Thoughts about Black and White Photography

Black and white photography of a narrow alley in backlight. With high contrasts. The light appears cross shaped. Outlines of people visible

Untitled

With very few exceptions modern cameras are digital and the sensor delivers a colour photo. Converting to monochrome is an extensive digital manipulation similar to cropping.
I myself am a colour photographer but have a few monochrome pictures. I always write in the description of the picture why it is black and white. Now I want to use the opportunity to write a bit more about the general principles when I convert to black and white.

Specific Retro Aesthetics

Just using some vague retro styles and BW on a random scene to pretend it has a meaning will not give a good picture and is not art.
Being specific is the key. The closer the retro style fits to a certain period or situation the better the picture will be. And this should match and advance the story of the picture.

BW photo of the lasers of Singapore‘s Marina Bay

Searchlights

The lasers in the rainy night sky reminded me of anti-aircraft searchlights in WW2 documentaries. To support this aesthetic idea I used a vintage BW filter with rough grain. I included the ultra modern buildings of Singapore on both sides of the picture as an ironic contrast instead of faking a historical scene.

A black and white photo of two men in a cafe with harsh contrasts, film noire style

That Afternoon…

These two gentlemen look a bit like spies or gangsters in a Noire movie in the harsh contrasts of the afternoon sun. I absolutely love Noire Aesthetics but often prefer such pictures in colour. In this picture the smartphone and the Costa label are clearly out of the Noire times and provide an ironic contrast of content to the vintage style which I reinforced with monochrome.

Structuring

A black and white picture showing a man exiting a bus in Mongkok

Bus Stop on Nathan Road

This is a very busy scene so typical of Mongkok, so many things going on at the same time. Please look at the textures on the side of the bus. These were reflected colourful neon lights. I generally love maximalism and love to fill the frame but this was a very chaotic scene and the eyes were overwhelmed. So I converted to BW to structure. The second method to structure this picture was a narrow depth of field and gradually blurring into the distance.

Isolating

There is a subtle but important difference between structuring a picture and isolating a certain theme within the picture

A black and white picture of the hands and chopsticks of two persons at dinner in selective light

Dining

Actually the light reflexes on the skin and the dish were quite nice in this scene but I really wanted to showcase the grace of the fine movement of a human hand in this picture and direct the viewer towards this without distracting elements by using black and white.

Tonal Qualities

Black and white photography of a wide avenue and tall buildings with high contrast. A small solitary human silhouette crosses the street

Morning in the CBD

In fact it is isolation when we showcase tonal qualities, how dark or bright certain areas of a picture are. But the tonal qualities and shades are so central to photography that this should be separated from isolating for example movements by both, the photographer and the viewer.

Please note how wide the tonal differences are between the darkest and brightest area in this picture and how many shades of grey in between are present.

The opening picture of this post also belongs to this category. In that picture the stark contrast between extremely bright and extremely dark shows the geometrical structure with not much intermediary grey in between.

Mood

Gloomy black and white photo of a man walking along Hong Kong harbour on a cold, Romy, foggy morning

Gloomy Morning

I personally think using black and white to make a picture more gloomy is a bit a cliche. But it works and can be used occasionally. Even in the RAW file this picture anyhow looked almost monochrome and using BW was a good choice.

… and very often Colour is the better option

A high contrast photo of a street intersection and a woman with her dog crossing, Shadowplay effect and surreal athmosphere

Another Morning in Tsim Sha Tsui

This picture has stark tonal contrasts and I planned it as BW. But it turned out that the remnants of colour are not distracting. Instead they give nice textures to the road and the dog and add depth.

I really appreciate great black and white photography. But a photographer should have a very good reason and make a conscious decision about sacrificing colour as it is such an important quality of light and seeing.

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