Why Choose Black and White Photography?

Black and white photography is, in a word, elegant. It's a particularly nostalgic form of photography, reminding us of a time when black and white was the only option for photos, before digital cameras, HDR, photo-editing software, and iPhones were around. Here instructor Mark Crase explains why we still choose to create photos in black and white instead of (or in addition to) color, how certain photographers have inspired him personally, and what exactly photographers today should keep in mind when they decide to venture into the world of black and white.

1. Why choose to make a photo in black & white as opposed to color?

Black & white reduces the image into its essence: subject, composition and light.  There is no color to dazzle or distract from those basic elements.  It forces the photographer to clearly identify the subject, see and understand the light, and create strong compositions.  Ironically, for that reason, creating black & white images can also be quite liberating.  When the colors in an image are off, they can become a distraction.  When working with black, white and all of the shades of gray in between, the photographer/artist has more freedom to create the image they want, and not be limited by needing to match what looks "natural."

Oh, and it's just fun to look at the world in a different way!

black and white photography

2. Which black & white photographers have had the biggest impact on your work personally?

Since color was not a practical option for photographers until the mid-1930's, and color printing was not widely affordable until the 1980's, black & white was the de facto standard, and a massive body of work was created.  Because of this, many black & white photographers were positioned to influenced those of us that have followed.  For example, masters such as Henri Cartier Bresson, and Ansel Adams are universally acknowledged as important.  However, two have resonated with me on a more personal level...

*   Dorothea Lange.  Her work photographing the victims of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression was compelling both artistically and as social commentary.  Just as important to me, was her acknowledgement that such photography was somewhat unnatural, put her in difficult, uncomfortable situations, and had to be worked at.  Additionally, she recognized that "the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera."  Both of these sentiments have been true in my experience, and she has inspired me to work harder to get past the same challenges.

*   Julius Shulman.  I enjoy photographing architecture, and Julius Shulman was a master of it.  He shot in both black & white and color, but he created a number of iconic B&W images of Mid-century modern architecture right here in Southern California.  He was also still shooting well into his 90's (he died in 2009 at the age of 98).  How can one not be impressed by that?!

black and white photography

3. What is one tip for photographers trying to achieve expert black & white photos?

You will be shooting in color, and converting to black and white later on your computer so...

Slow down, and think about the image you want to create.

*   Consider your subject.  How is it lit?

*  See the light.  What direction is it coming from?  Are the transitions between light and shadow harsh or soft?

*  Compose with a purpose.  Where is the subject?  Where are the shadows and highlights?  Where do you want to show detail?  Where will shadows and highlights without detail be acceptable?

*  Then expose with care so you capture the image you have in your mind's eye!


Mark Crase will be teaching an Intermediate Black & White series beginning Saturday, September 7 and continuing one Saturday per month until December. Details and registration information can be found by clicking here.

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