The Basics of Black & White

Written by Jacob Van Blarcom

 

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What comes to mind when a black and white photo surfaces on your instagram feed? Did the photographer aim to turn an everyday, unextraordinary subject into something “artsy” by simply devoiding the frame of color? Although greyscale photos have become the laughing stock of the social media sphere when users illfully attempt to exuberate an “aesthetic” by slapping on a colorless filter, black and white photography is a careful craft worth appreciating and taking a minute to learn how to pull off.

 

The very roots of photography are based in black and white. History is difficult to recall without a scene in grayscale coming to mind. Color technology did, however, emerge back in 1907 (around 80 years after the first photograph was taken), but the format reigned almost until the end of the 20th century, when color photography became the mainstream practice of consumers in documenting their own lives.

 

All history aside, a black and white photo places attention on the shape of a subject and its interaction with light. When color is washed away, a viewing experience is provided where the various connotations of colors and their combinations are eliminated. A photo is produced or edited to be grayscale to remove unappealing clashing or bland pallets which detract from the significant form of the subject. Black and white photos thus exist as a stripped-down, timeless representation of figure set back from the complexity of the real world.

 

 A photo straight from the camera

A photo straight from the camera

 

The key to a successful black and white photo is contrast. A true black and a true white should both be located somewhere in the frame. There should also be present the full range of tones between light and dark values, from the brightest possible white to the darkest possible black. However, details should not be entirely absorbed in shadow, or washed out by an overexposed white.

 

 The same photo simply put into grayscale without additional contrast edits

The same photo simply put into grayscale without additional contrast edits

 

Adding in additional “dodges” or “burns” can make a photo come to life. Although both terms are rooted from analog darkroom lingo, to “dodge” a section of a photo means to make bright, and to “burn” means to make dark. Sections of a photo can be dodged to draw attention. Likewise, portions of a photo can be burned to become less vibrant. A message about a subject or a moment emerges using the natural visual communicator of light.

 

 The final image with increased contrast and localized dodges and burns

The final image with increased contrast and localized dodges and burns

 

When should a photo be made black and white? The answer to this question is ultimately up to the photographer. If it is decided that the meaning of the photo would better be represented without color, than the photo should be edited as such. There’s no shame in proudly creating black and white photos, and the style can be an effective and bold medium when pulled off right. Attention should always be placed onto capturing the mix of a subject’s form and interaction with light.

 

So the next time you see a tasteless “artsy” black and white photo while scrolling through your Instagram feed, appreciate the timeless style your friend is attempting to emulate, and for the sake of carrying on an age-old tradition- get it right.