I have a particular love for black and white photography. When I say that I don’t speak of me alone. There are many photographers out there who would shoot nothing but rolls of black and white film with their 35mm camera.
For many others, however, any composition that is devoid of colors is a taboo. Not for these (I included) photographers who prefer their composition, tonal range and how they deal with light to come through in their images. Black and white photography has a certain charm something that is difficult to achieve with bright and often oversaturated colors.
Here are 7 tips to help you master the art of black and white photography.
1. Shoot in color and then convert to black and white
As odd as it may sound, the best approach to shooting black and white photos is to shoot in color and then convert the files to black and white in post.
Shooting in color and in RAW means you retain all the original information in the frame. This is extremely important when you convert the image to black and white.
These days, shooting black and white has become a lot easier than before. All you need to do is select black and white mode on your camera and fire away. However that approach, though Ok for a beginner, shouldn’t be adhered to in the long run. For the best results switch to color and RAW and process in black and white in post.
2. Tonal contrasts
Tonal range is what makes an image pop. A composition with bright colors such as red, blue and yellow would immediately capture attention. With a black and white composition you don’t have that advantage. Similar colors like red and green and blue appear almost the same when they are converted to black and white. They are either completely black or shades of gray making them impossible to differentiate. An image with similar colors looks boring.
This is the primary challenge in shooting black and white photography – to capture a reasonably acceptable tonal range. The solution is in individually playing with the color channels, changing the luminance to differentiate between the colors and in the process produce a tonal range that will make the image interesting.
Both Lightroom and Photoshop allow you to work with the individual color channels. Most other good photo editing software will allow you to do that too. I personally, play around with the color channels in the image after I have loaded it up in Lightroom (my preferred tool for 90% of my photo editing work). I trust my eyes a lot when I do that, fine tuning the color channels that is, and then repeatedly comparing the result with the original frame to satisfy myself.
3. Look to capture depth and dimension
This you can do using methods like innovative camera angles, incorporating vanishing points and looking for ways to incorporate light and shadow.
Speaking of lighting and shadows, I love the work of a little known Hong Kong based photographer named Fan Ho. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s he spent hours and hours, shooting nothing but street scenes in and around Hong Kong. His images are beautiful examples of how light and shadow can be intelligently incorporated into your frame to create an illusion of depth and dimension in your images.
Dimension can be captured by using lines and shapes and forms in your frames. Parallel lines that seem to merge at a distance are a wonderful way to capture depth in your images. Shapes and forms can be captured using shadows and silhouettes.
4. Capture textures and details
Black and white compositions are the perfect avenue to capture textures and details. This is something that is often bypassed in color photography where the overabundance of colors in a scene inundate any such fascinating details.
5. Use an ND filter
ND filters have always fascinated me. There is literally no end to what you can do with them if you let your creativity take over. Investing in a set of these would hold you in good stead for the remaining of your career. ND filters stop light. That’s what they do. And that is exactly how you can create beautiful rendition of flowing water, cloud and creative rendition of street scenes among other things.
6. Shoot from the waist
One of my favorite ways to shoot street photos is to use a fast shutter speed and shooting from the waist with a wide angle lens. I can create completely un-posed photos while standing just a few feet away from my subject. A completely natural photo where the subject is unawares that I took his/her photo. The problem with this technique, however, is that I don’t know what I shot until I check the back of my camera. Also, it is very easy to get a frame where the exposure is off.
Thus, this technique requires a bit of practice to perfect. It also needs a good understanding of metering as well as knowing the equipment one shoots with like the back of one’s hand. I tend to take a few test shots in the normal way to ensure that I am in the ball park so far as exposure and composition is concerned.
I only use this technique when I am not sure about the neighborhood or how the people are going to reach to. When I am in my comfort zone, however, I prefer to shoot by raising the camera to the eye level to have better control over my shot.
7. Freeze the moment
This technique of freezing the moment needs a fast shutter speed. It is imperative that you have a fast lens. A fast wide prime like a 35mm or even a 50mm f/1.8 is what is preferred for this technique. Such lenses allow you to set a very fast shutter speed and in the process produce a sharp image of a fleeting moment.
Fast shutter speed can be used in conjugation with tilting the camera angle a little bit. This technique is known as the Dutch Tilt. Cinematographers use this technique quite often to infuse a sense of tension. This works especially when you have the horizon line well defined in the frame.