LEARNING TO SEE IN BLACK & WHITE

LEARNING TO SEE IN BLACK & WHITE.

 

The whole reason I got into photography was that I adore Black& White photographs.

Its as simple as that.

For the first 10 years or so [until I got my first DSLR] I ONLY shot B&W film. The only time I shot colour was when I was commissioned to do weddings… even then – I convinced all my clients to let me also shoot B&W, and even B&W Infra Red.

Strangely they all said they only wanted colour shots – UNTIL they saw the B&W ones, they were even more blown away by the Infra Red B&W photos.

What is it about B&W that has ensured its continued success as a photographic medium since the inception of photography nearly 200 years ago?

Even in the modern age of digital photography, B&W has refused to go away quietly.

Interestingly, the digital era has actually seen a huge increase in B&W development and printing amongst photographic enthusiasts, partly I suspect because it is “old school”, but also because at its very “soul”, B&W photography is about passion.

To understand B&W Photography, you also need to understand Colour Photography. In a nutshell, I believe that there are two words which describe the two polar opposites of the photographic world… SPECTACLE and PASSION.

Colour Photography is all about the spectacle, B&W Photography is all about the passion.

To put it another way, Colour Photography is about what you see and B&W Photography is about what you feel…. spectacle & passion!

Colour Photography depicts what we see around us, it shows us the external beauty, the glorious wonder of the world we live in. We can revel in the amazing spectrum of colours, and be swept away in the stunning transition of those colours across whatever subject we choose. Think of the best sunset you have ever seen… what was it that you remember about that sunset? …. I am fairly certain most of you would say that it was the achingly beautiful colours that swept across the sky!

But there is a problem with “spectacle”… while you are being bowled over by the colour… you can miss the emotion. Emotion is a very important element of any photograph… but it is invisible. You can’t see emotion, you can’t touch emotion, you can’t even position it in your frame so the light shines on it just the right way…

So how do you show “emotion” in a photograph?… Well, one way is to remove the “spectacle” and force your viewer to concentrate on something else.

The very nature of B&W Photography is to show something that doesn’t actually exist. No-one sees in B&W, so in that sense B&W is the ultimate fake. B&W shows us what is not in the scene.

Conceptually, B&W Photography is about 4 key elements:

  1. Light
  2. Shadow
  3. Shape
  4. Form

B&W is not really about the subject in front of the lens. So when someone says to me something like “I am having trouble shooting B&W Landscapes”… I immeadiately understand what their problem is…You don’t shoot a B&W anything …. instead, they should be trying to photograph the soul, the spirit of that thing.


 

EXAMPLE 1

 

This photograph of the Statue of Liberty is probably my most emotionally-charged photograph:

In no way is it a real depiction of that subject. It was a dark, over cast day with horrible lighting. It was raining slightly and the sky was a murky green colour that just looked aweful. You cant even see any detail in the statue… but in this case it is not needed. B&W can be about Shape & Form… and that is all that is needed here.

Detail would take your attention away from the emotion. You only need to know that it is the Statue of Liberty, you don’t need to see it face to feel the emotion that I wanted to communicate.

See how the black areas surround the white area? ….How does that make you feel?


 

EXAMPLE 2

 

Ansel Adams.

Two words that speak volumes in the world of photography. I think most of us know about Uncle Ansel. What did he photograph? [Yosemite National Park]. Have you ever seen a colour photograph by Ansel Adams? [I suspect there aren’t any].

I don’t know how many of you have been fortuneate enough to visit Yosemite NP… I was there back in 1996, and I will probably consider that place to be the most amazing and visually stunning thing I have ever seen. You can not understate how achingly beautiful Yosemite NP actually is.

It hurts to look at it.

A lot of that has to do with the colours… deep blue skies, puffy white clouds, the grey granite mountains, the green meadows…but you can see those elements all over the world and yet they are not as memorable as Yosemite NP. So why is Yosemite NP the Mecca that it is for photographers?

One word:

GRANDEUR

… and if you think about it, “grandeur” doesn’t exist. Try it… go and take me a photo of some grandeur. I think they might have some at the local supermarket… but probably not. Grandeur is a feeling you get … its a response that we have to what we are seeing. So if you really want to show people the grandeur of Yosemite… what should you do?

That’s right… you use the medium that best shows emotion…. Black & White.

Ansel Adams understood this. He often said that the true spirit and emotion of Yosemite was the weather.

You want someone to see the weather – choose B&W. You don’t want your viewer also looking at the pretty colours because they are not the spirit, they are not the emotion – you want your viewers to feel the truth of Yosemite NP and to do this you make them concentrate on the weather by using B&W.

Look at these two photographs of the exact same subject, which one has the strongest emotional pull for you and more importantly – WHY?


HALF DOME BLOWING SNOW by Ansel Adams


photographer unknown


 

EXAMPLE 3

 

B&W Photography can also show the spirit of a thing by using contrast, both in terms of light and shadow, and in terms of actuall opposition to the subject.

In the following photograph which I was commissioned to take a few years ago, I wanted to show the spirit of not only the fighter, but also the location. Photographically the boxing gym is pretty plain. You can’t make it look good no matter what you do to it. It is a poorly lit, dirty, ugly, and frankly smelly location – just perfect for a boxing gym. When you enter this place you KNOW that it is a place where men go to become real fighters. There is no lycra, no spandex, no leg warmers. This is a place were you train until you puke or pass out… or both. This is a place where pain, severe pain is the only thing on offer. You don’t like that – then you get the hell out, because they don’t mess around here, you come to train and train HARD.

The first time I actually fought in the boxing ring here, I was pretty-much stuffed half way through the third round… so much so I couldn’t keep my hands up anymore, so I thought I would just step out of the fight… afterall we were only sparring…

… and my opponent punched me full-tilt in the back of the head!

My trainer leant over the ropes and said “The round isn’t over until the bell rings… get up and keep moving!”

I threw up the moment I got out of the ring… mostly from the concussion, but also because I still had another 6 or 7 rounds left to go…

Its a great story… its a true story…. so now you get an idea of that gym.

Have I actually described what it looks like, at all? … No, not really. But I bet you are feeling something right now. You are having an emotional response to the story, and it is THAT emotional response I wanted to photograph in this image:

Here I used stong contrasts of black and white to set the mood. Large areas of black surrounding the fighter create a sense of foreboding and menace, and the window provides some sense of a way out… if you could only get past the fighter… But this photo isn’t real… The walls are actually white, and the fighter is wearing a rather ordinary red singlet top. [red turns black when converted to B&W…] and even though he was throwing punches at me and my camera, he isn’t trying to hurt me [he is actually one of the nicest people I have ever met]… but reality is not the SPIRIT of this place.

Here is another photo of a boximg gym, this time in colour…


Photographer unknown

You can see its a boxing gym. But can you feel it, do you really get a sense of what it is ilke there?


 

EXAMPLE 4

 

When shooting for B&W, you need to let go of what you see, you need to FEEL.

Don’t try to photograph your subject, try to photograph how you feel about the subject instead… because that is the power of B&W Photography.

That is why EVERY one of my wedding clients liked the colour photos, but LOVED the B&W ones. The B&W Photographs depict how they felt on their special day…. the colour photos simply show what happend on that day.

Take a look at two photos from my Wedding Portfolio:

Which one grabs you emotionally, and WHY?


 

CONCLUSION

 

After nearly 17 years of B&W Photography, I have developed a feel for how things will look in B&W… and I must admit that it feels to me like I am seeing B&W when I look through the viewfinder. Of course that is just silly, because I am actually seeing in colour.

One can not see in B&W, so don’t even try.Instead, Concentrate on the emotion of the thing you are trying to photograph.

Ask yourself:

  1. What am I feeling about this subject?

REALLY ask yourself that question. Seriously look at your emotional response to the subject – because THAT is what you need to put in your B&W Photograph.

Exposure has a lot to do with the emotional portaryal of your subject. Predominantly dark images create feelings of foreboding and weight. Predominantly light images create feelings of lightness and peace. Then of course you need to work out what balance of these emotions you need in your image. This is where Exposure comes in.

For me as a B&W Photographer, I tend to really simplify things when it comes to Exposure. I ignore all that icky colour stuff and look to see where the dark and bright areas are in my subject. THE easiest way to do this is to squint your eyes. You will magically see only the brightest part of a subject, as you slowly open your eyes you will start to see the dark areas.

Now I know which bits are bright and which bits are dark, my choice about Exposure becomes really easy….

I Expose for the Shadows, or Expose for the Highlights.

Instead of trying to expose your whole scene perfectly … choose one extreme or the other and bugger the rest. Meter your scene on either the brightest section or the darkest section and go with that. You need to use your “Spot Metering” function not Centre Weighted or Scene Average metering.

To Photograph Snow… you want to get a metered reading on the darkest part of the scene. This means that shadows will be nicely exposed with good detail, and the snow should come out white since you are exposing more than you would if your did a metered reading of the white snow.

To Photograph at Night… you want to get a metered reading on the brightest part of the scene. Find a street light, use your Spot Metering function and get a good reading on that bright light, this will expose most of the street lights quite nicely with some detail, while making your dark areas lovely and black because you are exposing less than you would if you did a metered reading of the dark areas.

You can use the same principle of exposing for Highlights or Shadows when shooting indoors where the light is not perfect. Don’t expect to expose the scene perfectly like you would outdoors, but figure “some areas are going to be dark, and I am ok with that!” then use the above technique.

Here are three examples from the shoot at the Boxing Gym which show how exposing for Highlights, Shadows, or Mid-tones can create different emotional responses. They were all taken at exactly the same location, same time of day, with some Levels adjustment in Post Production – but otherwise no other changes…

Exposed for Highlights [the window in the background]:

[Image posted to demonstrate certain points only. No “invitation to critique” should be inferred by its use.]

Exposed for Scene Average:

[Image posted to demonstrate certain points only. No “invitation to critique” should be inferred by its use.]

Exposed for Shadows:

[Image posted to demonstrate certain points only. No “invitation to critique” should be inferred by its use.]

Look at the difference between these three images. Believe it or not – its the same wall in the background of all three images – except one appears black, one appears grey, and one appears white…

It is a white wall, but I can make it black by metering on something brighter [like the sun coming in thru that window] which forces the camera to under-expose, and thereby darkens the wall making it black. In the last photo, I wanted the wall bright white with no detail – so I knew I had to over-expose the shot. Easiest solution – spot meter on the darkest part of the room!

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