In the age of digital photography, HDR and increasingly saturated images, shooting in black and white might seem like an antiquated technique reserved only for film cameras and Ansel Adams. But shooting in black and white is one of the most beneficial methods for improving as a photographer. It forces you to pay closer attention to the subject you’re shooting, rather than relying on bright, flashy colors to carry the image.
Photography is an art form that revolves around light. As photographers, we go where the light goes. This is even more so the case when you’re shooting in black and white. With black and white photography, it’s the light and the shadows, not the colors, that will make or break a photo. The best black and white images are often high contrast or have some sort of compelling light that leads the viewer through them. This is often true of color photographs as well, but is less imperative for creating a top-notch color image. Shooting in black and white will remind you that you’re not shooting subjects, you’re shooting light. It will force you to pay attention to the way the light hits your subject, and how to best compose an image around that light.
Black and white photography also forces you to look more closely at the texture of your subject. If you’re shooting something that’s rough, jagged or smooth, those textures will suddenly be a much more important factor in creating an image than if you were shooting in color. Imagine you’re shooting a flower sitting in a pot on a windowsill. In color, that would be an easy picture to capture. The colors of the leaves, petals and pot would all stand out nicely against the brightness of the window, and you’d have yourself a classic, colorful flower picture. But in black and white, you need to find another aspect of the flower that’s visually compelling and has nothing to do with color. Suddenly you’ll start to notice the smooth texture of the petals or the rough, bumpy skin of the leaves. Paired with the light coming in through the window, those textures will practically pop out of the image in black and white.
Shooting in black and white is also a great way to get your creative juices flowing. Black and white photography comes with its own particular mood. The images often feel more somber, serious or pensive. Tap into one of these feelings the next time you plan on shooting without color. Focus on subjects that carry these emotions – a drooping flower on the brink of death, a man sleeping on an empty bus or a lone woman smoking a cigarette. These subjects will carry more weight and will make for more compelling images when the color is removed and the viewer can focus on the emotion of the subject.
One of my favorite kinds of black and white photography is portraiture. Black and white portraits will often look more intimate or intense than they would in color. This is especially the case when photographing elderly people. Lines, wrinkles and crow’s feet become much more distinct in black and white, and the whites of eyes will pop much more against a gray or black background than they would in color. Black and white portrait photography also portrays a sense of wisdom in the subject that doesn’t come through as strongly in color. The next time you have a family gathering, round up each of your relatives and take each of their head shots in black and white. Ask them to smile for one shot and look serious for the next. Compare the mood of the images and notice what kind of emotions they each carry.
If for no other reason, all photographers should dedicate some time to shooting in black and white to develop a better understanding of photography’s beginnings. Color photographs weren’t created until almost 50 years after the first black and white images were produced. It can be easy to forget about those humble beginnings in today’s age of post-processing and mirrorless cameras, but it’s important to remember. As photographers, we need to show respect for the art form and its colorless beginnings.