Sunday, January 18, 2015

5 Elements of Successful Black & White Photographs

Mystery Drive - Stallion Springs, California
I love black & white photography. More often than not I prefer monochrome over color. I think it has a timeless fine-art feel. It is also naturally abstract (after all, no one sees the world in shades of grey).

Someone recently told me that black & white is overdone. I actually believe the opposite is true. I think that people don't convert their color images to black & white often enough. In my opinion, if color isn't essential to the point of an image then it should be made monochrome.

Black & white photographs work different than color, so you have to think about the entire process differently. Below are five elements of successful black & white photographs.

Kitchen Faucet Handle - Mojave, California
Shapes and forms are more obvious in monochrome. Without color, there is less to distract the viewer's attention from the subject of a scene. The forms within the image become the focal point. What the viewer sees are the designs.

Look for ways to emphasize the most interesting aspects of the shape of the subject that is within the scene. Make the composition of the shapes intriguing.

Worth One Dollar - Oxnard, California

Often subtle patterns get lost in color photographs. This is because the color draws the viewer's attention away from the pattern. The viewer might glance right past it.

With black & white, as long as the tones are far enough apart, patterns become obvious. Monochrome images allow the viewer to better see the shapes formed by the pattern in the scene.

Shadow Catcher - Stallion Springs, California
Even more than pattern, texture often gets lost in color images. Our minds interpret the scene based on many things, including past experiences--other things we've seen. When we see something (such as a color photograph) our minds are biased and will determine what we see and what we ignore.

Because black & white is abstract by nature, our mind's bias is more removed, and we are able to notice the fine texture more easily. In monochrome, texture is more prominent.

Wind Turbines - Tehachapi, California
Because there is not color to differentiate between elements within a scene, contrasting shades of grey are essential to successful monochrome images. Contrast is when a lighter area and darker area touch each other in a photograph.

What you must ensure is that the main subject has sufficient contrast to draw the viewer's eyes to it. You must also ensure that there is not another high-contrast element within the scene to distract the viewer's attention away from where you want it to go.

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
Light is the key element that holds the four above elements--form, pattern, texture and contrast--together. Light significantly effects all of those things. What this means is that good black & white photography requires good light.

What "good light" is depends on the scene and how you want your image to look. What is good light for one image may not be for another. You may want even light. You may want light from one side. You may want soft light. You may want harsh light. Each photograph and each situation must be judged individually. It is the photographer's job to determine what is the best light for each image, and to wait until that light exists or artificially create it.

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