Photographing in Black and White for a Day
I love to set myself little exercises to stretch my photographic muscles. I thought I might share one that has been most beneficial to me, photographing a familiar place or subject you would normally do in color, in only in black and white for a day, with the aim of getting a new perspective that could prove helpful when you go back to color.
This possibly doesn’t sound like much of a challenge, and won’t be if you shoot mainly in black and white already, but for those of us used to color, it can be a real challenge not to cheat by shooting in color and converting later, or quickly switch settings back to color every now and then. I confess to failing the challenge pretty much every time, but the exercise has proven fruitful regardless.
Why black and white?
Because once you take the color out of the picture your awareness of other compositional elements such as tone and contrast increase. It also makes you photograph differently and look at your subject in a different way.
I first did this exercise some years ago during my regular walk along local beaches. It’s a stunning place with white sands and crystal blue water. You don’t have to be a fantastic photographer to capture a pretty image when surrounded by the beautiful colors of the water and the skies in this place.
It’s really a challenge sticking to black and white when in a location like this, full of gorgeous colors.
Once you challenge yourself to let go of the beauty of the colors in your usual color subjects your approach can change dramatically. It becomes more about tones, patterns, contrast and mood. You can end up photographing your regular subject entirely differently when you start to play more with shapes, patterns and designs you might otherwise not have noticed when color is involved.
By doing this simple exercise both my beach subjects and compositions changed. Some images I would normally take that looked lovely in color looked washed out and a bit nothing, and vice versa, something that just didn’t look so wonderful no matter how many times I color photographed them, suddenly worked. Things like graininess became a bonus rather than something to avoid.
I had photographed this rocky part of the local beach a few times as a landscape image, always included the area’s amazing colors. A day of black and white changed my perspective. This image and the first one in this article where later commissioned for a guitar duo’s album artwork. A surprising result from a simple exercise.
Why a familiar place or subject?
Because you will be less tempted to switch to color when you can always go back and shoot color next time. If you are constantly tempted to switch back, you will keep seeing and thinking in terms of color and the point of the exercise is to see your familiar subject differently and hopefully start seeing it in a way that will then help you out with your color photography.
Whether you are a landscape, portrait or any other type of photographer it can be fun and beneficial to take a slightly more restricted approach. Much like a free form poet suddenly attempting a haiku, the limitations of the haiku format insist on a completely different attack requiring a stretching of creativity.
You might not be keen to try it again but it can be a learning experience and you might just get a decent photograph out of the experience.
For this article I tried the exercise again at another familiar place I have photographed many times. An artists studio where I often work on collaborations.
It doesn’t matter where you try this exercise, just as long as it is a familiar place or subject so you can always go back and do color versions later after seeing it through a black and white perspective.
An added benefit of shooting at this location being that the artist, Randall Sinnamon, is also an art teacher so I asked him for some tips on working in black and white.
“Contrast is the balance between the extremes of black and white, with tone being the gradation of black and white, you use them both to create form. It’s the placement of these elements that creates your composition. If you get these things right then the picture works. It’s often good to have some larger shapes of light or dark in a composition.”
Photographing in black and white for a day can help you see tones and shapes better, which you can then apply to compositions in your color photography.
“I often look at my paintings in the moonlight, the low light allows you to see the balance of shapes. You can also to this by squinting, or turning your image upside down. Considering I often work with charcoal and ink I tend to do a lot of black and white. It’s nice to just do a drawing and not worry about the color. Sometimes color can be an unnecessary complication. There is a lot of beauty in black and white, with so much color photography we still see a lot of black and white work, obviously there is something appealing about it. It simplifies things.”
Portrait of artist Randall Sinnamon. As he said, “Black and white simplifies things”. The colors in this image were distracting, they bounced around too much, where as in black and white it calmed things down and we are more able to focus on the mood, the joy of his smiling face in the sun.
You might notice when trying this exercise that an image that can look like a busy mess in color can become elegant in black and white. Photographing outdoors in the middle of the day can work well too, we color photographers so often prefer the softer light of morning or evening, midday light can add harsh shadows or too much contrast, but black and white photography loves contrast. It also loves patterns and repetition.
I’ve photographed this tie collection in the artists studio before in color, but this time without the distration of color, it became about the patterns and repetition and worked much better.
Of course sometimes it just makes sense to photograph in color. But this exercise can help with working out what does and doesn’t work in either camera setting.
I cheated. Again. I’d like to pretend it was for the purpose of this article, but really I couldn’t say no to that orange color. Yet when photographing this fungus outside the studio, the orange was distracting, and when I looked at the black and white version, I realized composition wise, things could have been better.
So set your camera to black and white, and head out, or even photograph your own home or backyard. No cheating. OK, maybe a little cheating if the color is just too hard to resist. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on a brilliant shot. But do try to stick to it, keeping your eye out for situations with patterns, tones, shapes, contrasts without thinking about color can really make a difference to how you later compose your images. Remember this is just an exercise, you don’t have to get the perfect shot here, relax and enjoy the change. It’s as good as a holiday so they say.
If you do try the exercise, please share you favorite results in the comments below. Or perhaps you have some other simple exercise idea you’ve tried that you would like to share with our readers.