Since a couple of black-and-white images have won contests lately (partly because of the winter themes), and this month's theme is black-and-white, I figured it might be a good time to go over some tips on shooting in B&W. Apart from the contest, many photographers, saturated by digital colors and appreciative of the simplicity and stark beauty that such images can afford, like to try their hand at the technique. And after reading the tips below, you'll see that there really is a technique to producing good B&W photos.
Our first tips come from Globe staff photographer Suzanne Kreiter. Suzanne joined the Globe in 1985; she has covered events ranging from the Nicaraguan civil war to pollution behind the Iron Curtain to the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest. She has won several awards, and has twice been named New England Press Photographer of the Year, in 1988 and 2006.
Shooting in black and white boils a situation down to its most basic elements of composition. When shooting in black and white, I often choose different compositions entirely than if I were shooting in color.
That annoying blue curtain hanging over the window is no longer annoying. It has become the same "color" as the walls, providing a now uniform background to your subject. If I were shooting in color, I might have avoided the room or shooting in the direction of the windows altogether.
In the photo below of the boy painting among the easels, I would not have shot toward the easels if I were shooting in color. The yellowish tint to the wooden easels was distracting. The same image in black and white has the easels fading to a perfect gray, so that the three curvy boys have something (the gray easels) to stand out against—in a literal and figurative way.
When shooting with digital cameras, I shoot in color mode, but change into black and white in Photoshop (Image > Mode > Grayscale > Discard Color? > Yes).
Of course, there are times when color is best. I was shooting an elderly Holocaust survivor in his living room (below), and, while switching to black and white would have accentuated the hard-life lines on his face, it also would have eliminated the lovely details of the hand-tinted photograph of his ancestor hanging on the wall, or the plush green velour sofa with bright pillows. The jewelry that he saved for history of those who went into the ovens, stands out against the red velvet display pillow and might get lost if it were in black and white.
The points that Suzanne makes above about composition, texture, and shooting in color are echoed on several photography sites I perused, in addition to some other points:
If your camera allows it, Digital Photography School suggests shooting in RAW for the most control in post-production when converting your color images into black and white. The site also suggests shooting with the lowest possible ISO (which many already do with color) because noise created by higher ISO settings are more obvious in black-and-white images. You can read all of author Darren Rowse's tips here.
The editors at Photography.com suggest that black and white is the best choice when you want to emphasize the texture of say, a tree trunk, a rock face, or architecture; color can detract from that texture. They also point out that black and white gives photos a timeless, nostalgic feel. Read more of their tips here.
And finally, photographer Brian Auer of Epic Edits Weblog advises to train your brain to ignore the color you see through your lens and focus on contrast -- and use that contrast to show your viewers what's important in the scene and what's not. In his post about shooting B&W, he also throws out an intriguing challenge: Shoot nothing but black and white for an entire month.
Remember the legend of the lost tourist who asks pianist Arthur Rubenstein how to get to Carnegie Hall. His answer: Practice, practice, practice.
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