Black and White photography is a timeless art form that captures the essence of a moment in a way that color simply cannot. Whether you're an amateur photographer looking to learn the basics of this classic style or a seasoned professional seeking to perfect your craft, it's important to understand the key elements that make for a great black and white print. In this article, we'll explore what makes a good black and white print and offer tips for creating stunning images that will stand the test of time.
As my black and white photography journey continues, I'm constantly studying black and white photographs. One of the mistakes I see most is black and white photos are different levels of grey. Many photographers hit the black and white button in Lightroom, do a little dodging and burning and call it good. When you are interested in purchasing a black and white fine art print, there is more to a black and white photograph than different shades of grey. Images with high contrast make the best black and white prints.
ARTISTS I STUDY
As I study the works of Joel Tjintjelaar at Bwvision.com, Jim Welninski with Alteredspacephoto.com, one thing stands out in their work. There are only 2 elements in the majority of their photos. The Figure and the Ground. The figure is the subject of the image and what is highlighted. The Ground is the rest of the image. The ground could be the sky, buildings, water, etc. Anything else that is not the Figure. When you look at a black and white image to purchase for your home gallery, make sure you know what the figure is in the image. This will make the image stand out while hanging on your wall.
UNDERSTANDING TONAL RANGE AND CONTRAST
One of the most important elements of a good black and white print is tonal range and contrast. Tonal range refers to the range of shades of gray in the image, from the whitest white to the blackest black. A good black and white print should have a wide tonal range, with well-defined shadows and highlights. This will help the image to have depth and dimension, making it visually interesting and appealing to the eye.
Contrast, on the other hand, refers to the difference between the lightest and darkest parts of an image. A high-contrast image will have stark differences between light and dark areas, while a low-contrast image will have more gradual transitions from light to dark. When it comes to black and white photography, high contrast images are often preferred as they can help to create a dramatic and impactful image.
KNOW WHAT IS IMPORTANT IN THE IMAGE
In the above image, the "Figure" is the Smith Tower and the few buildings to the right. The "Ground" is the rest of the image. You know exactly what is going on in the image. If it was just different tones of grey, your eye would wander around and get lost. What creates the sense of Figure and Ground is the area with the highest contrast. Essentially where the light meets the dark. Of course this is not the case for all black and white fine art prints. If the image is a portrait of someone, that makes it hard to have a figure and ground elements. In the case of landscape or architectural photography, the Figure and Ground are the important elements.
Some of the black and white images I create, I need to determine where the light is coming from. I then focus all my efforts to make sure everything has the same shadows and light areas. If the light is coming from the top left of the image, I don't make the right side of the objects bright. You want to make sure this is uniform throughout the image. Black and white photography takes a lot of thought when it comes to editing and knowing what's important. It takes time with dodging and burning techniques to create the image you want.
HOW TO CREATE THE FIGURE AND GROUND
What makes the Figure/Ground elements difficult is the amount of masking needed to separate different elements of the image. I can spend days to weeks making hard masks of all the elements in an image I want to edit. In the case of Cityscapes, I make a mask of the sky, then the buildings, then each individual building, etc. along with luminosity masks. Then I need to combine several masks to make a single edit on one part of the image. You can see the editing process can be tedious but it really makes a difference. This allows me to edit the image and show exactly what is the figure and what is the ground. Once you get this part figured out, the image will come together and stand out from most black and white images. Although it sounds complicated, it's well worth the effort. Sometimes it takes editing an image 3 or 4 times before you figure out what you want. I have done this many times. Use the color image to make all the masks, create a black and white version, spend several hours editing, realize it's not what I want, delete it. Never delete the color image because that is where all the masks are located. Now I start the editing process over and hope it turns out like I want.
HOW TO CREATE BLACK AND WHITE IMAGES
Right now, there are countless ways to turn a color image black and white. Any photo editing software can do this. Using Lightroom, it's as easy as clicking the black and white button and moving some sliders to darken and lighten different colors in the image. Photoshop is similar but more options are available using a Black and White layer and moving the color sliders.Gradient Maps offer an additional option with slightly different results than the black and white layer. These can also be combined. I use a Photoshop plugin called Artisan Pro X. This plugin allows for more control over the process for superior results. This panel allows me to control the light, create dimension, and use special FX to create the images.
Most of my black and white photographs have been created using hard masks of all the important elements. These masks allow for editing individual parts and not the entire image at once. Although this takes much longer to create, the results are far better. Controlling light, shadows, and directing the eye of the viewer is part of the this process. With nature scenes, creating masks isn't hard but cityscapes can take days. Since I edit each building individually, I use the pen tool in Photoshop and trace each structure. It's time consuming but worth the effort.
Pay close attention to the background. A busy background takes the focus off the figure. If you can't identify the figure, the image I too busy and not god for black and white. For instance, a black and white image of a forest scene is shades of grey with no figure and your eye wanders around loses interest. A clean background allows the viewer to see the figure and know what the image is about.
Learn to enjoy the editing process. If you don't enjoy editing, black and white images will be difficult for you. I mentioned I can spend weeks on 1 cityscape or architecture image or just a few hours for a landscape. I know many photographers spend less than 10 minutes editing because it's not fun. On the other hand, black and white street photography editing may be different. I'm not a street photographer so don't know how they edit their images.
FOUNDER OF MODERN BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS
When most people think about black and white photography, Ansel Adams is the first person that comes to mind. To some, he is considered the founder of modern black and white photography. But not only was he an amazing photographer, he played a vital role the conservation of national parks like Yosemite by being part of the Sierra Club's board of directors. But back to photography. I couldn't imagine what Ansel had to go through to get his images. Especially in Yosemite. Carrying a large format film camera, large tripod, and everything else he needed. Then have to find a dark room to do all the post processing on each image. And before you say post processing is cheating and that it should be perfect out of the camera, Ansel would spend at least a full day processing each image. I don't know how it works in the dark room but he would dodge and burn his images to get the viewer's eye to see what he wanted. Dodging and burning is lightening and darkening areas of the photo to draw the eye where it should go. I often wonder what he could do with a modern camera. I also think that while he is considered one of the best, times and equipment have changed and I prefer modern black and white images. It's not better, just different.
SHOOTING IN BLACK AND WHITE
Ideas for black and white photos are endless and can be done in any weather conditions. I prefer overcast days with no contrast. Others prefer bright sunshine to create contrast especially for street photography. Shooting on overcast days allows the photographer to create contrast while editing and draw the viewer's eye through the image.
Most modern cameras aren't capable of shooting in black and white. While you can change the screen to black and white, the RAW files are in color and must be converted. At least that's how my Sony camera works. This gives the photographer more control over the editing process as you can dodge and burn each color to create the black and white image. Black and white photos are now my favorite. It allows me to create the image I want and not let the sunrise or sunset colors do it. Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy color, but black and white is more creative.
When purchasing premium fine art black and white prints, you want something that stands out. I feel that most of my fine art black and white prints do just that. But then there is a good chance I'm a bit biased when it comes to my work. Black and white photography has been a fun journey. Since I haven't been able to get out and shoot as much as I want, going through old photos has been fun. Went on a trip to San Francisco last year and what I thought were boring images since we didn't have any clouds the entire time, are now turning into fun black and white projects. If you want to get serious about black and white photography, spend the money for Artisan ProX by bwvision.com. It will make your editing come to life. I also offer processing lessons over Zoom and can walk you through how to edit black and white or color images.
Please contact me with any questions about purchasing limited edition premium fine art prints from any of my galleries.