Why and How: Using the Photographic Language of Black and White

If you are currently working on a project that involves black and white photos, or if you have attempted to create black and white photographs, you will have certainly noticed that the simple conversion of a color image is not enough.

If you want to create interesting black and white photos for an audience, you must master the photographic language associated with it. This crucial step is essential. How else can you transmit emotions and messages eloquently if you do not speak the language?

Herd of bisons in Antelop Island under a storm in 'Utah'.
Herd of bisons in Antelop Island in 'Utah'. The gathering clouds herald a thunderstorm. This photo uses many black and white photography language codes.

The Little Story Behind This Article

Black and white photography was not always a focus for me.

When I began my career as a professional photographer in 2003, my work resembled that of many other photographers. I limited myself to ordinary illustrative photography for magazines and stock photos.

In the stock photo realm of photography, only color is used. One reason is that illustrative photography must document and illustrate. It can be creative in compositions and framing. But it cannot be interpretative. It must remain objectively neutral. Rather than being used as a subjective source, photography reinforces and illustrates writing. Therefore, it must display what is clearly presented in the accompanying word.

In 2010, when I decided to become a photographer artist, I started to create color works. In 2011, a client asked me to create a collection of landscape photographs from the Big Bend region in South Texas.

I left for seven days to take the six photographs ordered. The specifications were precise. The client wanted color photos in horizontal format. The pictures were to show wide shots of nature. There should be no roads or human constructions visible.

The purpose of this collection was to decorate a main meeting room to create an atmosphere of calm, tranquility, and serenity by illuminating the wonders of Texas.

A few weeks later, I completed the project I had created. I proposed three collections, each with six photos. I also included a collection of three black and white photos.

I quickly shared the black and white collection at the end of my presentation. My client had already expressed interest in one of the color collections.

However, when they saw the black and white collection, both the client and the designer were immediately interested. They studied the three black and white photos printed in small format. Then they looked at me. They spoke to each other in a low voice. Finally, they told me that they would like to change their plan.

They found that the black and white photos generated more emotional impact and presented a deeper level of meaning. It exactly aligned with the tone they wished to present in the meeting room.

I asked them what these pictures meant to them. They described them to me in terms of emotions, sensations, and memories.

It was then that I realized that black and white speaks a different interpretative technique, it speaks its own photographic language.

I decided to retreat for seven days, this time to create a real collection in black and white.

It was from this project that I understood the power of black and white and the impact it could generate.

It was from this project that I began to decipher the photographic language of black and white.

In the rest of the article I will explain the outline of my formative years of understanding this technique.

The Use of Color in Photography

Color in photography portrays a natural and concrete representation of reality. In our environment, everything is in color.

The use of color is very dynamic. Most people love color photography because they can easily associate the photos with experiences from their own life. For example, warm tones in color are welcoming. They evoke memories of family and friends. Cool tones are reminiscent of distance in those relationship circles.

Color photography is rarely timeless. Indeed, it is often attached to an era, a fashion. Personally, when I look at color photos, I am often able to locate their origin in time. For example, a photo circa 1980 will not look the same as one taken today. With each decade comes new trends in color photography, and even if one tries to avoid these trends, it is exceedingly difficult to do so when using color.

The Use of Black and White in Photography

Light is one of the three essential elements to consider when creating a photograph.

In a previous article, I explained that light defines the shapes, lines, textures, and color range.

Light is your medium.

When you opt out of colors, you rely solely on black and white. You must then favor the forms, the lines, and the textures. These are the essentials that you must consider.

Black and white adds mystery to abstract shapes because it provides a strong visual contrast.

Black and white is timeless. It is often impossible to locate black and white photos in time unless you identify particular elements describing the era.

For me, it is this difference with the color that represents all the power of the black and white technique.

For me, black and white represents the French Touch.

The Photographic Language of Black and White

During all these years spent creating black and white photos, I have identified a number of characteristics of the language.

I will list some of them for you in this article. You must remember that these are only elements of a language. You must still assemble them, by using what I refer to as the “grammar” of photographic language. That is another story for a different day.

Let us review some elements of black and white photographic language:

  • Negative space.
  • Choice of point of view.
  • The size of photographic elements.
  • Contrast.
  • Symbolism.
  • Repetition.
  • Symmetry.
  • Minimalism.
  • The use of high key.
  • The use of low key.
  • Long exposure.
  • Associations.
  • Abstraction.
  • Silhouettes.
  • Separation of tones.

Some of these may appear to you as techniques. Try to dive deeper in your visualization. You will realize that they are much more profound than just a technique.

Take for example the silhouette. Try to look beyond the fact that it is a technique. Ask yourself what it can represent, what its meaning may be. You will then understand that it is a real element of black and white photographic language

Finally

Black and white photography has its own language and grammar. It is insufficient to simply imagine what a scene will look like in black and white. You must also master these codes to build black and white photos that provide impactful and interesting meanings to the public.

I hope that this article has allowed you to demystify the technique of black and white and that it has provided you with a new perspective on how to incorporate it into your work.

 

I Want to Help You to Create Interesting Photos