Black and White Photography and Artistic Intent
Black and white photos to a common person may seem as simple and arbitrary as a choice over photographing in color. It’s pretty much like choosing to have your coffee warm instead of iced.
Most people appreciate black and white photographs just as much as color because recognizing good photographs is often regardless of treatment but of the overall visual design. However, if you were the one to take or create the image, the thought process of choosing whether to produce it in black and white or in color can sometimes be a bit more complicated.
For the first few decades of the craft, photography was only black and white. The color was almost out of the question. Even when color photography emerged, it took a while for it to take over in popularity and became the standard. Black and white photography defined the medium for decades or even a century.
However, when color photography became popular, it never took out the charm of black and white. In fact, it instead emphasized the charm of a meticulously created black and white photograph. Instead of a photograph is in black and white because of it being the norm, it became part of their artistic intent. It was a crucial choice that made the visual design more creatively done.
Black and white photography is a very effective way of achieving a certain effect and aesthetic. A properly executed photograph emphasizes visual aspects that enhance the viewer's experience of the entire image.
Being devoid of colors, black and white images are very effective in conveying contrast that emphasizes structures and movement in an image. It can be quite an effective way to highlight interesting textures on surfaces.
It can be a very effective tool to achieve isolation in what would have been a crowded frame with an abundance of different hues. It can also be a good way to achieve minimalism and the pleasing simplicity that it gives the viewer of the image.
Black and White Photography as a Personal Style
Some photographers choose to shoot only images in black and white. This decision can be out of preference, by habit, or because the body of work that they produce over time is most effective and most characteristic of them in monochrome.
They develop an eye for images that would specifically be visually appealing and effective in black and white and the more that they build this collection further solidifies their identity as artists.
Black and White Through Artistic Intent
For such photographers who have had success in producing black and white images exclusively, there is something at play that goes beyond just mere personal preference. The truth remains that not all photographs are effective in black and white. In fact, making the wrong choice in such can ruin a good image entirely.
It is through artistic intent that photographers successfully create very compelling images in black and white. The decision-making process in conceptualizing, planning, shooting, and post-processing the image can be quite meticulous for what can seem to be such a simple result.
While the experience of looking at the image may be simple and straightforward, it is through a refined artistic vision that such an image can be created in the almost infinite canvas that is the world.
Scenes with No Dominant Color
A scene with no dominant color or subjects that lack enough light to reflect strong colors can often produce very flat images. There is quite a charm in shooting with muted tones but overly muted tones can be unappealing. This is because they ultimately lack contrast and consequently, depth.
Contrast works in images in such a way that it emphasizes the extremes. In an image with a multitude of weak colors, there are no extremes, to begin with. By choosing to shoot or render in black and white, you can be able to unify multiple differing tones to increase and improve contrast.
Scenes with Clashing Colors
On the other end of the spectrum, scenes with an overabundance of colors can be terribly distracting. The multitude of hues can be counterproductive to the goal of isolating and highlighting a singular subject or directing the viewer’s eyes throughout the frame.
In the same way that rendering muted scenes in black and white is effective, getting rid of all colors can unify the image’s tones into coherent gradients of the shades of grey, thus entirely unifying the scene and allowing more dynamic visual elements to stand out.
Textures as Central Visual Elements
There are images that make an impression because of the textures present in them. This may be cropped on a field, flowing water, rocks on a mountaintop, details on a pavement, or even a person’s skin.
If the goal of the image is to show the details that create such a texture, black and white images with controlled contrast can definitely be an effective way to achieve it. With the lack of colors, the image highlights the patterns and uniformity in even the minute details and renders it to be a contiguous surface that virtually flows across the frame.
Structure and Scale
Many times, a busy frame with a lot of details and colors can be quite overwhelming to look at. The goal of any artistically created composition is to draw your viewer’s attention and guide them through the visual experience of looking at the photograph and its parts.
With an overabundance of hues and textures, it might be difficult to determine where exactly in the frame to focus on. By being able to eliminate color and fine-tune the shades, you are able to smoothen surfaces and let them give way to more contrast elements in the frame.
For dominant structures such as architectural details and pavements, rendering in black and white and managing the luminosity of that surface can also help smoothen rough textures and emphasize the bigger form thereby achieving a more minimalist effect.
Exposure Techniques for Black and White Photography
There are various techniques that can be used to create compelling black and white images. Depending on what it is you are shooting and what you aim to achieve, these tricks can help you refine and improve your black and white images for them to bring out the details that you wish to emphasize.
Long exposure is a technique that is most commonly used in landscape photography. It is also very popular in creating black and white landscapes to achieve either a minimalist or a texture-rich image depending on how it is used.
However, long exposure is also very much applicable in other genres of photography. The common goal in using long exposure is to achieve a certain texture to make surfaces better complement the main subject or visual element and to improve the contrast among visual elements in the scene. Long exposure can also be quite useful in shooting still life or products where moving objects can create interesting textures to contribute to the visual design.
In a black and white image where there are way too many different textures that seemingly make the image too cluttered, having a bright visual element across the frame while the camera is exposing can cover and smoothen crucial parts to achieve a more appealing look.
For any shooting process that involves long exposures, the MIOPS Smart+ remote camera trigger can help you achieve whatever length of exposure you need to achieve the effect that you envision. The camera trigger is conveniently controlled with a smartphone which can be very helpful for situations where you need to start the exposure from a distance or instances when your moving long exposure element for light painting is in your other hand.
HDR or High Dynamic Range shooting is a process wherein the camera takes 3 or more different exposures. Each exposure aims to capture specific details that would be too dark or too bright in other frames. By combining them into a single image, you can extract out as much detail and texture as you want and not lose any details in the shadows or highlights.
A meticulous process of creating HDR images can give you full control of what is seen and not seen in the frame, and full control of details and contrasts as well. There are instances where the camera can not capture all the details of an image in varying levels of brightness in just one shot and the process of HDR or exposure bracketing solves works as a way around this obstacle.
The MIOPS Smart+ and Remote Plus camera triggers offer automated exposure bracketing through HDR mode. On the Smart+, you can input your settings through the onboard LCD menu or through your smartphone with the MIOPS mobile app.
Remote Plus offers the same functionality through the mobile app alone. The all-new MIOPS flex also includes the handy HDR mode with all the customizable parameters plus an advanced function of processing the images on board which will give you a real-time preview of the resulting image.
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Black and white photography is wonderful with tangential and selective lighting. Outdoors, this is created by patches of sunlight or light that come from the setting or rising sun.
With relatively softer light coming from the sun that hits your subject from the sides, especially when the light hits different parts of the frame from different distances from the camera, the entire process creates an image with considerable perceptual depth. When indoors or when sunlight is not a factor, this can be recreated with artificial light sources.
By using flash strobes, speedlites, continuous LED lights, or even household light sources, you can create an environment with depth to give a better spatial context of the location. When a properly lit image is converted to black and white, this depth is somewhat enhanced by the fact that the lack of colors rid of any other tonal factors and increases the overall contrast of the scene.
Black and white photography seems easy from a superficial perspective. Some may think that the process only requires switching a setting from color to black and white. In reality, the decision process of rendering an image into black and white is most crucial. Anyone can shoot in black and white but only those with artistic precision will give consistently breathtaking output.
Blog Credit: Nicco Valenzuela
Nicco started his photographic journey in 2007 practicing the craft as a hobby. Currently, he shoots for various local and international architectural firms and construction companies. Out of his love for sharing his knowledge, Nicco began writing about photography and various pieces of gear.
Image Credit: Unsplash