Mastering Black and White Photography
The Monochrome Mindset
Quintessential black and white photography (which, for purposes of this article, I’ll use as the common, colloquial expression for monochrome photography) is not a process of simply shooting in color and then converting to grayscale. And in my opinion it also differs (or at least is larger in scope) than the use of a monochrome camera or black and white film.
You don’t shoot in black and white, you shoot for black and white. It’s a mindset.
In this article, I’m going to outline what I think are the important factors in approaching monochrome photography in the way the masters did. But it’s only my own views on it. My approach looks backward as much as forward— which is to say, I believe that the art of shooting for black and white was perfected decades ago and anyone who wants to take classic black and white photos does best to approach it with deference to the masters who had to work in black and white.
The lack of options for color created a heightened look at everything else. Form, composition, tone, contrast, light, shadow and, of course, moment.
This image, “Fog Coming In (Swansea), 1954” by Carl Mydans is one I consider a classic, and to which I tend to judge all my own photography (and maybe all photography) by. Mydans was a Life Magazine photographer — more known for his war photography— but he of course shot well beyond that one subject, as all photographers do. I grew up with a real print from an edition of this photo on my wall, and it is how I was first introduced to black and white. It is still on my wall, today.
Besides its obvious historical personal value, it does everything right, as an image — aesthetics aside, I simply feel the emotion of that moment, the weight of those baskets, the thickness of that fog. It transcends technique. I also love that the horizon line is not perfect, which for me speaks to the quickness with which Mydans saw and captured that moment. I can almost feel his excitement for it in the leaning of the telephone poles.
We all have a photo that stirred us in this way. That connected us to the power of black and white. And I would venture to say that whatever photo that is, it was taken — or is emulating an image that was taken — during a specific era of photography.
Who were these famed early black and white artists and what qualities embodied their images? I actually like how it’s described within the Wiki entry on New York School of Photography, which talks about them as…
“a loosely defined group of photographers who lived and worked in New York City during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s” and who, although disinclined to commit themselves to any group or belief, “shared a number of influences, aesthetic assumptions, subjects, and stylistic earmarks”. Livingston writes that their work was marked by humanism, a tough-minded style, photojournalistic techniques, the influence of film noir
These “influences, aesthetic assumptions, subjects and stylistic earmarks” spread out far beyond New York, but they are an understood set of qualities that have become the pinnacle of black and white photography. Because they had no choice, they mastered and defined the process of thinking and shooting for black and white. For anyone looking to do effective black and white, the answers are all in the photographs of those who reached the height of photojournalism in the era where black and white was how it was done.
What’s confusing is that different photographers did it differently, but the end result always still somehow came together into something recognizably of that style. It can be a difficult thing to fully grasp — exactly what makes up a classic black and white photo — but the more you stare at them, the more apparent I think it becomes.
It’s tempting to think of it as a tonal curve, where you can weigh dark against light (and I’ll get into that), but if you look at the images above, you can see they don’t all fall into the same range. It’s not the quality of tones that makes it classic, it’s the pre-meditated approach where only black and white is an option. You can just tell they shot with every element of the photo, aside from color, in consideration.
The takeaway: pre-visualize your shoot as one without color. This will lead to decision-making in shooting that simplifies your composition and accentuates different things. It’s seeing without the influence of color.
It’s a bit hard to grasp just what the difference is between a black and white photo that was intended to be black and white versus one that was converted. It takes a bit of eye-training. It helps to visualize it:
I picked these two partly for the funny juxtaposition but also for some very subtle and distinctive discussion about the use of blacks and whites in capturing imagery.
In Meyerowitz’s image on the left, his understanding of black and white (and the work of masters, like Robert Frank) are all in play. He’s pared down the idea to some simple shapes that are playing with lights and darks purposefully and poetically. Most notably, the woman’s jacket and the marquee sign above her head, which are the darkest forms on the image and, not coincidentally, both crucial to the narrative. On the right, dark shapes are strewn all about. A product of only discovering those shapes after the image was converted.
Seeing colorlessly is about focusing your attention on the shapes and forms, and thinking about how they work within your composition. Shadows and pockets of light are the simplest form of this. My own style of mid-day shooting makes this very easy because the shadows are hard-edged and at their most contrasty. But even when there are not big obvious shadows to delineate forms in, there is still a way that objects and composition become more purposeful with black and white.
In these settings where the image is not being defined by light, the composition of the frame in capturing the moment is critical. You’re dealing with relationships — form to frame, form to environment, and form to other forms. In black and white, those compositional relationships stand out more than in color and so the black and white photographer must be purposeful with them.
In the image of the man holding the large dog, by Joel Meyerowitz, there is none of the contrast of a Ray Metzker light/shadow shot. In fact, judging by the lack of shadow cast from central figure, it was likely a very overcast day. Yet, the purposefulness of the composition is flawless, creating simplicity out of complexity. Every single element of the image serves a purpose here, from the receding street behind the main characters to the shop window to the street lamp in the foreground.
And when I’m out shooting in black and white, but it’s not driven by a conceptual narrative, it’s images like these and this mindset of composition-first that drives how I approach a shot. This image from Budapest, I took while out shooting in collaboration with Leica is an example of seeking out relationships of forms in that way.
The Takeaway: When going out to shoot with black and white in mind, you use environmental elements to create relationships between forms. Every piece of that composition has heightened meaning and purpose.
Another defining element of classic black and white photography born of the “black and white era” is the journalistic purposefulness of it. More than simply going out on assignment, as the Life Magazine photographers did, it’s about going out to capture life. And black and white photography seems to want to really get into the depth of humanity. Even when the subject matter gets lighter, the classic black and white photographer finds a side of it that goes a bit deeper.
I find it helps if you simply think of it as Human Journalism. All the images of the classic photographers of black and white seemed to be wanting to delve into something about humanity. To uncover our truth, our meaning, or even a human appreciation for the majesty of a great landscape.
The Decisive Moment
Masterful black and white photography comes down to understanding the masters of the medium.
And if you buy into the idea that the classic black and white style was done as well as it can be done by the titans of Life Magazine, Magnum, documentarians, artists and fashionistas of the time, then the first important thing to do if you want to shoot in a classic black and white style is decide… who do you want to shoot like?
This dawned on me when I studied with Mary Ellen Mark. The entirety of her teachings involved going and finding an interesting place and interesting subjects — Day 1 of her workshop: look at your work. Day 2: go find someplace interesting. And that makes complete sense if you want to shoot in a documentary style like Mary Ellen Mark, whose most famous work followed interesting characters in interesting settings. But that would not be the schedule in studying with someone like, say, Toni Frissell.
Vivian Maier shot differently than Weegee. Weegee shot differently than Bruce Gilden. Bruce Gilden shot differently than Joel Meyerowitz. Bruce Meyerowitz shot differently than Ray Metzker. And even Ray Metzker shot (slightly) differently than Fan Ho. But together, they cover a lot of the bases of classic black and white photography, born of an era where that was really the only choice. Figuring out which of these styles helps accentuate your own voice is the biggest step for a black and white photographer. A big step back, perhaps, to take a big step forward.
So, whose style do you love the most? Photography is a process of choosing what not to shoot. Both in subject (your crop) but also in your style. This is the hardest part of photography, in my opinion. In many years of mentoring, I know I can get a student to learn almost any technique, but I cannot get them to commit to a singular style, even though I know that they will grow faster, artistically, if they can learn it deeply through that kind of narrow commitment. It’s hard. And it feels like giving up on opportunities to commit to the singularly of one style.
I’ve had to make, and re-make, this decision myself over the years. I’ve tried a lot of different styles, but in the end, I’m more Metzker than Mark. It’s just where my temperament and tastes live. But I’m fully cognizant that I didn’t invent the style, nor am I nearly the only one shooting in it.
Takeaway: if you want to shoot in a classic black and white style, take the straightest path forward and find your muse. There are at least a hundred to choose from and they all have that purpose-built black and white approach to shooting, born of an era that had to succeed at it. Stand on their shoulders.
Finding Your Own Voice
Advice like “follow the masters” can sometimes seem like it detracts from one’s own creativity. But I find it helps to remember that this is purely a discussion of style, not content. There are ingredients that are inherent in a classic photograph just as there are ingredients inherent in a classic Italian meal. You can still change up the recipe, even if you’re relying on some age-old techniques.
My own work, when I’m being extremely purposeful about it (not just going out and having fun shooting) is conceptual in nature. I shoot with a narrative in mind and prefer to work in a series. But my style is straight classic black and white.
I’m but one of many who have built upon the works of masters. Even those who’ve extended beyond photography into the higher echelons of conceptual art find use in working with the foundational elements of black and white.
Takeaway: separate out the style of shooting from the content of shooting. If you love black and white, you can learn from the masters but still make the content and ideas your own.
Any Era Post-Processing
I believe in a simple post-process technique that happens quickly and lets you know within seconds if you’ve got a shot worth keeping. Because so much of a shot should be predetermined by your idea and purposefulness of shooting, if you find yourself trying to make an otherwise average image great through post-processing, then it’s already a lost cause.
I’m more than happy to let go of an image that just isn’t working and move on. It’s just part of photography.
This image here was just the first one I found for this quick demo of my post-process techniques. It’s a fairly typical touristy shot down the street from where I live, but capturing the VENICE sign in a way where it is isolated in the sky is actually a bit tricky (thank you, Anjelica Huston’s house). It’ll work fine for purposes of showing how I convert:
This screen grab below is of the main editing controls in Lightroom. They are normally all I use for establishing the look of my image (dodging and burning is a separate story):
I’ve annotated all of the moves I made on this image, which was processed in under :30.
- The quickest — and best — way to convert to black and white in Lightroom is to hit the the B&W part of the color mixer. This enables the color sliders underneath which give you incredible control of specific areas of your image, as we’ll get to on #3.
- The next thing I will do is adjust my main lighting controls (Exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites and blacks). You’ll see in nearly all the decisions here, I’m creating a very high-contrast image — forcing my shadows/blacks darker and highlights/whites brighter. Mine is extreme, your tastes may vary.
- Back down to the color mixer. Here I’ve only brought the yellow slider up to get the lines on the ground to pop. Another favorite technique of black and white shooters is to pull the blue down to darken the sky. That’s all done here.
- The tone curve is pushing the contrast even more! Darker shadows, brighter highlights. Again, this is my preference in an image, not everyone’s. Also, I don’t move the end points for pure black and pure white. True blacks, true whites is a very classic look that I like. Unless it’s foggy. :)
- Only pointing out that I will never touch Presence (or Structure). Garish local contrast that distinctly takes away from a classic black and white look.
That’s a basic black and white conversion and my (and a lot of other photographers’) rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t look great after doing a simple conversion like this, move on.
This is all enabled by shooting with black and white in mind to begin with. This way, you know very quickly if it’s right or not. You’re not experimenting in post to figure it out.
Not every idea looks great in black and white, and certainly color photography is a far more contemporary art form. But black and white imagery has a particular place in art and image-making. When done traditionally and mindfully, it forces a certain look on the world. Some say, deeper.
But that’s a gray area.