Stepping up at Black and White


I find High Contrast Black and White (HCBW) photography very challenging and joyful. The absence of color to lead the eye, black and white works on contrast, grain, lines compositions to paint the picture, it is a completely different mindset the photographer has to take in use. There is a honesty in black and white photography, which is easily get forgotten in a colorful charm. I find the old masters the biggest source of inspiration, taking pride, spending time, and putting love into their work. Learning from master photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and stunning photographers like Matthew hart and Cole Thompson is essential. All the photos in this article by these gentlemen is of cause under copyright.

In the following text will I try to derive and explain parts of this shift of the thought process which the photographer goes through in order to step up on black and white photography.

When taking Black and White Photos

  • Training the eye. Do think “think of shadows as real objects” and part of your composition. Do not give in so easily, the many first shoots will come over as bland and uninteresting, it is essential to explore how lines work and how colors and textures is recast in B&W. It takes time to train the brain to see B/W, and getting that feel for the subject allowing for more intuitively.
  • Think of shadows as real objects. Shapes are defined by contrast of differing light or color areas. Shapes exist in nature and we see these high contrast areas defined as lines. We see shapes visually and as they are emphasized by lines, they can have very complex effects in composition. They can be somewhat difficult to work with as they are often somewhat expected. For photographers, the use of shape in composition is often overlooked. Because photography doesn’t have the same hand skill requirement that drawing and painting have, photographers don’t have to learn to create the shapes. But as we covered in the line lesson, the techniques that photographers use to communicate shape are indeed a skill. 
  • Simplicity is a great helper; try to compose your composition down to the minimum. Think what takes part of the photo, if it doesn’t add to the photo it do not need to be there. The result of this is an increased balance in the photo, where negative space and positive space balance out.
  • Negative Space is the technique of using elements of low impact to contrast your subject in a picture. This concept in making images is similar to how we exist as human beings. If we don’t get a balance of space and activity we can feel claustrophobic. This concept works in visual composition in much the same way. Having a balance of high and low impact activity can emphasize the subject in the photograph as well as give a natural and calming desire to the viewer.
  • Think Lines. It often lines that makes or breaks a black and white photo. There are 5 kinds of lines, but especially “Implied lines” are important. The odd thing about implied lines is that they do not exist at all and are not even shown visually. They are created with directional elements such as shape, hand gesture, eye contact or direction etc. They are possibly the hardest elements to work with, but usually have the strongest impact when done well.


Cole Thompson shows the powerful effect of simplicity, negative space, and organic lines in his great photo “Dunes of Nude”. In this photo he introduces a feeling of chaos, complexity and beauty. Organic line is often associative on a subconscious level with the spectator, as our eyes relate in a much deeper way to this type of line.

Figure 1 Cole Thompson “Dunes of Nude”


If you follow the works Matthew Hart who is a Street Photographer based in Liverpool UK you will see the result of him choosing only to shoot B/W for a whole year, I can tell you it is pretty darn impressive.

Think then shoot!

How will this photo turn out, what is it I would like to see. Try to adapt the learning from Henri Cartier-Bresson. Change the thought process into “I want to make the photo finished in the camera”. Instead of cropping, do compose. Be quick in intrusion on people’s daily routines, shoot and do not be afraid to shoot it again until you got the expression you want, and then be gone before they even notice. Matthew shows a great example of this in his shoots. When composing your B/W shoots, do look for patterns while they are very compelling. Once you start looking for patterns, you will notice them everywhere, houses in the street, cars in a parking lot, a row of bushes, street lamps.

Stay faithful to one lens. Shooting B/W is much easier with a prime. My 50mm f/1.4 prime is rewarding in its contrast, sharpness and ability to lift the image in different layers. When shooting B/W I try to stay faithful to this lens. It is almost like the lens becomes a part of how I see the image. It is like I do not have to think about its DOF, I almost feel it. Shooting with the same lens gives a strong feel of its strengths and limitations. Another benefit of the 50mm is that it is unseen. Look how close Matthew is in the photograph below. He is actually standing in front of the window, taking a photo of Muslim women, without her even noticing it.

Figure 2 Photo by Matthew Hart

Good rich black. I try to underexpose by 1/3 or 1/2 stop. And I boost my highlights using +1. This setting gives me the deep black that love so much, and brings the highlights up where I wanted them to begin with. Do pay attention to your little lying helper the cameras histogram, it is a useful tool but not your master. Though it might look great in its monochrome preview, then parts of the spectra might horrible blown out. Make experiments and do look at the final result, how is the tonal range in your photo, check at the post histogram for a better indication.

On display. A B/W photo deserves so much more than being displayed on a computer screen. Developing them is so easy and cheap these days that it is a awesome way to decorate. Centsational Girl has a blog dedicated to stylish display of B/W. Do pay attention to the framing of your photo. I find that a white mat is appealing. It adds to the negative space of the photo, and creates balance in a fairly busy photo.

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