Visualizing Your Scene in Black and White
For the modern-day photographer, the world is a kaleidoscope of color. It can be captured in the green blades of grass that emerge after a long, chilly winter; the turquoise waves that gently lap against a sandy shoreline; and the fiery reds, yellows, and oranges that illuminate a warm summer sky. Photography has come a long way since its humble beginnings — a romantic, almost mysterious time when images could only be captured in black and white. Without color to enhance the warmth of a scene, photographers simply had no choice but to view the world around them in shades of gray, honing in on interesting tones, shadows, and shapes to make their images come to life.
While it’s simple — practically second nature — to capture your favorite photos in vibrant colors, photographers today must make a deliberate choice to shoot in black and white. Learning how to visualize your scene in a stripped down, monochrome palette is arguably one of the best ways to challenge (and enhance!) your photography skills. Here's why:
Black and White Minimizes Distractions
When an image is photographed in color, the human eye can get easily distracted by the competing shades surrounding your subject. The blue sky, the green grass — even the color of a person’s clothing — can all make a huge impact on the complexity of your scene. Black and white photography eliminates the need to seek out bright, vibrant colors, and instead allows you to focus on key elements that are more pronounced in black and white, such as shapes, lines, patterns, and textures. The age-old adage here is true: less is more.
Black and White Accentuates Areas of Light and Dark
In color photography, direct sunlight often produces harsh shadows and uneven colors. But in black and white photography, areas of high and low contrast — in other words, varying shades of white, gray, and black — add depth and dimension to your scene. You’ll have the freedom to explore all kinds of light, ranging from bright midday sun to dark, overcast clouds. In monochrome, fog lifting across a gloomy mountainous landscape, for example, creates a mysterious scene, while shadows cast on a sunny pier form artistic, moody silhouettes. By shooting in black and white, you’ll learn how to scope out bright whites (light colors) and deep blacks (dark colors) to produce bold, dramatic results.
Black and White Evokes Emotion
Photos take on a life of their own when snapped in black and white. Imagine the intimate moment when a groom sees his bride for the first time. Captured in color, your eyes might be attracted to the groom’s blue tie, his colorful boutonniere, or the bright colors of the wedding venue. But photographed in black and white, your eyes naturally shift focus to the groom’s joyful expression or his tear-filled eyes. This emotional, tug-at-your-heartstrings moment is exactly what the photographer had aimed for. The absence of color helps emphasize powerful emotions that look more drastic, striking, and timeless in black and white.
Black and White Highlights Intricate Details
When colors are omitted from a scene, details suddenly come alive. In black and white photography, these details often include sharp lines, interesting shapes, and intricate textures. Portrait photographers gravitate towards black and white photography to highlight subtle features that are sometimes lost in color, such as a freckled face, a raised eyebrow, or a patch of delicate, wrinkled skin — all qualities that add character and charisma to your subject. Similarly, landscape photographers transform their images to black and white when attention to detail is critical. An old cobblestone street, a weathered brick wall, and an abandoned farmhouse all have strong architectural features that are simply hard to miss in black and white.
Black and White Expands Your Photographic Eye
There’s a reason black and white photography is still in existence today: it expands, challenges, and inspires our photographic eye. The simplicity of black and white photography can be deceiving — without color, we’re forced to pay more attention to subject, composition, and light. This careful observation allows us to shift our focus and envision our surroundings in a refreshing new way. And in life, sometimes changing the way we see — even if it’s in black and white — can make all the difference.