Understanding the Effective Black and White Image
Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina
What makes a black and white image effective? In my opinion, it takes more to create an effective black and white image than it does to create an effective color image. By removing the color, you are taking away one of the major elements, quite possibly the element that is most distracting or that takes away from all of the other parts of the image. This leaves you with things like composition, tonal range, shape and texture to rely on — all important parts of an image that sometimes just aren’t as noticeable when objects within the frame are brightly colored.
Let’s dig into the nuts and bolts of black and white photography, and by the end, you’ll have a better understanding of what makes an image effective.
Understanding the Zone System
This is a system that was pioneered by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer, and even if you don’t use it actively, understanding how it works will give you some insights into black and white imagery. In other words, learning about the Zone System will help you to see, as you create the images, where the light and dark spots will be.
In a nutshell, the Zone System breaks an image down into 11 different shades (numbered from Zone 0, which is black, to Zone 10, which is white) along the white to black tonal scale. Middle gray, which is the tone that is exactly between white and black, is Zone 5. For the most part, the thinking is that in order to have a correctly exposed black and white image with a broad tonal range, the lightest parts of the image should fall around Zone 7 while the darkest parts should be right around Zone 3. Anything past these ranges, and you’ll start to lose texture and detail.
Now, you don’t necessarily have to adhere strictly to the Zone System as you create black and white images. My point in explaining this was to illustrate the spectrum of shades between black and white — and how necessary it is to include a wide tonal range in order to create an effective monochrome image. You could take a photo that is mostly black and shades of dark gray, or you could take a photo that is at the lighter end of the Zone System, but the most effective black and white images generally make use of shades that span the entire spectrum, from white or light gray to black. Pay attention to the tonal range as you create your monochrome images and you’ll end up with visually diverse images and striking contrasts.
Without Color, What is the Point?
Once you have removed color from an image, what value remains? Many people simply enjoy the contrasts or the play between black and white and all of the shades in between. But I would argue that the value of black and white imagery goes far deeper than that.
As I mentioned, when you strip away the color, you are removing a distraction. Now, instead of looking at the difference between red stones and the blue sky, or the shades of green in a leaf, you are forced to look for something more. That something more, if present, is what helps to make the image more effective.
If you intend to create black and white images, then here are some of the major elements you could work with in order to make the finished image visually interesting:
Clingman's Dome (Great Smoky Mountains)
Perhaps this is why there is still such a mystique surrounding black and white images. I’ve heard it argued before that color photography is easy compared to monochrome. No photography is easy, in my opinion, not even color photography. If it were, all art would have already been made. However, I do think that black and white photography requires you to pay stricter attention to all of the details.
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