Hengki is an Indonesian photographer who creates beautiful black and white landscapes (read my interview with him here).
Sabrina is a young Dutch photographer who creates black and white portraits. Some of her work is in colour, so it’s a good chance to compare the way she works in both mediums.
I’ve been thinking about the reasons that black and white photography appeals to me. Regular readers of my articles will know that I’m a big fan of tonal contrast in both colour and monochrome work. I use it as the basis of many of my compositions and it helps me create atmosphere and mood.
In the travel and tourism industry, colour is usually king. While colour photographs carry the power of full spectrum and can evoke strong emotion (red conveys hot, green for peaceful and relaxing) black and white, in it’s minimalist form, can provide an equally strong impact by using texture, contrast, elegance and simplicity. Black and white strips everything bare; you are left with the pure essence of the photograph. Recent trends show that creative companies and DMO’s see black and white not as a technical limitation but as a creative choice.
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Most photographers ask when should a photograph be converted to black and white, however, rarely do we ask why a photograph should be black and white from the outset, so let’s examine that!
Make sense? There are many ways of expressing yourself creatively in photography, and black and white is just one of them, but it certainly is a powerful medium. Trends come and go. Whether it’s the fast film, high grain techniques popularised by Robert Farber and Sarah Moon in the seventies, or the Photoshop based techniques of modern times such as using texture layers or HDR, most of these are ephemeral. They won’t be remembered as anything more than dated trends in decades to come. But black and white will endure.
Why do you think these photographers have chosen to work in black and white? How would their images look if they were in colour? How important is tonal contrast in the composition of their images? How important are other elements of composition, such as line, texture, form and shape? How does black and white emphasise these elements? How important is light in these images? How far removed from reality are the photos in these portfolios? How do they express the photographer’s vision?
Presenting photos in black and white often gives the impression of a timeless quality, a throwback to years gone by, or conveys a “classic” look/feel. Black and white never has been out of fashion, and in fact, is very trendy and hip currently!
Black and white adds a quality to your photos that helps emphasize emotion. Both landscapes and portraits can be powerful examples of this. The psychology behind this is that colour competes with the other aspects of the photograph and a black and white photograph allows your brain to process more of the emotion being conveyed.
You should definitely take a look at Joel’s work. One of the interesting things about the way that Joel works is his painstaking attention to detail – he may spend 40 hours working on a single image before he is happy with it. This approach is very unusual.
Destination DC in turn launched a marketing campaign called “DC Cool,” inspired by the Portrait Gallery’s American Cool show. The use of black and white images presented the city in a sexy, film noir-ish mood. One year later Forbes proclaimed Washington, D.C. “Coolest City in America”.
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If you read my articles about long exposure photography and intentional camera movement in the landscape you may have noticed a common theme amongst the photos illustrating the articles – most of them were in black and white.
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My ebook Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master black and white photography and take photos like the ones in this article.
With black and white we’re left with light, shadow, texture, and contrast. The simple technical process of turning a colour photograph into black and white can turn a rather mundane colour photo into an eye-catching and intriguing image. Sunsets, snowy scenes, interiors, and nighttime photos can all be striking black and white images.
Now that I’ve piqued your interest you’ll no doubt want to learn more about black and white photography. I’ll write about that in the future, but first I think it’s a good idea to go have a look at the work of some of the best black and white photographers out there. I’ve picked out five of my favourite photographers from 500px – looking at their work will help you appreciate the true power of the monochrome image.
Andy is a professional film maker and photographer who works in black and white. Tonal contrast is a strong element of his work.
In the interview Joel talks about photos representing the vision, or the essence, of the artist rather than reality. Black and white, in addition to being a beautiful medium in its own right (he uses words like mysterious, nostalgic and dramatic to explain its appeal) is a step removed from reality. Add in changes in tonal values achieved in post-processing, the surreality of long exposure photography techniques and the manipulation of light (also in post-processing) and you finish with a photo (or a work of art, depending on your world view) that is an expression of the artist, rather than the original subject.
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Have a think about the following points while you look through their portfolios:
Michael shoots both the landscape and architecture. He is another photographer who uses tonal contrast really well (read my interview with him here).
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But things became clearer today when I read an interview with Joel Tjintjelaar, a well-known fine art photographer who works exclusively in black and white. He is one of the leaders in the discipline of long exposure photography (I interviewed him myself as a case study in my book Slow).
Not all photos look great in black and white. It’s really an art to know when an image will look great before shooting or converting. When converting colour, it’s important to have different tones otherwise your image will look “flat” or lacking contrast in black and white. High contrast images, photos of buildings (both day and night exposures) and nature scenes are all examples of imagery that look great when converted to black and white.
In 2012, the National Portrait Gallery approached the Destination DC marketing organization to discuss a potential partnership to promote an upcoming black and white photography exhibit called “American Cool.” Around that time, Washington DC was transitioning from a city of policy makers to an emerging center of trend-setting hipsters.
Some programs like Adobe Lightroom have different presets for black and white to convert your photos to a mood and tone suitable for you.
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