What Makes a Good Digital Black & White Image?
Let’s take a break from the technical side of B&W image processing to pursue the question of what makes a good digital B&W image, aside from its technical merits. The possibilities are endless, of course, but when you’re new to B&W it may be difficult at first to look at the world of colour and “see” the B&W potential in it. What kinds of things should you look for?
You can’t go wrong in looking at the world through the eyes of an artist or designer and noticing things like line, shape, form, texture, pattern and reflection. While these design elements are also important in colour photography, they take on an even more significant role in B&W because without any colour to catch the eye, they play a major role in defining the image. And while it’s true that these design elements frequently combine in the same image, as in a photo with both form and texture, looking for them and incorporating them in your images will give you a head start as a B&W photographer.
There are lines all around us: fence lines, country lanes, ribbons of highways, lines of mountains, canals and streams, tree lines, power lines, lines of buildings, and, without doubt, railway lines.
Strong lines that recede in the distance to a vanishing point lend themselves to an eye-catching B&W interpretation.
Everything has some kind of shape and some shapes are iconic: the Eiffel Tower of Paris, the Flatiron building in NYC and elsewhere, the Washington Monument, the Arc in St. Louis, the CN Tower in Toronto. You’d recognize these even in silhouette. Shape is largely a two-dimensional element (becoming form when it becomes three dimensional). For shape to become a key element in a B&W photo, it should dominate the image, as in this photo of a windmill backlit by the sun:
The windmill shape contrasts sharply with the wispy shapes of the clouds above it.
Form, as mentioned, is shape in three dimensions and is frequently inseparable from texture. Form is around us everywhere and just needs isolating to allow it to become a dominant photo element. Buildings (aging and dilapidated barns, for instance, are a favourite subject for B&W), automobiles, plants, industrial structures, household objects, not to mention dogs, cats, and people. Keep alert to the possibilities of form in your own environment, even in your kitchen:
These hard-boiled eggs, for instance, have both shape and form, as well as soft lighting and I managed to take this shot before they were all eaten. There is so much shape and form in the kitchen that I like to store a camera on the kitchen shelf so I can grab it to take shots during food preparation:
Like form, texture is everywhere, ranging from smooth to rough to patterned. Texture can be a subtle part of structure, as in this close-up of dried hydrangea:
Or texture can be bold, as in this photo of a door detail on an old building:
Or even contrasting, as in the textures of sycamore bark:
Patterns, either man-made or found in the natural world, often make good studies in B&W. Repeating patterns are particularly appealing, as in the leaf patterns of this oak-leaf hydrangea:
Or the highly abstracted patterns of common fleabane:
Reflections are a staple of all photography. Many things reflect light and mirror things around it: windows, mirrors, shiny surfaces, and even raindrops:
Even a cup of coffee may become a candidate for a reflection photo in B&W:
Photography is part art and part technique, but before you have good material to work with in post-processing, you need interesting subject matter. Hence, it is good practice to look for the classic art and design elements in the world around us. The better you get at this, the stronger your photos will be, which in turn will give you added incentive to process them in a way that has visual impact. This is particularly true of B&W photography because it doesn’t have colour as an element to lean on. The job of the B&W photographer is, in large part, to abstract these elements from the environment and present them in a fresh way.
To all these elements, there’s the added undefinable element of mood. This is something you bring out in post-processing, so next time we’ll get back to techniques that will help you showcase your favourite artistic- and design-oriented photographs in glorious black and white.
For Further Study
It helps your photography to look at the work of other photographers to appreciate their compositions and techniques. If you belong to a photo-posting site, check to see if they have any special interest groups related to B&W photography. If not, here’s a link to one of my favourite Flickr groups: The Joy of Black & White.