Do you ever shoot black and white? Try it...
Bombay Train Ennui (2009)
Black and white photography often creates a mood or seems more artistic by somehow emphasizing shapes and patterns. How does it do that and, furthermore how can we do that?
Before digital photography came along, a lot of people who took up photography, for fun or profit, worked in black and white. It was cheaper and easier to do yourself and that made it accessible. Not only was color processing more expensive and more difficult to manage, but the range of what looks acceptable in color is very narrow. Variations in exposure or contrast in a black and white image might change the mood or emphasis on form. Variations in color simply look wrong or bad.
Black and white photography has a longer and broader history, too. When I think of people who were down and out in the Great Depression or fighting in the great wars, I often think of the iconic black and white images of those eras. And for good reason. Cameras became small and portable and fast in the early 1900s and organizations like the FSA and WPA funded many out-of-work photographers, laying a foundation of enduring work that inspired many a street photographer or photojournalist thereafter.
For my photography, I often like to shoot in black and white - and by that I mean while looking at a black and white image on the camera. This is a distinctly new digital capability that the classic film photographers back in the day did not have. Although most digital cameras can pre-visualize in black and white, people do not typically take advantage of this. In fact, most are totally unaware of black and white as a shooting mode and treat it simply as one of many filters that can be applied in the post-processing of an image. However, using black and white mode as a shooting tool can help you make a fundamental shift from seeing the subject matter to seeing light and shadow, shape and form. I want to suggest that this is a more artistic approach because it is abstract in nature and goes beyond simply creating a copy of what we see visually, evoking an emotional component that isn’t necessarily tied to the subject matter.
We are so easily distracted by color and by the subject of the photograph and we rarely look at the shape and the form of things and where the light fades and falls off into shadow and darkness. Black and white photographs do this in a magical way by removing the distraction of color and allowing a wider range of exposure and contrast, of light and dark. Visual patterns become more visible, emphasizing shape and form. Even the most mundane and boring photographs can gain emotional quality just by making them black and white or even just reducing the color saturation.
Shooting in color and converting to black and white after the fact relies on a hopeful accident that a color picture might look better in black and white. Photographers will also tell you that shooting in color is better because you have a greater range of options when post-processing. But some cameras allow you to shoot in black and white and revert to color later, so why not visualize in black and white from the start? This is easily done with the street camera of our day - the iPhone. Shooting in black and white means changing the filter on the iPhone camera so it is displaying a black and white image while you shoot. (Tap the filter button, 3 overlapping circles, in the upper right corner of the iPhone camera.) In fact, there are 3 different black and white filters: Mono, Silvertone or Noir, and you can change the filter anytime before or after you shoot. This offers a distinct advantage over black and white photographers of the past allowing you to pre-visualize the black and white images before you take them. Some might think of this as cheating, but it’s no different than autofocus or auto exposure in that the tool is helping you use it creatively. It gets the camera out of the way and helps you to see different (aah, now there’s a great tagline for Apple’s next wave of iPhone marketing!) Think of it more as a creative tool that aids in seeing on a different level.
This is a significant step in the direction of visualizing, thinking and working with light and shadow. It can help you be a more artistic photographer and it’s so easy to do. Try it. Put your iPhone in black and white mode and See Different!
I've been doing black and white photography since I was about 10 years old, developing and processing film in my dad's darkroom (see the picture on my About page). I got my first digital camera, an Apple QuickTake 100 in 1994, but it wasn't until I got a Nikon D70 ten years later, in 2004 that I totally switched to digital photography. Check out my Black & White Gallery.
One of my favorite street photographers is Vivian Maier. The documentary Finding Vivian Maier is a superb film about this very complex person and highly recommended. Another favorite black and white photographer is Sebastião Salgado. His photographs are amazing and best seen when he exhibits his huge prints. Check out his TED Talk on The silent drama of photography.