photo craft: black & white photography

You wander the tiled 2nd floor hallway in the School of Art building. Room 202. The handwritten sign taped to the door reads, “BLACK & WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY.” Your stomach jumps with anticipation.

Montpelier, Vermont

The room is filled with early twenty-something’s, you included. You sit next to a girl with long dark hair who leans over to you in a near whisper “Hi, I’m Dana.” Like you, Dana waits tables a restaurant downtown. Unlike you, she’s dressed like a 60’s go-go dancer, white boots, paisley dress, sunglasses.

Jan, the instructor, introduces herself then asks each person to go around the room and do the same. “Take out your SLR cameras,” she says. You set the used Pentax K1000 outfitted with a 50 mm lens you bought for class on the desk. Fourteen other students do the same.

The lecture begins with camera basics. You learn how light is recorded on film, how your camera records an image, and how you, the photographer, can learn to control the way your camera records light, distance, speed, and subject matter.

“We’re going to do an exercise in thinking and seeing in black and white. Put your cameras away for a minute,” Jan says, “and close your eyes. So much of photography happens before you even look through the lens. I want you to imagine the room we’re sitting in: four jumbled rows of chairs with flip down desks, checkered floor tiles, a chalkboard, a wood table at the front of the room, three large windows, and all of us seated in chairs.”

ice and petals

“Now imagine the same room, not in pure black and white, but in shades of gray. Where does the light fall in the room? On the tiles? The person beside you? Is anyone backlit in silhouette? Where are the lightest and the darkest areas? Try to see the fine shades of gray as if they range in tonal value on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 represents the blackest blacks and 10 represents the whitest whites, no detail on either extreme. Right in the middle is 5, middle gray.”

“Okay, open your eyes. Can you find positive and negative spaces to photograph? Or high contrast areas with sharp highlights and shadows? What about and the formal designs—of patterns and lines, and of shapes and forms.”

alley brooms

Jan asks if there are any questions. You look around the room, closing and opening your left then right eye, as you try to see in monochromatic vision. She hands out a page of notes with the following typed out:

5 TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING IN BLACK & WHITE 

1. Practice thinking and seeing in black & white (and shades of gray) before you even pick up a camera. Use the pre-visualization exercise we did in class wherever you go in order to sharpen this skill.

2. Study the grayscale and develop an understanding of how specific colors translate into a gray tone. Try to see the fine shades of gray as if they range in tonal value on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 represents the blackest blacks and 10 represents the whitest whites, no detail on either extreme. Right in the middle is 5, middle gray.

3. Look for fundamental design elements to photograph. Patterns and textures really stand out in monochromatic images. Strong contrasts and shadows render beautifully in black-and-white so do silhouettes on overcast days.

4. Capture the light. Use the grayscale to create different moods and emotions in your images. Shoot high key (white, bright, and “overexposed”) images; shoot low key images (dark, black, and “underexposed”); and shoot shades of gray (with mostly midtone gray values). Light plays a crucial role in all photography. Know where it is at all times.

5. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Whether you’re using a SLR or DSLR, you need to shoot hundreds of frames in order to recognize what makes a good black and white image.

Over the next six weeks, you walk around the city photographing buildings and people. You sign up for another class and then another and then you’re off to graduate school to study photography. You wonder, What’s next?

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Comments

  1. Great tips! I love black and white photography.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  2. Thanks for the perspective, I don’t work in black and white very much at all, but this inspires me to look at the world a bit differently.

  3. Thank you. I need to practice this more often. I can recognize when my images will look better in black and white than in color, but I need more practice intentionally shooting for black and white.

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