Black and white photography is all about imagination. Color photography shows you the way the world is. The sky is blue, the grass is green, the sun is orange. Black and white forces creativity upon the viewer, it makes you imagine life how you want to. There’s a simplicity in the lack of color that cannot be explained. We’ve gotten lost as creatives and have become lazy letting color tell the story and create emotion, when subject matter, composition, and light should reign king.
A few months ago I challenged myself to shoot nothing but black and white. No color to make those sunsets pop, or cinematic grading to create an “emotion.” Instead of searching for colors that look cool and dramatic, I was forced to focus on what I was photographing. Thinking critically about light affecting my compositions and capturing the feeling of a scene in a photograph.
Now, I wouldn’t completely ditch color. We live in a color world and stories and emotions can be told with the correct use of color. However, the focus of color should not be the priority. Shoot for black and white. Shoot for captivating composition and good light. Strive to make an image that will stand its own without color. If your photo is bad, adding a whole new spectrum like color will not help.
Shoot for captivating composition and good light
Here are some practical tips for shooting black and white and to really focus your vision.
Tip #1: Buy Some Film
We live in a digital era of immediate gratification and feedback, so this will be a good practice to learn to really hone in your craft as each image will cost some money and you won’t be able to review them until a lab processes them. Shooting black and white film will force you into making images with absolutely no color, only whites, greys, and blacks. It’s a great challenge and one that many photographers adopt permanently into their workflow.
You can find affordable used 35mm film cameras and film all over the web. My personal favorites are Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5. A great starter camera is the Canon AE-1 or a Nikon FM2.
Tip #2: Chase the Light
It’s a common phrase in the photo industry to chase the light. It’s a little overused, but for good reason. Chase that light, really chase after it and find ways to incorporate light with your subjects. Shoot in the morning and evening when the sun is low. Shoot at midday when it’s the harshest. Learn to use the sun in every situation.
Tip #3: Search for Shapes
This can go hand in hand with the using shapes to draw attention to a subject. I see this all the time in street photography where a subject is positioned around unique shapes and/or unique light. It creates layers in your image and can help focus you in on a subject.
Tip #4: Don’t Fall for the Preset Trap
Create your own style, don’t rehash someone else. Each artist is different and your work should reflect that. Black and white photographs are easy to post process, and most of the time don’t require a lot of work, maybe just some contrast adjustments.
Tip #5: Focus on your Composition
Probably the most important rule is to really focus on your composition. When shooting you have to worry about composition, color, and light. Shoot black and white and now all you have to deal with is composition and color. With the mindset of shooting for black and white you’ll focus less on your colors during the shooting time and more about how your subject looks.
These tips hopefully will help you find your style and perfect your compositions. When you shoot for black and white with the focus on your subject and composition, your images will be more captivating than if you just shot with the idea of fixing it with a color grade.