A Beginner’s Guide to Iconic Black and White Photography

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Begin your journey to shooting black and white photography and learn how to capture images in this classic style.

Sometimes, in photography, it’s when you remove the color that you see the true beauty of what’s captured in a still frame.

Since the inception of photography back in the 1830’s, a lot has changed. So much of it has evolved—from the camera itself to the images produced. Today, taking a photo is as easy as it can be, thanks to smartphones. If you want to up your game, there’s an array of DSLRs and mirrorless cameras to choose from.

The Beauty of Black and WhiteThe beauty of black and white images. Image via arvitalyaart.

But, despite the glamor that color brings in every shot, black and white remains iconic. It’s more than an app filter. It’s more than a last-ditch effort in the editing process, hoping an image would still work.

Black and white is a completely different photographic language. It gives images a timeless feel and showcases the unique beauty that would’ve been lost if shot in color. We gathered some helpful tips for you to begin your journey to shooting in black and white. Also, Mavis CW will share with you more about how and why black and white photography prevails to date.

Meeting Mavis CW

Mavis CW is a British photographer born in Taiwan. Her work has been published internationally and included in the up-coming book Women Street Photographers.

“I grew up in a background where my mum collects artworks, so I developed an appreciation of art from an early age. I remembered watching how she used to buy rolls and rolls of film before she went anywhere,” Mavis started. “When I was thirteen, I went to Australia with my class. It was the first time I owned a film camera. I was nervous and excited to start the process myself, bearing the memory of how my mum loaded a roll of film and taking photos in mind. I had to take extra consideration of each photo I took as there were only either twenty-four or thirty-six frames per roll.”

Portrait of Mavis CWPortrait shot of Mavis CW. Image courtesy of Mavis CW.

Mavis shares that her serious passion for photography began in 2013. And, about two and a half years ago, she turned that passion into a profession.

“After a career in scientific research and then running my own restaurant, I decided to work in a traditional way by shooting and developing film in my personal darkroom . . . It is a bit like selecting canvas, paintbrushes, and different colors of paints, I am able to take full control of my own work,” she shares.

Why Black and White Photography Remains Iconic

For Mavis, black and white “strips back the photograph to its core elements.” She says it removes a lot of distractions from the color and “helps emphasize the emotions.” She adds that “it draws people’s attention to the story I want to tell.”

Tell a StoryBlack and white images tell an ever-changing story. Image via Michael Mann / fStop.

This type of photography is not only iconic, it still remains one of the most effective ways we can communicate photographically. When done right, black and white images tell the story of each and every still frame in a direct and stirring way.

“It gives a certain timeless look to the photographs,” says Mavis, adding that it’s also challenging since the lack of colors “makes photographers think and find creative solutions in different ways.” Mavis wraps up by saying that, “this approach is a powerful way of recording time and revealing more about the human condition.”

How to Shoot in Black and White

Fix Your Mindset

The number one rule when shooting in black and white is to fix your mindset that you’re going to shoot in black and white before you even start clicking. We’re so used to shooting in color, we tend to forget that a colored image converted into black and white doesn’t always work. That said, it’s necessary to know that you’re choosing to shoot in black and white and, more importantly, why you’re making this choice.

Change Your PerspectiveApproach your shoot with black and white images in mind. Image via estherpoon.

This helps you to look at things from a different perspective, one that fits black and white. This will also help you see elements that play a vital role in an image that most likely won’t matter much if you’re shooting in color, such as texture and light. And, more importantly, this will help you understand that some photos work in black and white—and some just don’t.

Focus on Everything Else but Color

Focus on ElementsWhen shooting in black and white, focus on the elements of the image, rather than the color. Image via Ahturner.

When shooting in black and white, one thing you’ll quickly learn is that you have to focus on all the other elements except color. This is where lighting, contrast, and texture become your top priority—not the colorful elements captured in the frame.

Photography, like any craft, takes practice. And, as you keep doing it, make a point of taking note of how the light and texture affect your shots. Take note of the shadows and contrast, as well. Black and white photography requires a different skill set, so train your mind to focus on the elements that will make your image a good one. And, most importantly, give yourself time to learn how to play with these elements.

Work with Nature, Not Against It

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: nature is always in charge. There will be instances when you’ve set your mind to going out and shooting, but when you’re already out, rain starts pouring down or dark clouds begin to roll in. There’s nothing you can do about this. And, no matter how hard you try and prepare for situations like this, sometimes you just can’t avoid it.

Work with NatureLearn how to work with nature. Image via Will Saunders.

With black and white photography, light is basically your best friend. So, instead of feeling bummed about the fact that there’s no good natural light when you expect it, you need to learn how to work with nature and not against it.

Learn to make the most of what you have. Put your attention on other present elements like reflections. Black and white photography isn’t just about taking photos. It’s also about knowing what works and what doesn’t, even in unexpected situations.

Embrace Lines, Shapes, and Angles

Using Lines, Shapes, and AnglesUnderstand how to use lines, shapes, and angles. Image via Taurus106.

Okay, we may have said to focus on other elements like lighting and texture, but we also want to mention the other things you need to learn to embrace. See, black and white photography remains iconic, but not just because it survived the many years of evolution and change.

It’s iconic because it reminds us that photography is an art—be it in color or not. And, to make good art, a photographer must learn to embrace lines, shapes, and angles. Know how to put them in the frame. And, know when and how to cut them out in such a way that it makes each image a good one.

Push the Boundaries of Your Imagery

Push Your BoundariesPush your boundaries by shooting from different perspectives. Image via Donovan van Staden.

Whether you’re shooting in film or digital, pushing the boundaries of your imagery can make or break your career. Photography is a diluted industry. More and more people are going out shooting and working to turn their love for still images into a career.

One way to separate yourself from the many creatives who are shooting in black and white is to continue pushing the boundaries. Shoot from different angles. Shoot from ways you don’t normally shoot or never thought of shooting. Capture things that keep you curious. Black and white is far from boring. And, if you approach this craft by letting your curiosity lead, you’ll soon realize there’s so much more about it than simply black and white.

Cover image via Nickolay Khoroshkov.

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