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The medium of black and white

From: Foundations of Photography: Black and White

Video: The medium of black and white

Before we go on, there is something you need to think about. Black and white is not color photography without the color. Black and white is a medium all to itself. Painting and drawing are both processes of rendering an image by hand onto a piece of paper, but you would never say they were the same medium because they produce very different results, and they can be used to very different effect. It's the same way with black and white and color photography. I'm not just arguing semantics here. If you start thinking about black and white as a different medium then it will be easier for you to shed some habits, not permanently, but there are some ways of looking at the world when you're shooting color that just don't serve you very well when you're shooting black and white.

The medium of black and white

Before we go on, there is something you need to think about. Black and white is not color photography without the color. Black and white is a medium all to itself. Painting and drawing are both processes of rendering an image by hand onto a piece of paper, but you would never say they were the same medium because they produce very different results, and they can be used to very different effect. It's the same way with black and white and color photography. I'm not just arguing semantics here. If you start thinking about black and white as a different medium then it will be easier for you to shed some habits, not permanently, but there are some ways of looking at the world when you're shooting color that just don't serve you very well when you're shooting black and white.

At the simplest level, your goal as a photographer is to create an image with a clearly defined subject and background, and so you frame in a particular way, you expose in a particular way, perhaps to brighten a specific area or to darken another. You choose a specific focal length and camera position. Typically, you use all of these parameters in concert to try to separate your subject from the background so that it's clearly identifiable as the center of interest.

If you're shooting color, separating the subject from the background might be easier because the subject and background might be different colors. At other times, a particular scene might be harder because the subject and background are the same color, or because the background is distracting. In black and white, everything in your image is a shade of gray, and you get to choose the shade of gray that corresponds to any particular color. Black-and-white photography therefore is about recognizing and controlling the interplay of total relationships in the world, and this is why I say it's a different medium than color.

In black and white, the way you recognize subject matter, the way you shoot, the way you post-process, all of these may be done very differently than when you shoot color, because your entire photographic vocabulary is not exclusively about tone, about lightness and darkness. Here is an example. Walking down the street I see this lamp. Now the subject matter isn't particularly interesting, and the light is not even that great, but because I know how to think in terms of tone, I recognize that there is a total relationship that could be interesting in this scene.

If the sky were represented as a very dark tone then the lamp, which has a very light tone, might stand out in an interesting way. After processing the image, I get this. Again, the entire thought process was about tone, and I only recognized this as a potential image because I was thinking like a black-and-white photographer, not a color photographer; and this is why I see black and white as a different medium from color, because they have different vocabularies. Yes, they share some things, just as painting and drawing share line and form, but with black and white, because you don't have color to work with, you'll find yourself paying more attention to tone, contrast, possibly geometry, and line, than you would when you shoot color.

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Image for Foundations of Photography: Black and White
Foundations of Photography: Black and White

39 video lessons · 22615 viewers

Ben Long
Author

 
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  1. 8m 25s
    1. Welcome
      1m 24s
    2. Why black and white?
      5m 12s
    3. Suggested prerequisites
      53s
    4. Using the exercise files
      56s
  2. 19m 43s
    1. Is it really black and white?
      1m 9s
    2. How gray corresponds to color
      4m 38s
    3. The medium of black and white
      3m 5s
    4. The vocabulary of black and white
      4m 46s
    5. The physiology of black and white
      2m 22s
    6. How a camera's image sensor captures an image
      3m 43s
  3. 32m 46s
    1. Preparing the camera
      3m 34s
    2. Light revisited
      6m 3s
    3. Seeing in black and white
      2m 21s
    4. Taking a black-and-white expedition
      1m 17s
    5. Finding and shooting a black-and-white image
      11m 14s
    6. Shooting a tone-based subject
      2m 0s
    7. Exposing for black and white
      6m 17s
  4. 1h 38m
    1. The nature of grayscale images
      3m 33s
    2. Converting to black and white using Photoshop CS4 or CS5
      6m 17s
    3. More about the Black & White dialog box
      3m 19s
    4. Converting to black and white using Black & White adjustment layers
      3m 55s
    5. Converting to black and white in Camera Raw
      4m 5s
    6. Making an advanced tonal correction
      17m 33s
    7. Doing more tonal corrections
      14m 6s
    8. Calming down highlights
      10m 4s
    9. Vignetting
      8m 58s
    10. The trestle images
      2m 39s
    11. Handling tricky skies
      2m 43s
    12. Doing a selective black-and-white conversion
      2m 23s
    13. Toning
      1m 19s
    14. Split-toning
      2m 19s
    15. High-key and low-key images
      2m 32s
    16. Diffusion
      4m 40s
    17. Using Nik Software's Silver Efex Pro 2 plug-in
      7m 46s
  5. 24m 14s
    1. Selecting a printer
      5m 17s
    2. Preparing the image for print
      8m 30s
    3. Configuring the Print dialog
      5m 9s
    4. Evaluating a print
      5m 18s
  6. 43s
    1. Goodbye
      43s

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