In a colour-saturated world, the power of a black and white image is undeniable…
These are the sort of adjectives that spring to mind when you look at a well-executed black and white image, whether it’s a portrait of an individual, a still-life or an action shot. But what makes a particular monochrome image stand out from the crowd and how can you achieve this with your own photography?
Tricks of the Light
Photography is, if nothing else, the manipulation of light and shadow, black and white, darkness and illumination. All photographers can learn about this from the works of the Great Masters of the art world – chiaroscuro is the term used to describe the use of strong contrasts of the light in painting, photography and cinematography. Immerse yourself in the works of Rembrandt, El Greco and Caravaggio to gain an insight as to how effective this technique can be.
Understanding correctly how to use lighting in your photography can directly affect the mood of your picture – and its impact on your audience. So how do you go about achieving these different affects?
With a reputation for over-heating and exploding, the use of continuous lighting was until recently not particularly popular. However, with the advent of more light-sensitive cameras and better fluorescent lighting, it’s now coming back into fashion. The benefit of using continuous lighting is simply to do with the quality of the light.
It’s clean and white and the nearest thing approximating natural daylight as is possible to recreate in the studio. In addition, the ability to control the source and direction of the light in your image allows photographers to create deep shadows and areas of soft natural light – making it the perfect choice for glamorous and romantic portraits and fashion shoots.
Once you’ve mastered the technique, you’ll be able to conjure up the glamour of old Hollywood within your own studio!
Using multi-directional light sources in a portrait can achieve stunning ad-agency style results. Set up four or five different light sources trained at your subject and you’ll find that shadows soften to become unnoticeable and that the light will appear to literally wrap itself around your model.
The results can be both illuminating and flattering. The technique here is to start with the maximum amount of light possible and then to dial it down to achieve the desired effect. Skin will look smoother and small blemishes and wrinkles will all but disappear.
Whether you’re shooting outside in the daylight or using continuous lighting within the studio to create a daytime effect, naturally lit portrait photographs are generally the most desirable way to capture a beautiful ‘real-life’ image of your sitter.
Taking pictures out in the open, however, is a completely different ball game to working in the studio. You have one source of light and its position is fixed. On bright, sunny days it can be too harsh, while on a cloudy winter afternoon it’s never bright enough.
But if you can take advantage of natural light for your picture, you’ll find that the results will be worth the effort. When the sun’s too bright, use a shaded area in place of a diffuser to soften the glare. Clouds act as a natural diffuser, so an overcast day can give you beautifully softened images.
In doors, you can use sunlight bleeding through a window to great effect. Choose where you position your subject in relation to the window with care, and use a sheer if you need to soften the light.
Adding Depth and Drama
Remember chiaroscuro? The painters who mastered this technique were suddenly able to add not just dimension and depth of field to their compositions but they could also alter the mood and the emotional impact of their work.
As a photographer, this is where your artistry can come to the fore. Sure, you have to master the technicalities of photography to produce professional looking images, but to be really successful, you need to take it a step further.
Black and white images in particular allow you to play with the light and shade in a painterly fashion. For serious portraits and documentary photography, creating deep shadows can be used to provide commentary and context to your subject.
Australian photographer Bill Henson is particularly adept at creating mystery and foreboding with the use of light and shadow in his photographic portraits. When you look at his work, you can’t help but think of Rembrandt and Caravaggio.