A simple guide to black and white photography:
Why black and white?
To start off, black and white isn’t “better” or “worse” than color photography. It is just different.
Black and white is an aesthetic you should only pursue if you like how it looks. Too often many photographers pursue monochrome because it looks more “artistic”. I say, shoot monochrome because you love it.
Monochrome: one color
I’ll use monochrome and black and white interchangeably, because monochrome is easier to write.
Keep it simple
Monochrome is great because it simplifies photography:
1. Shooting black and white photography simplifies how you see the world.
You aren’t distracted by the colors. You focus on shape, form, emotion, and soul.
2. Shooting black and white simplifies the post-processing:
If you shoot digital RAW and post-process into monochrome after, there are fewer options in processing your photos (when compared to color). For myself, it is very hard to post process color digital photos. Monochrome is much easier.
3. Shooting black and white simplifies your photographic approach:
I actually recommend shooting JPEG black and white on digital, if you have a good film simulation preset in your camera. Shooting monochrome simplifies your options.
For myself, the fewer options you have, the more opportunities you have to make novel images. (it forces you to be more creative).
Early color photographs and modern color photographs look very different from an aesthetics perspective. Early color photos are more muted, and the colors look a bit inconsistent; based on what color film you used. Modern digital color photos are all over the place; either high saturation, or “picture perfect”.
I feel monochrome has more visual consistency over the years as an aesthetic medium. And I am quite sure that we will always be shooting monochrome photos until the end of humanity. It’s like ancient Chinese Calligraphy: there is something sublime about the simplicity and minimalism of black ink on white paper.
Black and white photos will last
Other practical considerations:
A printed black and white photograph won’t fade its colors. A color printed photograph will eventually fade in color.
My aspiration is to make photographs that last at least 300 years. Thus, monochrome makes sense for me.
Getting started in monochrome
If you’re new to monochrome, or want to start again, keep it super simple. Shoot your digital camera with a high contrast black and white JPEG setting. Use your electronic viewfinder or LCD screen to visualize the world in monochrome.
Or just shoot RAW, and use free ERIC KIM MONOCHROME PRESETS to apply to your photos.
In praise of black and white film photography
Shoot only black and white film photography for a month.
With digital there is always the temptation to turn your photos back into color. With black and white film, you cannot “undo” it.
Thus when you’re shooting black and white photographs on a film camera, you’re more likely to start seeing the world in black and white.
What should you photograph?
Simple ideas of subject-matter which looks really good in monochrome:
- Closeup face portraits
When you shoot monochrome, seek to simplify.
- Less clutter in the background.
- Focus on one person or thing.
- Use a flash to draw your subject from the background.
- Remove superfluous elements from your frame, rather than adding elements to your frame.
- Get close: focus on interesting details.
ERIC KIM MONOCHROME
Some of my favorite monochrome photos:
Great black and white photographers to study:
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
- Josef Koudelka
- Vivian Maier
- Lee Friedlander
- Garry Winogrand
- Richard Avedon
- Diane Arbus
- Bruce Gilden
- Andre Kertesz
- Daido Moriyama
- W. Eugene Smith
Simplicity is the ultimate elegance.
Of course the best way to improve your black and white photography is to just shoot a lot.
Seek to master monochrome for yourself as your artistic palette. Then focus on making epic and legendary photographs!
JUST SHOOT IT.
Learn More: MONOCHROME MANUAL >