Little more than a century ago, a photographic safari meant a strenuous expedition with an entourage of porters manhandling enormous brass-bound cameras, heavy lenses, glass plates and plate-holders, cumbersome tripods and even a portable darkroom complete with developing chemicals in large glass containers. And all that just to take a few black and white pictures.
But while black and white may be the oldest form of photography, its power will never fade. In the fine-art world, monochrome prints tend to command the highest prices – though perhaps this isn’t surprising when you consider those wonderful historic images of California’s Yosemite Valley by Ansel Adams, for example, or the gritty realism of certain iconic black and white news pictures.
Yet many people still view black and white photography as old-fashioned and insignificant. If we no longer watch black and white tv, why should we shoot in black and white? The answer is simple: there’s much more to shooting monochrome than merely snapping without colour.
Unable to hide behind a splash of colour, the impact of a black and white photograph depends on other key ingredients, such as powerful composition, dynamic perspective, graphic design and a striking play of light and shade. In other words, you have to think more creatively to shoot great black and white pictures.
Far from being a poor-man’s colour, black and white offers its own special challenges and rewards. There is no better way to hone your photographic skills.
MEET THE EXPERT: Martyn Colbeck, UK
Martyn Colbeck is an award-winning film-maker and photographer. Working mainly for the BBC, he has contributed to many of the best known blockbuster wildlife series.
Martyn Colbeck’s eyes light up when he talks about black and white photography. “I have loved black and white since I first started taking pictures in 1980,” he explains. “Colour just doesn’t have its pure, graphic quality.”
He always shoots on film, producing black and white negatives that are processed in London. “Then they are printed by hand at great expense,” he laughs.
Martyn sees the world in black and white. “All day I am looking at everything around me,” he admits, “wondering if it could work as a black and white image.” He stresses that the essence of good black and white photography is simplicity. “Pick your subject carefully, concentrate on the graphic qualities and keep it simple.”
In 2005, Martyn successfully combined his passion for black and white photography with his other great love – elephants – when he won the Nature in Black and White category of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
“I’ll never forget taking that picture of elephants in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro,” he reminisces, “because it was taken on my birthday. But I don’t think it would have had anything like the same impact in colour.”
One of Martyn’s next ideas is to photograph humpback whales in black and white. “They remind me so much of elephants,” he says, “because they have a very similar spirit.” So, after working on a film about meerkats during the summer, Martyn is hoping he may be able to make it to Tonga to explore the possibilities.
Martyn Colbeck’s top black and white photography tips
- Understand the technical side of black and white
It’s important to appreciate the fabulous opportunities available when printing black and white. The tones in a monochrome print can be infinite and it takes a lot of practice to visualise how they will look in the final image. Martyn himself favours fine art fibre-based prints, which last for decades.
Black and white photographers need beautiful light as much as photographers shooting in colour. Dusk and dawn are good times to work because the low sun highlights detail in textures. But, perhaps most of all, the essential lighting ingredient for black and white is contrast, which is something many colour photographers try to avoid.
YOUR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE: Mark Carwardine shows you how to apply the theory to get the perfect picture.
Shoot different kinds of black & white
Don’t just rely on film for black and white – try shooting digital black and white as well.
Ignore the setting on your digital camera that allows you to select whether your image is taken in colour or black and white. Shooting in black and white is an irreversible process – you can never go back to colour – and converting a colour image to monochrome on your computer will give you more control over the finished product.
Experiment with different ways of converting colour to monochrome digitally.
Make it noisy
- Select a high-speed film (or high ISO sensitivity on your digital camera) to increase the amount of grain or digital noise in the picture. These are little specks, likened to the hiss and crackle in a poor sound broadcast. Usually unwanted in colour images, they can add an interesting effect in black and white.
- Try enlarging a small part of a picture to show more obvious grain or noise (most of which will appear in the mid-tone grey areas).
- Experiment – grain and noise works better with some subjects than others, and certainly doesn’t work all the time.
Think in black and white
- Remember the importance of losing colour. What might appear distinct and obvious in colour often becomes ambiguous once the colour is removed, so thinking in black and white is crucial.
- Keep it simple – think graphically and artistically to design each picture specifically with black and white in mind.
- Look for strong lines, bold and simple shapes, dynamic perspectives, distinctive outlines, dramatic shafts of light, interesting textures and the kind of contrasty lighting conditions normally avoided by colour photographers.