Black & white film
What better way to train your eye in black & white than by shooting on black & white film? Whether a former film aficionado, or a child of digital photography, going back and exploring the roots of photography can help further your digital craft. You can pick up film cameras for relatively little in secondhand shops or at car-boot sales and, depending on the model you choose, some offer the same semi-auto exposures modes that you’ll be used to with your digital camera. Shooting on film slows you down and makes you consider each composition before pressing the shutter – without the safety net of image previews and infinite storage space you’ll be surprised how much it changes your approach. Iconic black & white films such as Ilford’s HP5 and Delta 400, or Kodak’s Tri-X 400 can be purchased online and in specialist high-street shops, and there are processing labs aplenty around the country so you won’t need to worry about chemicals either! Black & white film images have a certain charm that will have you reaching for your film camera more and more.
Try for abstracts
Abstract photography involves capturing images out of context with the scene or subject within. By using light, perspective, composition and exposure, everyday scenes can be recorded in a unique way. Because black & white further removes the image from reality, it goes hand-in-hand with abstracts and can be used to further obscure subjects and create striking images. Literally anything can be photographed in an abstract way – look for patterns, repetition, interplay between shadow and light, high-key or low-key scenes, silhouettes, unusual angles, perspective and viewpoints and take care with your composition and exposure to render the image showing only the parts that you wish to focus on. Zooming in to single out details is an effective way of ‘seeing’ abstracts – try attaching a telezoom lens and looking at the world around you to see what catches your eye. Macro lenses offer a similar opportunity, allowing you to get close and focus on just one small part of a subject. Editing abstracts is fun too, as you can be more liberal with your editing!
Play with light & shadow
In colour, harsh direct light can create jarring images – vibrant colours can become oversaturated, while colours in hard shade take on cool, desaturated tones. Balancing exposures when shooting colour images with vast differences between light and dark can be difficult too. Thankfully, in black & white you don’t have to worry about the extremes of colour, and it’s a format that suits scenes with a wide tonal range. Colour images with histograms bunched in the middle can still be effective as colour creates its own contrast, but monochrome images tend to be more pleasing when we see the full tonal spectrum, from bright whites down to dark shadows and everything in between. This makes black & white a perfect way to capture the interplay between light and shadow on a sunny day. Expose for the highlights and let the shadows become dark and inky to create graphic interpretations of whatever is in front of you. Look for shadowy shapes cutting through the light and avoid the middle of the day –instead aim for mid-morning or late afternoon when shadows are exaggerated and elongated.
Use a high ISO
Ideally, you want to keep your camera’s ISO as low as possible – a low ISO rating means sharper images, better colours and graduations in tonal changes and less noise – ultimately, higher image quality overall. But there are times when shooting at a high ISO is inevitable, even necessary – for instance in low light. It’s always better to capture a slightly noisy image that’s sharp than a clean one that’s spoilt by camera or subject movement. This usually happens if you try to shoot at too low an ISO for the light and compromise on shutter speed, or spoilt by too shallow a depth-of-field because you were forced into a wider aperture than you desired. Generally, we’d advise you stay away from the really high ISOs unless necessary, however black & white is one medium whereby it’s easier to get away with a bit of grain. It stems from the association with black & white film. Film photography taught us to embrace black & white grainy images, and while digital noise doesn’t have quite the same charm as film grain, it doesn’t look out of place. So if you’re shooting black & white, try bumping up the ISO rating and seeing if you enjoy the results it gives.
Similar to the points raised about abstract photography, urban environments are packed full of black & white photo opportunities. Whether you’re planning on shooting in full colour, or black & white, cities are a creative photographer’s playground, with geometry, patterns, lines and shapes in abundance. Man-made materials like concrete and metal are often already monochromatic, so take well to being shot in black & white – these are often best captured under harsh, high-contrast light, where light and shadow creates sudden jumps in tonality and exposure and sharp edges are exaggerated. Look up, down and all around you for interesting angles and compositions and mix it up between wide-angle and telephoto focal lengths to find unique perspectives. Don’t just focus on the architecture either – shooting in cities also opens up possibilities for street photography, which is another niche that’s well grounded in black & white photography. For inspiration look no further than the legendary documentary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, famous for his black & white exposures of everyday life. There are plenty of clichés surrounding street photography, such as photographing a person aligned in front of an amusing billboard or graffiti, or waiting for a split moment when someone passes through a slither of sunlight in the dark street, but they’re clichés for a reason – they work! Keep an eye out for interesting characters on your travels and remember, street photography doesn’t always have to be candid and from-the-hip. If you see an ideal subject then don’t be afraid to ask if you can take their portrait – it’s great way to learn how to build rapport with subjects and how to create interesting portraits on the fly.!