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Let's take a closer look at the vocabulary of black and white. First, black and white. Black, the tone, is a measurable quantifiable phenomenon. It's not a subjective quality, and here is what I'm talking about. I'm wearing a black shirt. Behind me I've got these nice black shadows on the wall, and so far through this video, you've been watching it thinking these tones are black, but they're not, actually. They're merely a very, very dark gray. This is black.
Let me show you that again. This is what you had been watching before, a very, very dark gray, which you may have thought was black until you saw the real black. As a black-and-white photographer, all you have to work with are shades of gray, so you typically want as many of them as you can get, because the more shades of gray you have, the easier it will be to separate different objects tonally in your image, and with more shades of gray, your image will have smoother gradients, which will make skies and shiny surfaces and shadows all render more attractively.
Finally, the more shades of gray you have, the more tiny variations in tone that you'll get throughout your image. And these tiny variations are how you achieve that silvery look that a good black-and-white print can have. The number of shades of gray you can have can be referred to as your contrast range. The more contrast you can capture, the more you'll have to work with in post-production. Contrast is simply the range from your darkest to your lightest tone. So if the darkest thing in your image is supposed to be black and it's merely dark gray like this, then you're cheating yourself of some of your contrast.
Similarly, if the lightest thing in your image is supposed to be white and it's merely a light gray, then you've lost some shades of gray that you could be working with. I'm harping this so much because a lot of times in class students will make a print and say well, you know, here are my shadows, they are black, and they won't be. They will simply be dark, because they haven't yet learned to recognize what true black is, and what full contrast range is. Black is not subjective. You have to pay attention to it and measure it and make sure that you've got it right.
Similarly, white can be off, except in a print white is a function of a color of your paper, because in a print white is simply an area that has no ink. So white is not as critical as black because when we want whiter, we go to a different paper, but blacks have to be right. Here is another example. Take a look at this image. It's okay composition-wise. The tonal choices are nice, but it's a little blah. It lacks a certain punch and clarity. Look at the dark shadow tones in the image, tones that should be black. They are actually just dark gray.
Similarly, look at the highlights, areas that should be white. They are actually just a light gray. In other words, this image has a contrast problem-- it's slight, but it's there. There is just a little bit of a lack of contrast because I didn't expose and process to represent a full range of tones. If we take the same image and expose and process it for full contrast, we get this. It's got more punch. It appears to have better detail. It's as if a gray haze has been lifted off of it.
This is the power of contrast, and it's the foundation of your work as a black-and-white photographer. Yes, contrast is important in color work, but in black and white it's everything. If you had to give a one-word definition of black and white as a medium, I think it would be contrast. Fortunately, your eye is very adept at seeing contrast, as we'll see in the next lesson. Compositionally, you'll mostly work in black and white the same way you work in color, but a few ideas are more pronounced. The fundamental compositional devices in black-and-white photography are light and shadow, and at times, you will build compositions purely by playing one against the other.
This composition is based almost entirely on the interplay between the light door on the left and the shadowy door on the right. Similarly, this image derives entirely from the light/shadow interplay. If you're the type of photographer who likes playing with line then you'll love black and white because stripped of color, line, and geometry in an image become more pronounced. Here, the lines are created tonally, the dark repeating polls and the white repeating polls. You can also combine these concepts and play with line and geometry that are created simply by light and shadow.
As with color, you still need to think about balance, framing, and most importantly, whether your subject is obvious and defined. But with black and white, you'll perform these tasks purely by manipulating tone, shadow, and light.
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