My clients don’t come to me for my eye-popping color images. I am 100% certain of that. They don’t ask me to capture the gorgeous blue hue of their daughter’s eyes, but rather the soulful look within them. And 95% of the time, I’ll show them that soulful image in black and white, rather than color.
It’s not that I don’t envy the gorgeous soft colors from Jose’s film work (oh how I do!). It’s not that Amy’s bright images aren’t the most fun and happy moments you’ve ever seen (they are!). It’s not that I look at an image taken by Leah and don’t melt at the abundance of dreamy hues (I totally do).
Black and white photography is just my preference. It’s the way I see when I shoot. When I envision my clients in a particular image, I project that image in black and white in my mind. I strive to make it match in print, according to the way I “saw” it when I clicked the shutter.
Some people might wonder how in the world I can purposefully remove color from my images and be completely happy with a “colorless” photograph. But for me, black and white images are far from boring, or plain, or uninspiring. In my heart, they are alive and so much more vivid to me than a color image could ever portray. It encompasses nostalgia, a timelessness, and a classic beauty that I cannot find elsewhere.
In my opinion, there are a few key ingredients for shooting intentionally for black and white images…
Use of Light and Shadow
When you strip away color from an image, you are left with tones of black, white, and grey. The way you use your light to wash over your subject can make or break your black and white photo, and this is the single most important bit of advice I can give you in producing your best black and white photographs!! And while color images can look wonderful in flat, even lighting… I find that black and white photographs are more compelling with dramatic, directional, more purposeful light. In a color image, shadows can be a nuisance and show color noise, especially if they are underexposed in those shadows. However, black and white images with dramatic silhouettes and bits of light can be quite striking.
Light falloff is a wonderful technique to utilize, too. Try shooting in a door frame in front of a darker room, and take advantage of side-lighting instead of front- (flat) lighting. You can also use dramatic side lighting to form a bit of a rim light (as you can above), depending on your angle in relation to the subject. And don’t forget my favorite… back-lighting!
Again, without color, your eye searches for interest, something different. A wonderful way to give dimension and life to your black and white work is by using different textures within the photo (not necessarily ON the photo). Look for a nubby blanket, a cabled sweater, a rough tree, a brick wall, a sandy shore, or a stone path. Layering different textures within the same photo can really improve that image and give it dimension and depth.
Ahem. “Color? I thought she was shooting for black and white?” Well, yes. I am. But the truth is, some colors just photograph better in black and white than others. Mid-tones photograph wonderfully in soft side lighting, and even in flatter lighting as well. I do prefer creams and beiges and off-whites, rather than pure white, just because it’s simpler for me to expose for and process later on. However, I never ever advise my clients NOT to wear white. Sometimes I need that burst of brightness in a darker home, and I truly like “black and white” images…. not grey ones. I want my whites to be clean most times (not blown or blocked) and I want my blacks to be deep and full of texture and shadow. I adore contrast. And… I make sure to expose for that white shirt, and keep them a little further from the bright window than I would if they were wearing pink or blue or some other mid-tone.
Another element of interest is to slow your shutter speed and add a feeling of movement to your photograph. I love the results, and wish I did this more often.
It’s also very important to keep a good tonal range within your photo… making sure the blacks are not blocked and the whites are not clipped, and that you have a nice range of shades and tones throughout your image. This is probably the biggest mistake I see in a lot of black and white photographs (some of my own too, I admit). This can be controlled during your exposure and also kept in check during your post-processing. Watch your histogram in Photoshop and be mindful of representing as full a tonal range as you can. This will vary depending on the photo, obviously!
Black and white photographs feel so honest and timeless to me. They are classic. They never feel dated, no matter what the subject is wearing. And when you aren’t focusing on the gorgeous color in the image, you can really focus on the person IN the photo. The sweet little face staring back at you. Laughing. Crying. Smiling. The emotion in the photo takes center stage, and the photograph becomes a testament to that person, who they are in that very moment. So make sure that you’re truly forging a bond with your subjects, especially if you intend on capturing them in black and white. You’ll be amazed at your results if you really make an effort to connect with them before you snap the shutter.
One of my favorite characteristics of black and white images is their ability to convey their proper intention in a split second upon viewing the image. If the photographer has made time to connect with the subject(s), used light to create the mood they’re after, varied the textures within the shot, and chosen colors that work well when printed in shades of black and white… then the purpose of the photo will be so very clear at first glance. Uncluttered, raw, real. And sometimes even powerful.
I am tempted, almost daily, to remove all the color photos from my website and proclaim myself exclusively a black and white photographer. I know my heart would sing if I followed it. Images in shades of gray give my artist’s soul so much peace and comfort. They allow me to focus on what really matters, to get right down to the heart of the photograph. I hope this feeling is the same for some of you, too.
Co-editor, Stacey Woods is an on-location, natural light lifestyle photographer for the Tampa Bay, FL area. Her favorite subjects are expecting mamas, the tiniest of babies, and children of all ages, and she prefers to photograph them in black and white, almost exclusively. Her online photo journal can be found at Stacey Woods Photography. Stacey’s own husband and children (a 6-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter) are her greatest source of inspiration… and laughter!