Black and White Photography, Part 1

Colour photography has been around for longer than people generally think (the first colour photograph was taken in 1855 by Thomas Sutton using a three-colour technique suggested by James Clark Maxwell).  But typically, these colour techniques were expensive and time consuming, or awkward to carry out.  Until the 1930s and the introduction of Kodachrome film, colour photography was considered impractical for everyday use by the hobbyist photographer.  However, the readily available nature of monochromatic film and the ease with which it could be processed kept black and white photography popular until the mid-twentieth century, when colour photography became more popular.

Still, just as the ability to record moving images didn’t eliminate the desire to capture still images, the introduction of colour photography has never gotten rid of the appeal of black and white photography.  In the next few blog posts, I’m going to discuss the myriad ways we have to create black and white images with digital cameras.  But for this first entry, I’ll talk a bit about what (to me) makes a picture work in monochrome.

There are many things that work together to make an appealing photograph; colour, shape, line, texture, the light dynamics (not just the difference between the light and dark areas, but how they interact to create interest in the image), pattern, and many other things.  Of course, in any particular photo, some of these will play a more important part than others, and in different photos, different aspects can gain or lose importance.

Naturally, it makes no sense to shoot an image in monochrome if the colour of the scene is important – what is the appeal of a glorious, monochromatic sunset, and who would think that shooting black and white is the best choice for a trip to Rio during Carnivale? – but in images where the most important components are things like line, pattern, shape, or dynamics, you may find that monochrome works very well.  By eliminating colour, a black and white image forces us to see the other aspects of the image, which the photographer can use to excellent effect.  How many times have we seen a black and white portrait?  Removing the colour changes the way we see the subject’s face, allowing us to see them with new eyes which can glimpse more effectively their character.  By removing colour, the photographer can show us instead the texture of a cliff, or the silhouette of a bare tree against the sky, or the pattern of fence palings across the frame.  Without colour, these things become more striking, and a skilful photographer can use monochromatic processing to chance the entire flavour of a photograph.

But it takes practice.  We see the world in colour, and it is not always easy to understand how an image will look when converted to monochrome.  This is the sort of thing that can be developed only with experience.  It is, surely, a good skill to develop.  It will force you to rely on other things to create interest in your images, and you can use these skills even in your colour photography.

There are many different ways for us to create black and white images today.  The most important part of these techniques is that they give you control over the conversion process.  For example, you may want to bring attention to the model’s red shirt by making it a bright shade of grey, while making the blue sky behind her a darker shade, perhaps almost black.  As I said earlier, the next few entries will describe some of these methods, and in the next entry, I’ll talk about the ways I do not recommend.