Updated: May 3, 2020
The call for seven black and white photos in seven days has gone viral (dating this post October 2017 since thankfully most internet trends fade). The challenge issued from person to person via social media also specifies no people and no explanations. At first I thought the masses were setting the bar pretty low, or I assumed I was missing the conditional requirement of “and nothing else” thus saving us from selfies, newsfeed shares, random inspirational quotes, and food pictures for at least a week. I should have recognized the intent from the outset; taking quality photographs in black and white is challenging.
I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that black and white is the medium that most of us in the film generation learned first. B&W film was much less expensive to purchase and develop. We spent considerable time patiently setting up shots, evaluating light, recording the frames and settings in our notebooks, and finally capturing the exposure. It was a slow, deliberate process and, as one of my instructors practically reminded to me, “every time you press the shutter release you are paying someone a nickel – make it count”. Fast forward a few decades to the present where cameras (or at least camera phones) are ubiquitous, film is almost non-existent, and the cost to develop is limited to only what you decide to print. In this era, we can capture images at negligible cost and, as a consequence, without care. But philosophically, just because we can, does not mean we should.
Maybe this is just another internet fad, but I’d like to look at this B&W photo challenge as a call to invigorate our creativity, consider our scenes and subjects, concentrate on technique, and capture images that have meaning and evoke emotion. Now that is a worthy challenge.
As a reference for others who are playing along in this challenge, I wish you good luck in pursuit of your art and offer the following advice.
- Taking a photo and adding a B&W filter is not worthy of the effort. Take some time to set up your shots. Find subjects with shadows, highlights and depths of color that contrast. These elements make B&W photography - its not just about white and black - it is about the grays.
- Identify light sources and recognize how these will impact your exposure. These will become more readily apparent in B&W as they add and remove contrast from the picture. Learn to use light (and lack thereof) for effect.
- With additional contrast the depth of field can be enhanced and more apparent to the viewer. Use this to your advantage. This is another key reason to make your blacks truly black and your highlights white. Many photos when taken to grayscale will lack this pop and the B&W effect losses its punch.
- Edges and patterns are accentuated, so use these to your advantage to give your photo depth. These attributes can also be used to create leading lines, which draw your viewer to a particular aspect of your photo.
- Composition remains king - but with black and white sometimes what is not seen actually adds to the photo.