Some days, it’s better to think in black and white.
If you are learning how to use lines and shapes to create great compositions, shooting for monochrome images is a great way to hone those skills.
Black and white photography is a great way to learn composition because it concentrates on techniques that emphasize content, contrast, and most importantly, form.
Documentary style photography, of which photojournalism and street photography are part, focuses mostly on content. Photos that document events tell stories within the frame, so color may or may not be that important in the image.
If the colors add to the image, such as in this photo of a fishing boat setting out to sea, taking a color image may be a good decision. In documentary imagery, shooting in color is as much a decision as what to include in the frame. If the color adds to the image, it is better to use color.
If I had converted this photo of drying squid against a blue sky to a monochrome image, it would not have had the better effect. The contrast between the warm colors of the drying squid and the sky makes for a pleasing combination. It also gives extra information that’s pertinent—that it’s a hot day, perfect for the business of drying squid.
But sometimes, a lack of color is a better choice.
When I took the photo above of the two fishermen with their almost empty net, I realized that although it sort of works as a documentary style image, the composition itself lacked impact. The background interfered with its clutter. If my goal is to improve composition, I had to zoom in and work only on lines, shapes, and contrast to make compositions that worked better.
Shooting Form: Lines, Shapes, and Textures
Filling the frame with a set of lines and shapes is a technique used in black and white photography. Black and white photography works when the forms in the frame are the main emphasis.
In the photo below, the geometry of the basket acts as a background for the cluster of fish. The lines of the basket lead the eye to the fish. The harmony of the uniform linear shapes makes a good contrast with the more curvy lines of the fish at the nexus of the composition.
In this next photo, the rough texture of the net gives a good contrast between the smooth ones of the fish. The tones in the net are dark, setting off the highlights in the fish, creating a contrast that serves to push focus on the main subject, the fish.
Shooting Form: Light
Another advantage of shooting in monochrome is that you can shoot during the times when most people consider the light ‘bad.’ I shot this image of the hanging cuttlefish at around one in the afternoon, when the light is directly overhead. But I noticed that the patterns of the wooden drying racks made some nice patterns of light and shadow on the hanging squid, and made the squid on top of the rack seem almost luminescent.
The other reason why this worked better as a monochrome image was the presence of a very distinct pattern in the hanging squid, a pattern in the squid that was flat on top of the rack, and the natural frame of the drying rack itself.
Finally, the colors present in the image as it was originally shot did not add anything to the image. The sky was blue, but the squid was white and the background included a pink boat and a smattering of dark, water-stained wood. None of these colors really added to the image, so it made sense to make the final image in monochrome.
With today’s cameras where you can switch from color to monochrome easily, it might help to shoot in monochrome sometimes. It certainly helps you zoom in on content, focus on spotting contrast, and shoot for composition using forms in the frame. You can also convert easily to black and white using this method in Photoshop.
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