Many amateur photographer think that to achieve a black and white picture they just need to get rid of the color of a regular shot. Nothing could be more wrong than this belief. Here is why…
By Franc Peret
In my teaching, I always say to my students that Black and White pictures are “dangerous”, Which means something potentially going against their progress.
THE WRONG B&W TRICK
Because many people are using that trick to make their “so so” pictures in color, suddenly look more “artistic” in Black and White, as B&W print is vastly associated, in many people’s mind, as artwork.
And some easily pleased people are enjoying the trick very much, without knowing they are going against their own progress in general photography that way.
Using B&W as a cure to compensate a weak composition in color is not the best way to face the problem, finding the solution and improving framing skills.
Also, with that misunderstanding in mind, those photographer are certainly not going to learn how to shoot interesting Black and White pictures, as well. This is a dead end for creativity.
Somehow, Black and White is too attractive.
For many people, B&W looks more “cool” than color.
This is due to the fact that, back to film time, Black & White negative film was the unique post processing accessible to everyone, technically and economically, especially to independent artists.
A laboratory was easily set in the bathroom or the kitchen with few key equipment, accessories and chemicals.
This was far to be the case with color film, and back to 1986, I had only one friend, a famous wedding photographer near Paris, who had his professional color lab at home.
It was a huge and very costly installation, needing bunch of preset, test, set up and maintenance to deliver the right result. And, worst of all, the chemical’s smell was constantly allover the place…
Color lab were scaled for commercial use, not for personal expression.
BEING AN ARTIST
Therefore, for decades, many photographers expressed themselves in Black and White as they could afford its treatment and manipulation.
Exhibiting their printed work, they were able to make the difference compare to amateur by improving a lot the quality of their shot by working precisely in the darkroom, the ancestor of Photoshop.
Brightness, darkness, contrast, grain, blurriness, re-framing, cropping, erasing element were all at hand for the artist to get much more dramatic and impressive shots than average Joe.
Nowadays, with digital pictures, too many photographer are taking it easy and consider B&W as an easy cure to their far to be perfect color shots.
Instead of working harder and more efficiently on their composition, they prefer to get rid of colors when the diverse elements in their image get too confusing: with too many tints and shape badly mixed together.
And they wrongly think that the job is done that way.
Somehow, this statement sounds like it is easier to achieve a successful B&W shot than a color one.
Somehow it is true, as you do not need to worry about marrying colors together, but it is not that simple.
All depends on the skill of the photographer.
BACK TO BASIC OF COMPOSITION
To build an interesting shot, a photographer needs to put elements together with a certain sens of harmony or conflict.
And color is an added value to light, shadow, contrast, shape, lines, patterns and motion.
If the photographer knows what he is doing, he is going to play a lot with colors to accentuate his subject, his mood or his concept.
A pure amateur without much technique is going to suffer with this overdose of elements and option, and being overwhelmed by it, he might be happy to get rid of colors to reduce his amount of decision making to achieve something going well together.
This is a reductive approach which is not helping personal progress.
At the opposite, the professional photographer, while switching from color shooting to black and white shooting, might feel at first that something is missing in his usual creative arsenal: colors.
Therefore, he is going to work harder on his composition to compensate the lack of colors with more intense contrast, details, lines, shape, patterns and motion.
SEEING EVERYTHING IN B&W
As you can understand, at this stage, I make it clear that creating a Black and white shot means SEEING black and white in your head and SHOOTING as you imagine it.
It means being able to see the scene in front of you not in colors but in shade of grey, from black to white.
With film camera and DSLR, this vision is quit difficult to achieve, as the viewfinder is showing the scene as it is, and lots of experience is needed to be able to predict what will be the B&W result out of the colorful scene you are framing.
According the post processing (filtering), red, yellow, green and blue element in the shot are going to appear completely different (huge luminescence difference) in monochrome.
Key point in Black and White shooting are still contrast (highlight and shadow), shape, lines, patterns and motion.
First of all, higher contrast scene are helping a lot as they emphasize all those elements, taking over any notion of color.
The alternate of highlight and shadow helps to cut out the image, to split the different elements and to create a hierarchy among them.
Contrast becomes as powerful as focus point to determinate the main subject and most of the time, it is a very good idea to close down the Aperture to get more depth of field and to grab sharper details in a B&W shot.
Shape, lines and pattern are the other creative tools that you are looking for in a B&W shots to render a more dramatic (emotional) feel.
Motion is not only about physical movement (walking people, running kids, passing by bicycle…), it is also a feel of dynamic you create with pattern (repeated element such as square windows on a building or branches of a tree), swirling shape (such as cloud in the sky) and lines (often present in city or natural landscape).
Actually, winter is the best season of the year to learn how to shoot in B&W as the nature is lifeless and colorless (full of lines as no leaves on branches) while the lower sun is offering plenty of contrast and very long shadows.
Thanks to new technology, mirror-less cameras using electronic viewfinders offer the possibility to frame and see any scene in Black and White through the lens.
And this is amazingly valuable to get the shot as it should be in term of framing, composition and setting.
I personally do use different mirror-less cameras such as Nikon1, Panasonic GH4 and Panasonic GM-5.
I love those cameras, as they are compact and their lens line-up is very diverse and of great quality.
It is a very interesting addition to my usual Nikon DSLR System.
Anyway, pictures are telling more than words and I think I had wrote enough here.
To complete the subject, please, get a look at some of my Black and White samples, all fully explained with caption.
Former photo journalist, Film maker and ELC Shanghai Photography teacher, Franc Peret is teaching Essential Photography Classes, Advanced Photography Workshop and Film Making Classes in Shanghai, for the last 11 years.
If you wish to contact Franc, just drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org