Approach to Black and White Photography Compositions

“What is he looking at,” asked a casual observer? During a recent photography outing to the Hocking Hills area in southern Ohio, I was approached by another photographer at one location who introduced himself and his partner. I recall they mentioned they organized photo adventures for groups. They were curious about me because as they noticed me working, they thought I must clearly be seeing or looking for different subject matter than they were. I chuckled slightly and said I was shooting black and white and when doing so, my approach to subject matter is a little different.

Choosing Black and White Subject Matter

When shooting color, I’m a big fan of strong and dominate foreground elements, using them to create the foreground, midground, background relationship. This often facilitates drawing the viewer into the image and creates a sense of depth. Moreover, color itself is an element which can help lead the viewer through an image. However, my approach to black and white requires me to adjust a bit.

While I will at times still use strong foreground elements, it’s often better to find ways to simplify the image to highlight the key subject and reduce any extraneous and distracting elements. On the Upper McCord Creek Falls image to the right, I used a 100-400mm lens to isolate the falls detail. I would consider this an intimate landscape, which really works well in black and white.

Upper McCord Creek Falls, Columbia River Gorge, OR

What to Look for When Considering Black and White

Zabriskie Point Detail, Death Valley National Park

Without color as an element, what should one consider for black and white subject matter? Black and white photography requires you to focus on light and shadows, objects, textures, lines, and contrast. Accordingly, I often will reach for a normal to longer focal length lens in lieu of the ultra-wide. Doing so, I can better isolate my subject and consider how I might approach processing the image later, a pre-visualization step. In the image Zabriskie Point Detail to the left, I used a telephoto to zoom into the repeating patterns, which were accentuated by the compression effect of the telephoto lens. Also considered, was the tonal differences, which alternated between light to dark to light and to dark again. This also adds to the feeling of depth.

Word of Caution about Black and White Photography

Just a couple of words of caution about shooting black and white. Understand that once you start, you may just become addicted. Nonetheless, get out and try it. Also, check out a few of my articles regarding black and white on Visual Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I’m always glad to help.

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