Shooting black and white is back in full force, with more creative possibilities than it ever had
Ways to work with black and white, from high-and low-key to making the most of greyscale
If you grew up in the Kodachrome generation, rich, vibrant colour was such a release. So pleasurable and… well, real. Some of us came to wonder what would have happened if photography had begun with colour. Would black and white even have been invented? Well, now we know, and the answer is yes. Colour has been photography’s default for almost two generations, and now black and white is in full revival.
Quite apart from people liking to change what’s gone before – that’s the basis of all fashion – black and white has the advantage of being one step removed from reality. We might have craved the reality of saturated colour in the old days, but the truth is that if you want creative expression, realism doesn’t serve you very well. I suspect that this is what’s driving the new era of black and white: not a return to the old days fuelled by nostalgia, but because it offers a more subtle and ample breathing space for creative imagery.
Now differs from then in two major ways. First, you have almost infinite choice over how dark or light an individual colour will translate into greyscale. The old Wratten filters over the lens (Ansel Adams was a great exponent) could never do that. Second, you can choose black and white for your image at any time, from the time of shooting to way later. This raises the importance of choice. When and why could you or should you convert to back and white? Here I make a few suggestions, but it’s an area that’s worth experimenting with. You could say that the universal availability of colour, and the excesses it has been put to, have given black and white a status almost of refinement. And some creative control. As Cartier-Bresson put it: ‘Black and white photography abstracts things and I like that.’
In a Peruvian mountain café, shooting toward the doorway – the only lighting – created a chiaroscuro of highlights and dark shadows that black and white handles so well
Our globetrotting Contributor at Large, renowned photographer and prolific author Michael Freeman, presents a monthly masterclass that’s exclusive toN-Photo. Michael has published dozens of books on photography, including the bestselling PerfectExposure.