Black + White Photography As A Learning Tool

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"Float Away" by D. Travis North

“Float Away” by D. Travis North

Photography as an art form requires a good eye. But it also requires a lot of skill. Many get frustrated early in their education. There’s a lot to think about when setting up a photograph, when proofing your photographs and when finalizing your art. It is my belief that you should simplify as much as possible without giving up the control. The use of Black & White photography can help you to focus on what’s important.

Color can make essential aspects of a photograph, such as lighting and contrast and composition, difficult to process. If you were to cut out the color, you will be able to see the relationship between different objects. The human mind, whether you’re conscious about it or not, has a talent of noticing tonal qualities of your work. Until you train your eye what to look for, you will only be able to notice that something isn’t quite right. You will not be able to adjust your scene to achieve balance. But that’s why we’re starting with Black & White. Hues become shades of grey, the color spectrum is narrowed. You will learn the benefit of good backgrounds. You will learn how to achieve balance and you will learn how to manipulate your equipment and your subject so that you attain a perfect photograph.

Black & White photographs prepared by professionals will appear very crisp. While focus is an obvious aspect of that, the real reason is exposure, which ultimately results in contrast. Beginner works, on the other hand, tend to get a little more muddy – a lot of middle-ground greys, but not much black or white. Until you learn what to look for, you should try to include something black and something white into every picture. This will serve as a reference for when you are processing your photographs. But when you are processing your work, take notes. If you find that you’re works are generally dark (the white areas appear to be grayish), then you are under-exposing your shots when you snap the picture. If the black areas aren’t quite as dark as they should be, you’re over-exposing your shots. This is a lesson as to why you should never trust your camera’s internal meter. The good news about black & white photos is that post-processing exposure corrections are fairly easy. But again, this is why we aren’t shooting in color.

Here’s a practice exercise. Make yourself a composition of junk. Maybe it’s tools, maybe it’s plastic bits leftover from a model. Just make sure there are a few different colors. For that matter, you can even get your kid sister to cut random shapes out of different colors of construction paper. Set these up in a number of different positions, then take photographs of them. Don’t feel you need to include the entire scene. You can zoom in on one particular aspect of the scene, if you wish. Snap a couple of shots, then switch things around and snap a few more. If you are able, try to use color and then convert to Black & White in Photoshop (or whatever you use). Once you set up your proofs, try to compare each of your photographs – but look only at the Black & White versions. One will inevitably be more interesting than the others. Try to determine why. Chances are, you will find balance in that particular photo. Now, if you shot in color first, look at it in color as compared to the other color versions. The most interesting color version is likely to be the same as the one you chose from the colorless set. See, your mind always knows. You just have to train your eyes to look for the tonal qualities of your subject material.

As you progress in Black & White, you will notice another beneficial side effect. You will begin to predict how your photographs will look without color. This is an important step. This means you’re starting to think about what really matters: Light. Once you are at this point, I’d be willing to bet that most of your images are coming up properly exposed, or at least fairly close to it. You will have learned enough from Black & White that you can probably move on. But you’ll probably be drawn back to the colorless medium. See, most artistic photographers like to dabble in Black & White from time to time. There’s just something about it that is truthful. Take color out of the world, and suddenly it’s a work of art. Suddenly, your viewers focus on your subject, and aren’t so concerned about the color she’s wearing. There again lies the power of Black & White.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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