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Strong use of shape: The watch face is a circle. It is placed in the centre of the composition and dominates it. Lots of texture. The textures of the watch and the vendor’s hand are very strong. Strong diagonal lines.
The vendor’s fingers create lines that pull the viewer’s eye up from the bottom of the frame. I deliberately framed the photo so the fingers ran at an angle across the frame rather than parallel with the edges.
This creates a more dynamic composition. Simple composition. I moved in close to create a simple composition that emphasized shape, line and texture, the dominant elements of the photo. Another benefit of moving in close and using a wide aperture was that the background went out of focus, eliminating potential distractions.
John – Wellington, New Zealand
You can take this idea further by using the contrast between smooth and rough surfaces. Some objects are more tactile than others and have lots of texture. Others have very little.
So far both examples have shown a light toned subject against a dark background. But you can turn it around by placing a dark subject against a white background.
There are many factors that make up a good black and white photo, but the composition is one of the most important. If you want to make a strong black and white photo, then focusing on these three key factors – simplicity, texture, and tonal contrast – is a great place to start.
The absence of color in black and white helps emphasize texture. You can take it further in post-processing by applying Clarity or other tools designed to bring out texture (such as the Structure sliders in Silver Efex Pro 2).
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Strong eye contact. The strength of this portrait is in the eye contact. John is gazing directly at the camera which creates a powerful connection with the viewer. His face is level with the camera so I could use a wide aperture to defocus the background, while keeping both eyes in sharp focus.
Texture. The texture of John’s skin, especially in the sharpest areas around his eyes, renders beautifully in black and white. The background is out of focus and lacks texture, and this sets up a contrast between the sharp areas of the model’s face and the heavily blurred background.
Tonal contrast. The model’s face is a lighter tone than the background. Light tones pull the eye, and the tonal contrast here (combined with the strong eye contact) establishes the model’s face as the focal point of the composition.
The side lighting effect, created by asking the model to stand in an archway, means that one side of his face is lighter than the other. This creates depth, by revealing the shape of this face. Common themes
I got in contact with John via Model Mayhem and we arranged a portrait shoot. The setup was simple – I used an 85mm lens (with a full-frame camera) and a wide aperture of f/2.8 to blur the background. The portrait is lit by natural light – John stood underneath an archway so the light fell from his left (camera right).
One of the interesting things about black and white is that it brings out the interesting textures in your subject. You can use this characteristic to make your black and white photos more interesting.
The easiest way to explain how tonal contrast works is with some examples.
That’s the technique I used in the following portrait. I photographed the man during carnival in Spain. He was dressed for the occasion and had even painted his face. I placed him against a bright, sunlit building to take advantage of the tonal contrast between his dark skin and the white wall.
Tonal contrast is where you have light tones and dark tones next to each other. Now we’re getting to the heart of black and white photography! This technique is not nearly as effective in color because of the way that colors that are similar in tone, such as red and green, still create a powerful contrast. Tonal contrast is the main factor that separates black and white photography from color.
Simplified composition helps give your black and white photos more power by focusing attention on the main subject.
My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images.
Analyzing these photos is a simple exercise but it brings up several elements that work well in most black and white photos – texture, line, shape, tonal contrast, and simple composition. When you find a subject where these elements come together, you know you have the potential for a great black and white photo.
Want to learn more about composition? Then check out my wildly popular ebook Mastering Composition Book Two. It contains 20 lessons that will help you get better at composition, no matter what your skill level!
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The above landscape photo is a great example. The composition is about as simple as you can get. It works because I used a neutral density filter and a long shutter speed of 90 seconds to blur the water and clouds. The result is a black and white landscape photo with a minimalist style composition.
Men can be great subjects for black and white portraits because there is no pressure to retouch skin. Black and white emphasizes texture – the texture of skin can be a beautiful thing that doesn’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) need retouching as often as some people think it does.
Here’s another. I used a shutter speed of 3-minutes to blur the clouds and the water. As a result, there’s a strong contrast between the concrete in the foreground, the jetty in the distance, and the surrounding water and clouds.
What do you think is important for a brilliant black and white photo? Please let us know in the comments. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think.
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The problem with composition is that it’s such a vast topic it’s easy to lose track of the various principles and the ways you can put them into the practice. So let’s keep it simple – I’m going to give you three things you can concentrate on. Put these into practice and you’ll see a dramatic improvement in the composition of your black and white photos!
This principle also applies to portraiture. Keep the composition simple to focus attention on your model. An easy way to do this is to use a short telephoto lens with an aperture of around f/2.8. Get in close and make sure there are no distractions in the background to pull attention away from the person you’re photographing.
Tonal contrast: The boats are painted light tones and the background is mainly comprised of dark tones. The eye is naturally pulled to the largest boat in the scene which becomes the focal point of the photo.
Texture: The weathered surfaces of the boats and the grass are beautiful textures which tend to be more effective in black and white than colour. This image wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if the boats were brand new.
Lines: The position of the boats in the scene creates two diagonal lines. The first moves from the bottom left through to the top right, and the second line, formed by the rowboat, creates a second diagonal line that meets the first.
Diagonal lines pull the viewer’s eye through the photo and help add a sense of movement to the composition. Panoramic crop: I decided the hills in the distance were a distraction and cropped the photo to concentrate attention on the boats.
This took place in post-processing and strengthened the composition by focusing attention on the boats. Chairman Mao watch – Shanghai, China
Editor’s Note: We recently ran a series of articles this week featuring black and white photography tips. Look for more on this topic below.
How to Make Brilliant Black and White Photos with Dramatic Composition
Puerto Aysen is a small port town in south-west Chile. The weather is often cold and miserable, even in summer. It rains a lot. I was wandering around the outskirts of the town when I came across these old wooden boats. Initially I was attracted to the atmosphere of the scene – there was a soft rain, and in the original uncropped photo you can see the hills on the horizon fading through the drizzle. The scene worked in colour (see below), but in the post-processing stage I also realized that it would come out beautifully in monochrome.
It’s hard to beat the power and drama of good black and white photography. There’s a reason that monochrome has survived and prospered as an artistic medium despite the arrival of color photos. But how do you harness the power of black and white for yourself? The key is in your composition.
There are two interesting things about the composition of this image. First is the pattern created by the repeating shapes of the boxes. Second is the texture of the wood.
I thought it would be interesting for you to look at some of my favourite black and white photos and learn why they work in terms of composition.
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In the first (below) there’s a strong tonal contrast between the white and black stones. Your eyes go to the white stones because they are in the center of the frame and because they provide a strong contrast against the black stones underneath them.
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I went to Dongtai Road antiques market in Shanghai, an open-air street market comprised of stalls and shops where you can buy a variety of genuine and fake antiques, plus kitsch ornaments and souvenirs. I found the watch that this vendor was offering quite amusing. I didn’t want to buy the watch, but I asked if I could take a photo. The answer was yes.
Brilliant black and white photos are created in two steps. The second of these is post-processing, and is very important. But before you get to that stage, you have to learn how to see and compose photos in black and white. This is just as important as processing – it doesn’t matter how creative or clever you are in Lightroom or Photoshop, if the image is badly composed, or the subject just isn’t suitable for black and white, then you are going to struggle to make a half-way decent monochrome conversion, let alone a great one.
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Another subject where tonal contrast is used to good effect is portraiture. In the portrait below the model’s light-toned skin contrasts with the dark background. The key to making this technique work is to make sure the background is in shade and that it contains no distracting highlights.
You’ll see this technique used a lot in long exposure photography, where you can take advantage of the juxtaposition between a subject with lots of texture, such as a concrete jetty, and one that has very little, like water blurred by using a neutral density filter and a long exposure. The earlier photo of two rocks is a good example.