The Art of Black and White Photography

In this article we will address the characteristics that make the art of black and white photography an art as such, looking in detail at its origins.


Many people are asking a question why some photographers continue to take black-and-white photography despite the emergence of colors. For some people, a more surreal understanding is to understand those landscape photographers who use black and white, thus losing the warm colors of the setting sun, the blue of the water or the natural green of nature.

Many people confuse black and white with the simple desaturation of photos. On the other hand, others mistakenly believe that converting a technically wrong photo to black and white may arouse people’s interest. However, both of these assumptions are completely wrong.

To shoot in black and white, you must first think in black and white. For the photographer, this means further efforts, because he must abstract his gaze from the real expression in front of him and imagine it in grayscale.

This involves paying more attention to composition, lines, contrast, different textures, volumes and shapes.

Graphic elements in black and white photography

When we use color photography, usually our attention is more focused on the different colors present in the composition.

From model clothes to surrounding buildings, from sunlight to today’s nature, our eyes are attracted to various contrasts, for example, between warm and cool colors, complementary colors, and so on.

When we shoot in black and white, the focus on color disappears, and our eyes are completely focused on the contrast between light and shadow, the alignment, the different transitions of the image, and the direction of light.

Shooting In Monochrome

In monochrome photography, the same shadow plays a very important role in composition selection. We can say that black and white can make photography more communicative.

Therefore, grayscale photography allows us to modify and train our eyes to focus on aspects that may be placed in the background. Black and white photography has changed our approach to photography in some ways.

The art of Black and White Photography
photo by Nick Leonard

Looking at the photo, you will immediately notice the contrast between the sun’s rays on the rock wall and the light and shadows produced by the clouds below. You can see the contrast between rocks and clouds and the transition between each other.

Finally, we can see the simplicity of the composition that reflects the direction of sunlight. In fact, the light is emitted from the upper right corner, and then the light droops to the left, and the composite follows this direction line.

Also in the photo above, the sharp contrast between the softness of the waterfall’s water and the hard surface of the rock immediately attracted people’s attention.

Drawing With Light

In black and white photography, the most important thing is the study of light, knowing how to emphasize light and highlight its direction. After carefully checking the photo, we can see how the light beam is emitted from the top of the image and descends to the bottom of the waterfall.

Therefore, the light has a vertical direction, and this verticality has been replicated in terms of composition (the shape of a waterfall) and the type of lens (vertical to be precise).

waterfall in black and white
shot by Steven Peachey

In addition, in the post-production process, we also studied the light, the direction of the light, the area and intensity of the impact. In fact, by looking at the photos, you can immediately see that the light is completely shining on the stream of the waterfall and only hitting certain areas of the surrounding rocks and plants.

Grayscale Photo Processing

Therefore, converting an image into a black-and-white image also means knowing that the intensity of the black-and-white image must be given to each area of ​​the photo based on the intensity of the light hitting the image.

In this sense, we manage to optimize our purpose by choosing a good film or having well-defined concepts to do it in digital.

Landscape by Ansel Adams

This method is vaguely reminiscent of the zone system of Ansel Adams, one of the great masters of photography and landscape. Obviously, the entire post-production process depends on the photographer’s creativity, imagination and the emotional tension of the editor towards the author.

In fact, the contrast between light and shadow in black and white photos is very prominent: we can find very strong light and very dark shadows, very strong whites and very closed blacks.

It is this powerful contrast that has aroused interest in black and white photography.

The image below is another example of the use of lines to create emotional tension and shape and obvious contrast.

black and white landscape lines
shot by Gerry Viagas

The light filtered from the upper right of the frame will shape and mark the walls of the hill. It can be seen that the light produces a kind of “luminous” effect, a kind of luminous effect, in addition to producing an ethereal mood, on the one hand it reduces the strength of the rock wall texture, but on the other hand it enhances the lines and contrast.

In post-production, we wanted to emphasize this contrast, almost changing from pure white to pure black, thus using the entire tonal range.

Even the transition from one hill to another becomes more pronounced, thus giving the image a sense of depth. The observer’s eyes go from hill to hill, from one area of ​​shadow to one light.

black and white dark room dark room

Light in black and white photography from what we have just said, we understand the extreme importance of light research in black and white photography. Knowing how to read, knowing how to grasp its direction and intensity are the key elements to successfully taking beautiful photos.

This feature must also be used in post-production to explore the entire dynamic range of our photography. It is necessary to understand which areas are affected by the light, which areas are not affected by the light, how strong the light hits certain areas, how much detail there is in the shadow areas, which of them are interesting and which are not.

This is a job that requires a lot of learning. This is why we can talk about arts and crafts, about black and white arts and crafts.

grayscale photo clouds
shot by Abram Goglanian

Those days with dark clouds and rain may not be of interest to those who take color photos and look for specific color tones in the light. However, in black and white, this weather condition can make our lenses have incredible artistic drama and contrast.

Ansel Adams: Master of Black and White Photography

You will feel great interest when you examine in depth the black and white photographs of photographers such as Ansel Adams and Robert Capa. Try to browse some of the works of these two photographers, such as the photos taken by Adams in Yosemite National Park or the coverage of Capa in the Soviet Union, you will understand why they are interested.

But the love at first sight between black and white photos and us can happen with pictures of Sebastiao Salgado. Any speech by this great Brazilian photographer will be superfluous, because his reputation spreads all over the world, just like the latest and monumental work he created during his visit: “Genesis”.

On the other hand, for those who have heard of Salgado’s name for the first time, We will leave below some photos taken by him from Genesis, which were published in an article in Nikon College.

In his lifetime, Salgado created countless works, works all over the world: from Latin America to the Balkans, from Africa to Asia, through the Middle East, from the North Pole to the South Pole.

Also Salgado photographed people and nature, including these shots in other real masterpieces such as America, Exodus, Sahel, Worker, Kuwait, and Genesi.

salgado photo argentina
Valdés, Argentina, Sebastião Salgado
salgado photo africa
Algeria, Sebastião Salgado
salgado photo usa
Arizona, Sebastião Salgado

Why Shoot in Black and White

At the beginning of this article, we asked a question, that is, since it is possible to use color, then what drives some excellent photographers to continue to work in black and white photography. We leave the answer to Sebastião Salgado, one of the most famous Italian photojournalist Gianni Berengo Gardin and one of the best black and white landscape photographers in the world, Jack Curran.

Sebastiao Salgado in Depth Words

“When I started taking pictures, the colors were very saturated. They might take over the themes I wanted to show, human dignity, feelings, and history. The beauty of colors threatened to erase everything else. In my photos, there is my whole life.

My thoughts, my morals. Moreover, the photos are always engraved in the story, I directly participate in it, because I usually spend a lot of time in many places or with people I want to take pictures. There is this kind of continuity, this kind of participation behind it, and the image must be able to convey them.

[…] “In color photos, everything already exists. On the other hand, black and white photos are like partial illustrations of reality. No matter who views it, he must rebuild it through his own memory, which is always in color and absorbs it bit by bit.

Therefore, there will be a very strong interaction between the image and the viewer. Black and white photos can be more internalized than color photos, which are actually a finished product.

[…] For me, black and white is an abstraction, a way of focusing, and will not divert my attention from the objects I am really interested in. If I photograph in color, maybe once I see the printed photo, I will realize that green has the upper hand over other colors.

On the contrary, when I take the same black and white photo, green as well as yellow, red or brown will all turn to gray. There is a complete series, with different shades of gray so that I can transfer what I am interested in.

And I am absolutely certain that the moment you look at the photo, in a sense you will see the colors and then attribute them to it. This makes me feel comfortable and makes me feel good without worrying about the color. Let me be clear, mine is not a criticism of color photography. There are many excellent photographers who use color.”

Sebastião Salgado

Black and White Photographers Testimony

“When I was born, television, film and photography were black and white, and my masters-Cartier Bresson, William Klein, Jim Smith, Willie Ronnies-were all black and white photographers. I was trained in their school, so I became a black and white photographer instinctively. Therefore, in practice, I found that for my type of photography, black and white are more effective, more graphic, and stronger.

In addition, I think the colors will bother, because the photographer will be attracted by these colors when shooting, which distracts him. If there is a splash of color in the photo, the protagonist’s face will fade into the background, and if black and white is used, the red will become black and the face will stand out. This is what interests me.”

Gianni Berengo Gardin

“I have always found that black and white are useful for demonstrating fairly deep visual communication, and their abstract nature requires photographers to think more abstractly and creatively. Although well done, I can appreciate color photos, but I find black and white photos more exciting, inspiring, unique, and satisfying from my point of view.

[…] I believe that when I saw the first black and white photo, my reaction was to show, magical and emotionally fulfilling. I quickly realized that this would be a journey of a lifetime. Actually 40 years ago! When the black and white effect is good, it arouses my desire and passion for creative expression.”

Jack Curran

Conclusions

A photo is great when it can fully express the author’s deepest feelings about the subject, and thus become a true manifestation of his sensitivity to life.

In this article, we try to explain how and why to take black and white photos from a theoretical and practical perspective. We understand how important graphic elements and their interaction in photography are. Light and shadow, black and white are the real stars of black and white photographers’ work, and their management makes simple desaturation different from real artwork.

In order to enrich the concepts reviewed in this article even more, we leave you a video that talks about the importance of black and white in photography.

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