6 tips for taking better black-and-white pictures

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Okay... But why take pictures in black and white anyway? Isn't that obsolete? Or just some quirky thing that “artists with cameras” do? Why should I give up colors? They make everything so beautiful, so emotional, so... colorful!

These are serious questions, all of which seem to answer themselves somewhat. But in this article, we will show you how black and white can add a classic touch to your photography. How it can expand your photographic repertoire. And how it can help you get to the very essence of your subject.

6 reasons for black and white

  • Gray, not ghastly: when color gets in the way
  • Depicting the structural essence of details
  • Illustrating the essential using the graphic impact of images
  • Photographic drama using black-and-white contrast
  • WYSWYG — What you see is what you get
  • Flirting with a bygone era

Gray, not ghastly: when color gets in the way

We’ll grant that the colors in this photo of classic cars are not all that “ghastly.” But what catches your eye in this color photo? Exactly: the two red cars. The shape of the headlights? Not so much. Same for the rhythm of the lined-up cars. And the open hoods. All that jumps out is the color red! Now, let your eyes look at the photo at the top of this page again... While the black-and-white photo has far less depth of field than the color photo, it shows us a much greater range of shapes. Thanks to the high contrast, we experience the image’s composition as stronger and more dynamic. And we sense the glassy reality of the headlights... and the chrome sparkles! We’re learning that less is more!

vintage cars

Depicting the structural essence of details

Black-and-white photography is not something we do in the digital darkroom; that is, it’s not accomplished by means of subsequent image processing on a computer or via apps on a smartphone or tablet. It is a visual orientation toward structure, toward the essence of the subject.

If the black-and-white photo of a roadway’s center lines were in color, it would probably look like an unsuccessful snapshot. As a black-and-white photo, however, it fascinates us.

We notice the details. We feel the rhythm of the composition in the form of the three stripes. And we probably also find the surface structure of the asphalt aesthetically interesting. It is a brief journey into the structural essence of this common sight – one we see all the time, but rarely notice.

asphalt close up

Illustrating the essential using the graphic impact of images

The photo-graphic or “drawing-like” attributes of a photo – its linear, shape-defining elements – provide our visual sense and aesthetic sensibilities with pleasant stimulation. Our brains like to register information unambiguously. This biological economy causes us to take pleasure in image content that is readily identifiable. As important as color is for the emotional coloring and interpretation of our surroundings, we still place great value on structure, order and direction.

This architectural photograph of a Gothic support structure is esthetically appealing. And it also lends clarity and comprehensibility to the subject, allowing us to grasp the complex diversity of the stone arches quickly and efficiently.

This capacity for impressive graphic effects is a great treasure, constituting one of black-and-white photography’s considerable charms.

gothic architecture building

The photo below very nicely illustrates the significance of relieving the world of unwanted color. It is a photograph in which the essence of the subject is brought out by graphic elements; in particular, the balcony railings in the right side of the picture and, on the other hand, the flat, high-contrast elements in the portrait. The directional lines serve to reinforce the three-dimensionality of the subject. The male subject’s striking expression holds the viewer’s attention unchallenged. Now, imagine a purple flowerpot on one of the balconies in the background... It would ruin the way the image focuses and guides our eyes.

men in black close up

Photographic drama using black-and-white contrast

Consider the concept of drama in literature. It is a literary genre in which the texts are arranged in the form of dialogues, written, as a rule, to be performed on a stage. Photography can also be viewed along these lines. Like a literary drama, there’s no narrator. It is the picture itself that tells us its story. And individual elements enter into dialogue with each other. The more exciting these dialogues are, the more stimulating, inspirational and thrilling the photo will be. Dialogue partners are pairs of opposites like light and dark, black and white, hard and soft, orthogonal and diagonal...

Apart from the formal aspects of the picture's content, it is above all the black-and-white contrasts that captivate our eyes. There is no superficial emotional perception of colors. It’s as if we’re seeing the play’s actors without their makeup.

In this photo, it’s the pyramid at the Louvre, in front of classically styled gallery wings. The dramatic skyscape appears courtesy of the grim thunderclouds.

pyramid in front of louver

WYSWYG — What you see is what you get

At this point a word about recognizing such dramatic moods in black and white and about photographing with gray tones in general. Some photographers are of the opinion that the basis of a good monochrome shot is a good color photo. But we see differently in black-and-white than in color. And some things we don't even see through a camera in color mode. We are talking here, for example, about the optical experience of how color filters affect a black-and-white photo. A strong blue sky becomes deep black, a shy rosé condenses to a deep and rich grey. Or like a grain, which imitates the earlier silver in the film, it can change the character of a shot. Therefore, our advice when photographing is to turn on the black-and-white mode. This is very easy with smartphones, and you can usually already select certain filters. The old saying from desktop publishing applies here: WYSWYG — What you see is what you get! Even with modern cameras with interchangeable lenses, it is often possible to switch to a creative mode and see the black-and-white image through the viewfinder. You will find that you can identify suitable motifs so much more accurately.

The graphic appeal of a motif will capture you more quickly because you are less distracted by the color, as this almost-abstract image of a footbridge in Sweden shows:

dark lake in sweden

Flirting with a bygone era

Most of us aren't averse to flirting. But how do you flirt with time? Especially with a time that has already passed us by? How do you approach it, how do you strike up a conversation with it and how do you depict it?

Black-and-white photography can assist us in these endeavors due to the time of its origin, its technical and artistic history. In the middle of the 19th century, inventions were made that founded today's mobile photography. From the year 1826, for example, comes the oldest preserved photograph, by J. N. Nietfeld: "View from the Study," on a bitumen-coated tin plate.

Black and white, grainy, blurred, vignetted and on fragile paper – these are the hallmarks of a historical photograph. Today, we still interpret these signs as evidence of the ravages of time... our notion of classical photography.

The photo shown here shows these attributes and adds a touch of the historical past to this current subject of Lake Garda, in addition to the historical architecture.

old building near the lake

Back to the present... and our wishes for lots of fun in a world mad with color. May paring your photographs down to black and white bring you great photographic delight, and a terrific gain in content!

Your most successful pictures can then be hung on the walls of your home, blending in perfectly with the surrounding colors!

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