The Language of Black and White Photography

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Black and white photography is not merely the absence of color. In the right hands, monochrome pictures artistically blend shapes and tones to help us see life more clearly.

We believe black and white photos are truthful even though the world is in color. The feeling is that we’ve stripped away all the distractions and are left with the essence of a subject.

Try to imagine Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day in Times Square” as a color image. As a monochrome, there’s the crisp white of the woman’s dress against the dark tones of the sailor’s uniform. The lyrical curve of her body is firmly embraced by the man. There is other activity in the image, but we only notice it as supporting elements. We are riveted on the subject.

Anyone who has visited Times Square knows that it is a cacophony of luminosity. And if you look at a color recreation of the shot, it’s not the same. It’s cluttered. Black and white photography is the very definition of less is more. We see what is important.

So how do we distill our images to elevate them?

First, view the world in black and white. Every camera and smartphone has a monochrome mode that allows us to compose and capture without color. By actually seeing the transformation in real time, we can better choose compelling subjects and compose them with maximum impact.

Next, don’t settle for automatic camera conversions or single button edits on your computer. Explore tonality. View your blacks and whites with the same critical eye as a chess player would examine their pieces in the heat of battle. To help you with this, study what other photographers have done to create impact and to direct the viewer’s eye.

Personally, I like film simulations to help me see the possibilities. By previewing the effects of Kodak, Agfa, Ilford, and Fuji monochrome emulsions, I can see how they complement, or distract from, my chosen subject. Think of this exercise in the same way as holding up various neckties while standing before a mirror to see which one goes best with your suit.

And finally, pay particular attention to shapes and lines. Without the chatter of color, they carry more weight in the image. These are the load-bearing beams that support your composition.

Someone once told me that backgammon is an easy game to learn but difficult to master. That applies to black and white photography as well. My experience has been that photographers become satisfied too quickly with their pictures. They’re playing checkers, not chess.

Because there is less in a monochrome image, there’s more emphasis on what remains. In many ways, black and white is the essence of photography. And many people believe it helps us see life more clearly.

Photos by Derrick Story.

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