I’m Learning To See In Black And White

shags perching - see in black and white

Shooting photographs in black and white can be a bit like stepping back in time – after all black and white photography has been with us for over a hundred years.

I like black and white, and lately, I’ve been learning to see in black and white before I click the shutter. Well – at least I’ve been trying to learn – in an attempt to turn myself into a better black-and-white photographer.

The majority of black and white photographs I’ve used in earlier stories here on AperturePriorityNZ have started life as colour photographs and I have converted them to black and white in post-processing.

In my view, some have worked and some haven’t worked. You can check some of them out here and here and see what you think.

Part of the process of learning to see in black and white has been to recognise and accept and understand the criteria which comprise a good black-and-white image. I say that knowing full well that the interpretation of good or bad is subjective. One viewer’s good or great black-and-white photo can be another viewer’s bad one so to speak.

See in black and white

Nevertheless, I am learning that some of the key factors that contribute to making a good black-and-white image are:

  1. tonal contrast;
  2. textures;
  3. composition;
  4. shapes;
  5. simplicity;
  6. shadows.

There was a time when I thought the whole concept of learning to see in black and white was a load of old tosh…but after reading a lot about it on the ‘net, then actually putting myself in the mindset to apply what I had read I now realise that you can see in black and white. At least you can learn to look at a scene in colour, and envisage how it might look in black and white.

1 – Tonal Contrast

shags perching - see in black and white

In this first image of shags (that’s what we call cormorants in New Zealand) I envisaged the contrasting outline of the birds sitting on the poles against the light sky background before I took the photograph.

In my mind’s eye, I saw a silhouette effect in the final black-and-white image, provided I took the shot from low down, looking upwards slightly.

Works for me…

2 – Textures

This “over the back fence” image captured in our back garden was based on the textures of the stucco wall of the house next door, plus the tonal contrast of the cabbage tree against the sky, and the contrasting colours of the clouds in the sky. I originally envisaged this a pastel-coloured colour image but decided it worked better in black and white and cropped it to work better for me.

3 – Composition

This was not an image captured with blank and white in mind, but a shot from a couple of years ago of an old piano in a lean-to by the river. It was the old-world element of this composition that appealed to me, hence the black-and-white conversion.

4 – Shapes

Certainly not a strong image in colour being mostly greens, but there was something about the shape of this old cabbage tree set beside a double doorway in a factory wall that attracted my attention. I think it isthe verticals of the wall, combined with the horizontals of the roof line and the stairs.

5 – Simplicity

Four seed grain silos – nothing could get more simple than this. Objectivity overrides simplicity here in that what you see is what you get! It’s almost deadpan.

6 – Shadows

Shadows? Not really – but the fact that this photograph was captured from the shadows looking into bright sunlight works for me.

Another great tool for learning to see in black and white is to set your camera to black-and-white mode. You can still take a RAW image, but your camera will show a black and white JPG version in your viewfinder or on the LCD screen.

For my next story, I have done exactly that – so keep an eye out for that. And there’ll also be a little more on photographing trees.

In the meantime please let me know your thoughts on what you see and read here by dropping down to the bottom of the page to Leave A Reply.

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