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Black and White Photography Techniques and Tips For Beginners
Image by Earl Wilkerson
These black and white photography techniques should help you to get the most out of this brilliant area of photography. Black and white shots have something special about them. But along with all the creative potential they bring, some pitfalls are also lurking!
These days we take for granted how fantastically cameras reproduce natural colours (even if they sometimes need a little nudge in Photoshop!). This can sometimes lead to an over reliance on colour to carry the interest of a photo.
What happens when it's all stripped away? When you're just left with shapes, light and composition? Well, black and white (or 'monotone' - where an image features one single tone, like blue or red) photography is no less effective than colour. It just different, and sometimes can be more effective.
The black and white photography techniques below should help you start thinking about what the right ingredients are for great black and white photographs.
The 2 essentials of black and white photography
1. Effective light and tonal contrasts become even more important with black and white photographs. Look for a range of tones. Explore places where there are likely to be shadows and splashes of bright light. Good black and white photos feature tones that span from pure white, through different greys and into black.
This often means that you need to take extra care when measuring the light. Use the spot meter and take several readings in different areas to get a really a good idea of the best exposure.
2. Black and white seems to be more unforgiving on compositional flaws.
There's something about the way monotone reduces images to their essential elements that puts a bit more demand on strong composition (although, of course, the way you arrange the various component parts of a photograph is always absolutely crucial).
When the colour is drained away from a shot, we immdediately tend to focus on it all the more keenly. It's not quite real - it's a bit more of a 'representation' than a normal photograph. So 'putting the shot together' right is absolutely essential.
Composition is the strongest way of seeing. - Edward Weston.
Image by: hipnshoot
Black and White Landscape Shots
Here's a couple of black and white photography techniques that apply to landscape subjects:
1. Find a foreground with an interesting texture. Black and white photography is a great means of capturing texture vividly. So look for surfaces that really catch the eye and provide a hook to draw the viewer deeper into the scene.
Crunchy leaves on a forest floor, rough bark from a tree, shiny rocks on a beach, dry earth, delicate petals in a field of flowers... All these kinds of things can be visually interesting in a black and white photo.
2. Are you a fan of zingy blue skies in colour photos? Well, blue skies are your enemy in black and white. They turn out a truly uninspiring shade of grey! So wait for clouds to appear and introduce some contrast and texture.
Black and White Portrait Shots
Now for a couple of black and white photography techniques to bear in mind when you're shooting portraits.
1. When people are your subject for a black and white shot, be careful not to 'lose' them against the background. Shooting someone wearing a green dress in front of a blue backdrop might look cool in colour - but they won't stand out well in black and white.
Separate the subject from the background tonally. Dark skin and hair works well against a light backdrop, whilst light skin and hair looks good when off-set by a dark background.
Having strong edges is a good photography principle to carry with you in general (there are, of course times when it's good to break the rule though. i.e high key portraits). We've all taken shots where someone's arm disappears against the background, or a railing grows out of someone's ear!
With black and white portrait photography, these pitfalls are especially worth being aware of.
2. Portraits of older people often look great in black and white. All the lines and contours of their faces are really emphasised and give a strong sense of personality. So this is a subject well worth exploring.
Editing Black and White Pictures in Photoshop.
Black and white photography techniques extend to the post-processing, where big improvements can often be made. Here a 2 quick tips.
1. I don't think I've ever taken a black and white photo that wasn't at least slightly improved by adjusting the highlights and shadows. Create a Levels adjustment layer and tweak the white and black sliders to increase the tonal contrast of your picture.
You may want to apply these changes to 1 section of a photo at a time, rather than the whole thing in one go.
2. 'Monotone' does not have to mean black and white. It can be any photo that's comprised of just one colour tone (See French Cathedral above, with a turquoise cast). It’s fun to experiment with adding a slight colour tint to black and white images. This can sometimes enhance the mood and feel of a picture quite a lot.
Create a 'Hue/Saturation' adjustment layer and select the 'colorize' check-box. Drag the hue slider left and right until you find a suitable tone, and then play with the saturation slider to get the right intensity.
Black and white photography is full of exciting creative potential. It allows you to capture the world just that little bit differently, and really stamp your own vision on an image. I hope the black and white photography techniques in this article help you to create some fantastic images. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments...