Four tips for better Black & White pictures
By John O’Connell
For decades after the first photographs were taken, all images were in black and white. When color came along, photography changed. Almost all of our pictures now, from family holiday parties to pictures we mount on our home and office walls, from news photography to scenics, from kids’ portraits to wedding albums, we love color photos.
But black & white images have a value all their own. Good B&W photos have a power to evoke emotions, to capture meaning, to strain color away to leave only interesting angles, contrasting shades, pure movements and subtle still lifes for the eye to focus on.
1. Sight versus vision. B&W shooting requires you to see a scene or a person or group for what its essence is. Not to get all metaphysical about this, but our world, in reality, is full of colors. To edit those colors out is to reduce the world — or our subject — not to an unreal state but to a more essential state. So when you take a portrait in B&W you can concentrate on capturing who the person really is. It’s like a paragraph full of adorning adjectives and decorative adverbs that enhance the language; when an editor cuts all those embellishments out the reader is left with the nouns and verbs that tell the essential story.
2. While all images should be made with intentionality, i.e., you plan the subject, the composition and the technique, B&W shots require an extra dose of knowing what result you want to achieve. A skyline, a mountain range, a headshot, a couple in love, a mom and baby, a city street scene or zebras on the Serengeti: these all have what it takes to be imagined to reveal angle, shape, lines, softness, contrast, power, emotion, strength or gentleness. Stripped of colors, look instead for the leading lines in a scene, repetitive lines or shapes, the feelings expressed in a person’s eyes, the majesty of the mountains and the grit of city traffic.
3. Experiment changing the contrast settings in your DSLR. Some B&W scenes will be more powerful with higher contrast. Some close portraits would reveal a gentleness by softening up on the contrast setting.
4. Keep checking the images as you take them. Don’t disregard all the other settings, like aperture and shutter speed. Void of color, a speeding car or runner, a headshot with shallow depth of field are all enhanced. So play with f-stops and shutter speeds since their effect may be more noticeable in B&W.
Remember that subtracting colors can actually add meaning to your images. Try it. I bet you’ll like many of the images you make.