoes are red, bananas are yellow, the grass is green, and the clouds are white, just to cite a few examples. You can use this feature of our brains to your advantage, by creating colourful compositions in B&W, adding an intrinsic perception of the image.
Even those who never have been to Stonehenge will know that the grass is green, the stones are grey, the sky is blue, and the clouds are white. Almost everyone that will really take the time to observe and study the image, will have an overlapping view of the scene, were the colours are not seen, but implicit.
Monochromatic scenes are great candidates to create monochromatic images, of course, but also very hard to do it right. The way we see a scene in person is much more complex than what we can observe in a printed image, or in an LCD. For the final image to work, you must be extra careful to reproduce the elements that gives definition to the composition, like textures, lines, shapes … yes, you got it, the correct use of contrast is again, fundamental.
But what are monochromatic scenes? They are more common than you realize – think about rolling green hills, snowy landscapes, desert views, maritime horizons, cloudy skies – do you see how common they are now?
This scene is naturally monochromatic, very heavy with lots of grey, from the concrete slabs to the overcast sky, only interrupted by the small strip of light and dark greens of the trees line at the back. Notice how the contrast between light and shadow are present across the whole image, giving it perspective, dimension, definition. Also, notice how the uneven slabs, captured in a slightly skewed composition, reinforced by the direction of the shadows, transmit a sensation of unbalancing, creating a discomfort for the viewer. This is an attempt to recreate the feeling of walking among these slabs. This is after all, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe also known as the Holocaust Memorial.
Composition in B&W is like composition in colours, it’s just a bit trickier since you don’t have the colour element to generate interest and attract the eye. Sometimes you see a nice colour pattern, or a combination of clothes and background, for example; but this kind of compositions will not work in B&W, obviously, so you must train yourself to look for other elements, like shapes, lines, textures, and, of course, contrast.
In this image, in a building in São Paulo, known as Galeria do Rock (Music), we can see a few elongated and concentric forms, from the ground up to the 5th floor, forming a vertical tunnel. These shapes are interesting, but not that much. Usually, this image would work better in colours than in B&W, because of the shades of red of the handrail offset by the black and white pattern of the floor. But in this case, there is an extra element generating interest, the Christmas decoration using a “waterfall” of light in the centre of the vertical tunnel. This waterfall of light captures the eye in the upper part of the image and directs it to the bottom of the image, into the darkness. It gives a direction to the eye of the observer, generating interest in the image.
You can see the colour version of this image here.
Once more, in B&W photography, lines, shapes, and texture are defined by contrast. Furthermore, in B&W photography, contrast is the difference between light and shadow. Thus, everything in B&W photography revolves around the light, or the lack of. Always look for the light; where it comes from, where it goes, what is in its path, and what is hidden from it. Try different angles, different perspectives, see how the light changes when you change your point of view.
A typical high contrast image is from inside a dark building, of an open door or window in a sunny day. It’s a challenging shot because if you do not exposure it correctly, you may blow out the whites or black out the shadows. Of course, that may very well be your intention, so go for it. But if it’s not, you must be careful with your settings to achieve the right balance between light and shadow exposure.
The composition is important in any situation, but even more in B&W images. A small source of light, carelessly included in the composition, can be a distraction that will ruin the desired intention of the photographer. Check all corners of the frame to be sure that you’re including only what you want, in your composition.
In the image above, the front side composition is almost an automatic reaction, but as at that moment there was a lateral light over the statue, one could be tempted to shift the composition to the righthand side of the statue, to better take advantage of the light. In doing that – changing the perspective to the side – it would ruin the image, because there would be no depth. It’s the contrast between the light side and the shadow that gives the sense of tridimensionality to the image.
I wanted to capture this image, of a girl walking alone along the Panthéon, for my series “Solitude”, and thus I waited until the moment that I could capture her alone in the corridor. During the post-processing, I saw that the image was not working, but I couldn’t tell why, since I was too focused on the theme of the series, and not into the composition. I let it go for the moment, but later I realized that the girl is just a dark shape in front of three unappealing sources of light. Our eyes are attracted to the light, not to the shadow. In this image, my main subject is just a shadow. You can see this series here.
Geometric patterns are a good starting point to create appealing B&W images. Abstracting the colours, the patterns are reduced to mostly shapes and lines and the challenge is to capture it in an interesting composition.
Be careful when capturing geometric patterned images to avoid lens distortion. In some cases, is ok to incorporate perspective distortions when capturing very large subjects, but lens distortion is not. The easier way to avoid lens distortion is to use focal lengths above 35mm, to avoid the barrel distortion, common in wide-angle lenses. And you can always fix undesired distortions in post-processing using softwares like Lightroom and Photoshop.
The image above is self-explanatory. As a stand-alone image is pleasantry enough, but its strength is in the series that it belongs to: “Hard Lines”. As a group of images sharing a common reference, there is a dialog between them that generates more interest to each image individually. You can see this series here.
And, yes, patterns are nice, but when the pattern is slightly broken, sometimes it’s even better!
B&W portraits can be very powerful images for a variety of reasons, including the automatic association with old B&W photographs created by historic famous photographers. Of course, this is not the main reason, in fact, this association is more of an element that raises the bar for quality. Again, light is the key; it can be what makes the portrait truly stand out, or its downfall.
Portraits are definitely not my stronger point, although I’ve some good ones. The portrait above is not bad, but also nothing to brag about, and I was immensely helped by the model. It was during an arts event where she was posing for a bunch of illustrators. As I was passing by, I stopped to take a shot of the scene and she looked right to me, I recomposed very quickly using a zoom lens to capture just her, and the camera did a good job of focusing on her eyes. Some crop and light retouching during the post-processing and final result is the image above.
Just bear in mind that portraits are not just close-ups of the face, it can be done in many different ways!
Night B&W photography is challenging, but it can give you the chance to create great images. During the day, the light is everywhere, so we pay attention to the shadows, where they are, how intense they are, etc. At night it’s the opposite, everything in in darkness, and we must look for the sources of light, what they are illuminating, how intense they are, etc. See the difference? Don’t fool yourself thinking that it’s just the same only inverted. Remember, the eye is attracted by the light, even the tiniest lights will be a powerful distraction in a dark scene. Make sure that nothing that you don’t want to, is illuminated in a dark scene, or in other terms, a low-key composition.
Another challenge is how to correctly expose your shot. Photographs need light to exist; you need to master low-key techniques to make sure that you are capturing the image as you want too. Even the most modern and advanced cameras can make mistakes when automatically exposing in the dark. Yes, they will take the shot perfectly, given the conditions, but will it be the shot that you imagined?
When photographing in low light situation, like at night, B&W and otherwise, it’s advised the use of a tripod to allow slower shutter speed times. Any shutter speed slower than 1/30s can cause shaky images, depending on the focal length being used. You still can do it using wide-angle lenses, but it will be very hard to pull it off using focal lengths higher than 50mm. And you will need to be steady like a statue if you need to use shutter speeds below 1/15s whatever the lens you’re using. If you don’t have a tripod, and already raised your ISO to the highest value you dare to, try to position your camera over a steady surface.
In the image above I used a shutter speed of 1/2s; to avoid shaking I positioned the camera over the curb and set a 2s timer; all that sync’ed with the bus passing by!
That’s all for now, but there will be a B&W Photography – Part III coming soon, where I’ll talk about creativity in B&W photography using the exposure, and another couple of photography styles in B&W.
Carlos Alexandre Pereira
Urban explorer, travel and architectural photographer. Film and digital user, preferably B&W. Online/digital writer and publisher. Photography educator. Fine art prints available in limited editions.