Everyone knows the differences between color and black and white photography. What most are not aware of is the way to view the setting in order to determine if a shot will have enough contrast or value to make for a good black and white image.
Let’s use a simple example – the everyday street scene. If you were handed a camera and told to take a compelling image of a street scene you might be drawn to the colors of signs or banners, the general looks of the buildings, and the many people on the street. Now, remove all of the color and convert it (in your mind’s eye) into the monochromatic world of black and white.
While there will be all kinds of midtones and grey hues running throughout the image, it is a good exercise to consider the different challenges to good composition when color isn’t a factor. Most photographers quickly learn that they begin paying much more attention to light and shadow, tonal range, and, brightness and contrast.
Let’s consider how to enhance a black and white photographic session in which people are the main focus, and one of the primary approaches to be used to boost the richness and tonal quality of the black and white image will be complimentary clothing.
How will this work? Generally, when subjects are wearing monochromatic clothing they are going to have a very strong impact upon the tonal values of the photograph. Just consider the first image below. This photograph is extreme and unique. The photographer is holding the camera and pointing it back at himself. The background is brightly illuminated and devoid of shadows or many darker hues and colors. The dark color of the photographer’s jacket serves as a balancing element in the scene.
Don’t think so? Okay, convert this sweater to a pale grey color in your mind and consider the results. It would be a ‘tonally valueless’ image. Now, try something like a light green. It would be darker, but would still not give the weight of the black sweater with its strikingly light zipper running down the middle.
Picture copyright Diego Medrano
If we reverse the situation and put our subject in pale colors we can see the effects of this as well. Consider the image below…here we have a woman with a fair complexion, dressed in white, and standing against a backdrop of solid black. This color configuration really illuminates the subject and pulls her out of the image. Her clothing and complexion have also allowed the tonal qualities of the image to be balanced out as well. If we could pop open the histogram for this particular photograph it would show the appropriate levels of contrast thanks to the even amounts of dark and light. When I shot this image I was aware of a couple of hotspots in the image but it wasn’t a great concern at the time as the singer wanted me to shoot this way. It can be difficult to avoid some hot spots in general, when shooting white clothing in black and white,plus using the flash. However you can tone this down in photoshop later if you choose to.
Picture copyright Amy Renfrey
In the final image, we have the culmination of the various qualities of black and white photography. We see the pure white and black, the reflective surfaces of the main instruments. While the composition of the shot is based around the single trombone player in the foreground, it is the skin tone of the hands of the musician and the pale hair of the player in the background along with the face of the other musicians that add the sort of mid-tones needed for balance.
Picture copyright Amy Renfrey
If you are planning to conduct a few black and white experimental shots of your own, you will want your subjects to wear complimentary clothing appropriate to the setting. For example, if you know that the setting will have a background prone to darker shades and hues you must dress the subject in pale or white clothing to create the necessary contrast.
Additionally, if you are dressing a portrait subject in a monochromatic palette most photographers would recommend that the darker garments be worn towards the face, like deep red, violet or indigo. This is because a darker top in a black and white image will usually allow the face of the person wearing the garment to “pop” from the image. If the background is dark then this is going to create a lot of drama. If it is too much it is always possible to tone down the effect with a pale shirt or a lighter colored scarf such as pink or green. The point is to balance the contrast and tones for the strongest effect.
Be aware, however, that the complexion of the subject might cause a bit of difficulty with using clothing in the ways mentioned. Although we did see a person with a pale complexion wearing white garments, sometimes a person’s natural coloring is not conducive to the sort of tones needed for black and white balance. These are moments which require a bit of clever composition to make a success. Need an example? Let’s say you want to take a portrait of a pale, blonde person against a dark background. The recommendations above would have you dressing them in a dark top, but this might be too much of a contrast. The solution? Find a mid-tone collar or scarf to position near their face to help reduce the dramatic impact of the transition from dark to light.
Some cameras allow live veiw to be seen in black and white. This function is a handy tool for learning how to train your minds eye to “see” in black and white. If you have not shot black and white portraits before I recommend taking a series of shots of very different colours. For example you may want to try coloured paper such as red, yellow, blue, green, brown and pink. Place these cards in the same image and you will be able to begin to see how colours are interpreted as a black and white photo.
You can also ask a friend or family member to stand against a wall, and, in each photo, wear a different coloured top to help you learn how colours and skin tone work in black and white photography.
Different skin tones will react differently when placed against certain colours in black and white photography, just as they do in full colour photography. By participating in this simple exercise, you will quickly see what works and what doesn’t.
Someone with fair hair and fair skin may appear to have no depth or tone in their face when a pure black garment is worn. In colour, they would appear to look “washed out”. However when a red garment is worn, then you may find a totally different look altogether, even in black and white.
The pictures off this website may not be used in anyway, without my permission. Don’t be mean and rip them off, just ask me first.