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In this Foundations of Photography, Ben Long shows photographers how to develop a black and white vocabulary and explains the considerations to take into account when shooting for this medium. The course follows Ben as he goes on location and explains what makes good black and white subject matter and how to visualize the scene in terms of tonal values and contrast rather than color. Along the way, he demonstrates some exposure strategies for getting the best images. Back at the computer, Ben demonstrates techniques for converting the resulting photos into black and white using Photoshop and other imaging tools, and offers tips on printing and output.
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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