In a recent survey conducted among users of our online photography courses, black and white came up as the main genre that they’d like to learn more about (62%), coming in just ahead of street (59%) and portrait (56%) photography.
You can also see from a quick scan of websites and auction houses that black and white photography is alive and well despite the first colour image appearing in the 1860’s, more than 150 years ago.
The Power of Black and White
So why is B&W still so popular and how can you use it in your own work?
One of the main reasons is that black and white creates a differentiation from the multi-colour reality that we as humans see, making the images more arresting, compelling us pause and focus on the subject.
Shooting monochromatic images helps the photographer to be ‘reductive’ as it eliminates distraction. It simplifies the composition and forces the viewer to look where you want them to look. David Yarrow, who has a predilection for B&W, discusses this in lesson 47 of his online photography course.
David says: “if you photograph people in colour you see their clothes and if you photograph people in black and white you see their souls”. When you remove colour the emphasis shifts to other elements of the image, such as the composition, shapes, lines, texture, contrasts and tones.
Attracting without Distracting
In the movie Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg uses the technique in the opposite way to attract the attention of the viewer to a key passage in the movie. The film is shot in B&W, except for the moment where the actor Liam Neeson, as Oskar Schindler, sees a little girl in a red coat in the Warsaw ghetto. Her coat and hat are the only colour in the movie. Schindler realises the impact of the Holocaust and goes on to save over 1000 lives.
The great photographers of the post-war era, the Avedons, the Mapplethorpes, the Newtons and the Peter Beards, all worked in black and white– even when colour became widely available. Ansel Adams once famously said: ‘I can get a far greater sense of ‘colour’ through a well-planned and executed black and white image than I ever achieved with colour photography’.
Our online photography courses encourage you to apply this kind of ethos to your own work. Ask yourself if you can use the technique to focus the attention of the viewer to the subject, and is colour just a distraction from the subject?
Telling the Story
You can also use B&W as part of the story that you want to tell. David Yarrow, who photographs wildlife, uses monochrome to amplify the narrative of these animals inhabiting the natural world. The majestic elephants he photographs in Amboseli, in Kenya, or the bison in Yellowstone National Park, in the US, have been around for millions of years.
There’s something about the variances between rich blacks and deep contrasts that appeal to us psychologically. As one of the Masters teaching our online photography courses, David Yarrow offers tips and techniques of using B&W to add emotion or mood to your images.
Another reason for B&W’s popularity is the timelessness that it provides. It recalls a past when colour photography was not possible. Without colour, an image can leave its ‘point in time’ undisclosed, shifting the focus to other aspects of narrative and style.
Moreover, if you’re in the market of selling your photographs you should definitely consider monochrome. The majority of the photographs sold at big auction houses such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s are in B&W.
How to Shoot?
With modern camera technology you don’t have to make the decision when you take the photograph. You can either shoot in colour and convert to B&W, or set your camera to the monochrome settings and see a B&W preview but still have the colour data available in the RAW file.
Advice on Post-production
David Yarrow shoots in RAW and then works with a post-production company in Los Angeles called BowHaus. (He explains his process in his Masterclass.) The RAW file is imported into Photoshop Lightroom in its full range and then modified to create the final piece of art that you’ll want to hang on your wall.
The file is first worked on while still in colour. The tension points are removed, it is cropped for composition, filters are applied to make use of the rich tonal range of B&W. Certain areas are worked on specifically to highlight or tone down certain details. They will also add a thin noise layer to give the image a beautiful grainy pattern.
As David mentions, there is no right or wrong in the interpretation of a B&W image, but what is important is to develop your own artistic style and to keep it consistent.
The final file is then sent to the printer via the post-production software. If you want to print high-quality images it is recommended to do a bit of research into the different printers available to you and to develop a close working relationship.
Be Inspired by David Yarrow’s Masterclass
Our online photography courses provide a fascinating insight into how a Master like David Yarrow works. Along with aspects like the importance of extensive research, proximity and access, you’ll learn how to tell a story and create stunning, attention grabbing and immersive images.
When you sign up for a David Yarrow course, you’ll have privileged access to the inner workings of a Master’s mind and you’ll understand so much about not just the technical aspects of their craft, but also what drives them creatively and philosophically. A David Yarrow course, as with all the Masters’ classes, provides an unprecedented behind the scenes view into the mind of a legendary photographer. When you sign up you’ll enjoy lifetime access to these easy-to-follow classes so you can apply the techniques and tips to your own work and take your creativity to new heights.
When you take a David Yarrow online photography course, not only can you learn at your own pace in your own time, you’ll also become part of a community of like minded people where you can exchange ideas, information and inspiration. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a DSLR camera or a smartphone, these classes will teach you how to take better images on any device.