conceptualizing photos in black and white


conceptualizing photos in black and white

using shadows and contrast to visualize the unseen through monochrome photography

Black and white is art in its oldest form, yet the alluring monochrome effect is still used by artists everywhere in photography, film, and design. The absence of color draws the audience’s eye to the structural elements of the image, which is why techniques like composition and framing are strategically utilized. Visuals are comprised of differences in shadows and contrast, requiring the artist’s eye to see beyond the world of color, and use photography to shed light on elements of the subject which are not always seen at first glance.


seeing in monochrome

The beauty of black and white photography is that it the absence of color brings a certain rawness to images, as the viewer is forced to focus on the details of the image like shape, texture, and tone. I like to utilize it when focusing on more ‘ordinary’ subjects - moments that might seem too plain or even ugly to photograph. Two important elements to keep in mind are shadows and contrast, as the balance between tones is used to create the focal point of your image.

Once you begin to notice contrast, you will realize that the natural world is filled with distinct variances in both tone and medium. Notice the way tree branches look against the sky, a dark shadow cascading across the pavement, or maybe the bright streetlights illuminated against a black sky. Look for harsh lines and edges, even if you have to manipulate depth to achieve this effect. While shooting, keep composition in mind, but play with the angle at which you photograph elements to create interest. For example, architecture is an optimal subject for monochrome images, but creating a visually interesting photo means seeing the detailed lines and angles as individual parts which make up the whole structure. In the image below, I was drawn to the parallel lines that made up the structure of the building, but it was the angle at which I photographed them which gives the image a sense of depth and movement.

At its core, black and white is about visualizing the unseen. Portraiture is often edited in black and white to capture raw emotions of the subject, shedding light on the simplicity of human features. I find it helpful to shoot with a specific mood or tone in mind, and use a combination of negative space and simplicity to achieve this effect. Utilizing lighting is also a great way to add natural shadows and contrast. When focusing on the subject, keep in mind features like the eyes and angles of the face. Remember that you are removing color from the equation, so other techniques must be utilized to create a compelling focal point.

Keep the tone you want to achieve in mind while shooting. If you are photographing your subject in a moment of excitement, perhaps you will utilize sunlight for vivid lighting, experimenting between illuminating the subject in direct light and using sunlight as a reflective background. The natural contrast created by sunlight is perfect for capturing more extreme moods, whether positive or negative. For a quieter, melancholy tone, keep shadows and mid-tones in mind, focusing on the angles of your subject’s face and how they reflect light. Moodier photos often utilize a wider range of shadows, rather than harsh contrast. The eyes are another crucial element to capturing a mood, as they are the ‘windows to ones soul,’ especially in photography. However, there is no right or wrong visualization of your subject, as long as you are able to keep shadows and contrast in mind while executing your vision.

shooting in b&w

It is especially important to shoot in RAW+JPEG for black and white photos, as the raw files will give you more image information and clarity, allowing you to bring out even more details and shadows. Many DSLR cameras have a monochrome setting where the camera automatically changes the image preview in the viewfinder to black and white, allowing you to visualize the monochrome image without converting it. However, I strongly recommend shooting in color and converting your images to black and white in post-production. When shooting in monochrome, the camera does not store any color data for the images, making it impossible to reverse this effect.

For more creativity while shooting, try using long exposure to capture depth and movement. Focus on your subject and the way light is exposed to it - is it a darker subject like a silhouette requiring shadows to bring the image to life? Or maybe a bright trail of light which utilizes strong contrast to preserve detail. Longer shadows and highlights can help improve the tonal contrast of the image, making it optimal for converting to black and white.

If you want to learn more about shooting using a slow shutter speed, I have written a night photography tutorial here.

b&w spotlight on Tommy Nease

Tommy Nease, a black and white photographer based in Washington, has achieved a compelling visual focus on the world through his lens. Utilizing a balance between contrast and shadows, Nease creates monochrome images magnifying simple moments. BOOOOOOOM describes his work as “an ongoing attempt to reveal the human psyche and its relationship with the natural realm.” Here are some of his shots that inspired me:

Click here to see more of Tommy’s phenomenal work.

Stay tuned for an editing tutorial manipulating shadows and contrast using dodge and burn and other Photoshop techniques. Until then, I encourage all of you to continue dreaming in black and white.