Learning Photography in Black and White: Why It Helps

Many revered and iconic photographers shot solely in black and white, whether by choice or due to the absence of colored film. Lomography encourages beginning photographers to try their hand at with black and white, for many reasons as:

Focusing on Composition, Form, and Visualization

Firstly, this is not to antagonize colored photography; but the absence of color makes a difference in a photographer’s progress. Instead of leading the eyes to the subject or the image itself, photographers and audiences alike are prone to get distracted by color. In aninterview with Bryan Appleyard, renowned black and white photographer Sebastiao Salgado expressed his distaste for colored film, ironically described that “colour itself was a kind of lie.” According to Salgado:

When I saw my colour picture, I was much more interested in the colour than in the personality or dignity of the person. How can I go to a person and make them my story, and I don’t feel the story in my photographs? Of course, black and white is an abstraction, but from the brightest white to the darkest black what you have is greys, and these greys are what I had in my mind when I took the pictures.

The thing about shooting black and white photography is since there are only shades of grey as “other colors,” taking a good photo relies on structuring and composing. Black and white teaches the photographer to focus on other things, such as the use of negative space. It forces the photographer to see things differently.

Tobias Key of Picture Correct writes:

Without color, composition and form are your essential tools for making a good photo. Learning to see shapes and form in abstract helps you compose better pictures later on. Learning is all about creating good habits, and black and white helps you do that. Photographers who started by shooting in this way tend to be very strong on composition, because that is your main tool for creating strong photos. You can’t use strong color to catch the eye.

Mastery of Light: Brightness and Contrast

Probably the most essential lesson one will get from black and white photography is the unusual familiarity with light and shadow; it is the same as how artists must first become experts in graphite before oil paints. Color photography gives the illusion of some colors and tones being lighter or darker. Black and white photography doesn’t. Shooting with a monochrome film forces the photographer to develop a closer relationship with light and exposure and how it works in photography — from sensitivity, speed and quantity.

Photographer David Geffin of Fstoppers writes:

What you lose from not being able to capture beautiful golden hour light, you’ll gain back in focusing more on the direction, quantity and quality of light around you. Learning how to read and play with different elements of light in this way is a fantastic skill that parlays directly into shooting video or studio strobes too.

Other bonuses

There is no question that black and white provides instant ‘classic’ and ‘vintage’ feel, but there are there are many other quirks in shooting black and white photography.

Photographer Scott Strazzante makes viewers instantly notice the form and story of an image:

The use of black and white by professionals and serious amateurs is a way to cause viewers to pause momentarily while they are exposed to an endless stream of images on a daily basis…Once a photographer has caught the attention of a viewer, their monochromatic image must be content rich to keep their eye. The photographer can’t incorporate a red shirt or a yellow car to make up for a lack of interesting elements, so, the moment is that much more important.

Some photographers think that this kind of photography makes images pure. The famous photojournalist David Burnett says:

“There is definitely something elemental in [black and white] which eliminates so many of the potential distractions (and wonders, alike) that color is all about. [Black and white] can reduce a scene to something more easily and quickly absorbed. It retains a kind of purity which we respond to without so much study. It will be interesting to see in 30 years if the people growing up with the ubiquitous color everywhere have the same feelings.”
Credits: jandra & adamscott

David Geffin also adds the emotional emphasis of black and white photography:

“Looking at someone’s face, or into their eyes, without the distraction of color can provide a stronger emotional connection to your subject. It’s not necessarily always the case, but if like me, you often feel more connected to a person in a black and white image over a color image, this could be the reason why. With color gone, it’s purely about the connection you have with the subject.”

What has shooting in black and white done for your photography?


Originally published at www.lomography.com.

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