Seeing beyond color: Learn from the masters of black and white photography with these 7 practical tips

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V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt

Since photography started in black and white, we tend to associate monochrome images with the “classic” look. From Dorothea Lange's portrait of the migrant mother to Alfred Eisenstaedt's unforgettable photo of a sailor kissing a nurse, many of these iconic images have become a part of our collective psyche. Color photography may be the standard now, but black and white remains popular among photographers today. It doesn’t just look beautiful stylistically; it also teaches you a lot about photography in general. Study these stunning photographs from seven influential photographers and take your photography to the next level.

01. Compose your shots as precisely as Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Hyères, France 1932 by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Responsible for coining the term “the decisive moment,” Henri Cartier-Bresson was exceptional at freezing action in his photographs. Apart from being a master in timing, he was also highly skilled in composing his shots. He knew where to position his camera to keep all the elements in his photographs in balance. With an impressive number of famous pictures to his name, he’s one of the best photographers to study regarding B&W photography.

FRANCE. Lorraine. 1959.

Some people say they like black and white photography because it removes the distraction of color. However, when everything is rendered in shades of black, white, and gray, you also run the risk that your images might end up looking flat and unspectacular. Despite being in black and white, Cartier-Bresson's photographs look vivid because his pictures provide the illusion of depth. In most of Cartier-Bresson's photos, you can see how he liked to layer his subjects to give his images dimension and perspective.

Mercado do Bolhão, Porto, Portugal by Henri Cartier-Bresson

When you’re taking black and white pictures, isolate your main subjects from the other elements in the scene. Create the illusion of depth by always having something in the foreground and the background. This technique will make your images come to life.

Children play in Dublin by Henri Cartier-Bresson

02. When taking portraits, look for uncluttered backgrounds like Richard Avedon.

Mikhail Baryshnikov & Twyla Tharp Black & White dance photography by Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon was an American photographer famous for his fashion photography and portraits. Going against the prevalent style in studio photography at that time, Avedon allowed his subjects to freely express themselves instead of having them stand still like statues.

Marilyn Monroe by Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon’s simple approach involved photographing subjects - from celebrities to ordinary people - in front of unadorned backgrounds. Since there's nothing behind the subject, the viewer’s eyes naturally focus on the face. This technique may seem too simple to execute, but it’s highly effective.

Audrey Hepburn by Richard Avedon

Portraits look more dramatic in monochrome especially if you have all the right elements in place. To make your photos look as breathtaking as Avedon’s, choose an uncluttered background to help bring out the details on the subject’s body or face. Use lighting that looks natural. Walk around and find angles that reveal the texture of your subject’s face and the details of their eyes.

Joana Baez by Richard Avedon

03. Take long exposure landscapes like Michael Kenna.

Torii Gate, Study 2, Shosanbetsu, Hokkaido, Japan, 2014 by Michael Kenna

Michael Kenna is an English photographer renowned for his dreamy landscapes captured using long exposures. To give his images an otherworldly feel, he sometimes exposes them for more than 10 hours.

Ratcliffe Power Station, Study 31, Nottinghamshire, England by Michael Kenna

We see beautiful scenery in color every day, but black and white photography lets others see places from a different light. As evidenced by Kenna's photographs, landscapes look dramatic in monochrome, and even more so if captured using long exposures. Since extremely long exposures blur even slow-moving objects, they tend to produce strange looking clouds and make bodies of water look spectral.

Beach Rocks, Gageo-do, Shinan South Korea by Michael Kenna

It’s not going to be easy, but with patience, you can also create images similar to Kenna's style. Go to your favorite location late at night or before dawn. Then, install your camera on a tripod, set it to Bulb mode to allow exposures longer than 30 seconds, and start shooting. Keep experimenting with the exposure until you're satisfied with your photos. Look for moving components that will make your picture more alive such as stars, smoke, water, clouds, etc. You’ll be surprised how ethereal your image looks when you finish your exposure.

Eleven Hours, Te Kaha, Eastlands, New Zealand by Michael Kenna

04. Be original like Rodney Smith.

Two men on see-saw no. 2 by Rodney Smith

Rodney Smith was an American photographer who had a very distinct style for fashion and portrait photography. He had a penchant for creating whimsical black and white pictures that often feature characters in brimmed hats. Smith may be famous for his eccentric imagery, but he was also known for his minimalist sensibilities.

Cyndi Lauper by Rodney Smith

Many of Smith’s images certainly involved a lot of planning and execution, but they look effortless because of his straightforward approach to photography. He used backgrounds that supplemented the narrative of his images. And he chose only a few colors that registered well in black and white photographs. Often dressed in dark and light-colored outfits, his subjects stood against backgrounds that featured rich tones of gray when rendered in monochrome.

Golfer in a Tree by Rodney Smith

Rodney Smith's images teach you that just because you shoot in black and white doesn’t mean you should stop thinking about colors. Choose 3 or 4 contrasting colors so your images won’t look lackluster. Take test shots to see how each color looks like in black and white. Make sure you have bright whites, dark blacks, and shades of gray in between. Also, use a background that tells a story and helps direct the eyes toward the subject. As mentioned before, you need to give your photos a sense of dimension since images sometimes look flat without color.

Reed skiing in the street, Lake Placid, New York by Rodney Smith

05. Pay attention to body form like Toni Frissell.

Weeki Wachee by Toni Frissell

Toni Frissell was an American photographer known for her work in Life Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue. She also served as the official photographer of the Women's Army Corps during WWII. Her understanding of body form made her photographs look both elegant and energetic. Her timeless fashion photographs remain influential to this day.

Stephanie White by Toni Frissell

When looking at Toni Frissell’s photographs, it's almost as if you could feel her subjects move. She knew how to read movement and captured people like dancers in motion. Although she worked mainly in fashion photography with models, even her documentary work depicts regular people as graceful figures.

Dorian Leigh at the Swedish-American Line pier, New York by Toni Frissell

Whether you want to delve into fashion photography or street photography, it helps to understand how to capture body form. You need to work a little harder to tell the story if you’re working in black and white. Make every detail of your picture work towards a narrative. Don’t make your subject look awkward and unappealing. Consider poses that make people look fluid in motion. Let your subjects act naturally, capture photos mid-action, and always look for curves that give your photo the balance that you need.

Harper’s Bazaar, 1948 by Toni Frissell

06. Look for shapes and textures like Edward Weston.

Pepper by Edward Weston

Edward Weston was a master photographer who took photos of landscapes, nudes, and still lifes among other things. Some of his most unforgettable images are still lifes of vegetables and shells. Weston’s eye for shapes and textures turned mundane objects into astonishing works of art in black and white. His images are highly detailed and in some cases even imply erotic symbolisms.

Shell and Rock Arrangement by Edward Weston

He was particular about the shapes of the objects he photographed. Weston treated still lifes like nudes and took photos of them meticulously. He often used dark backgrounds and stark lighting, providing beautiful shadows and contrasts that made objects look realistic and even sculptural.

Shell, 1927 by Edward Weston

Whether you're shooting still life or portraits, black and white is a great way to show fine details. Play around with lighting until you find the ideal balance between shadow and light. Doing so gives you the optimal tonal range (a spectrum of black and white tones) to reveal texture and the details of your subject.

Cabbage Leaf, 1931 by Edward Weston

07. Edit your photos like Ansel Adams.

The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams is considered to be among the most influential photographers of all time. He was not only a great landscape photographer, but he was also a master printer. He was an expert in darkroom processes such as dodging and burning, a technique which back then was done using hands and simple tools in the darkroom.

Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico,1941 by Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams once said that “You make a photograph, not take it.” He took responsibility for creating the final look of his images by spending a lot of time inside the darkroom to turn straight prints (unedited pictures as taken by the camera) into works of art.

Jeffrey Pine by Ansel Adams

Thankfully, editing photos doesn’t have to be a tedious process these days. With a good photo editing program, you can create a masterpiece out of a raw image. Dodge to lighten parts of the images that are a bit too dark, and Burn to darken the parts that are a bit too light. Also, experiment with curves to adjust specific areas of your image. The goal is to make the image more dramatic by bringing out the different tones in it. Make it alive and three dimensional by revealing details that would otherwise not be obvious to the viewer.

Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake by Ansel Adams

All of these examples show that if you want to be a versatile photographer, it’s essential to learn how to shoot in black and white. Monochrome images reveal more by showing less. Since it provides you less options than color photography, it forces you to be more creative. Once you try black and white photography, you’ll realize how much it changes your perspective as an artist.