What makes a good black and white photo?
When I was FORCED to shoot black and white for most of my first year in photography school I really did not like it at all. Until my first day on campus everything that I had taken was in color. I saw in color. I composed with color. It was all about the color as far as I was concerned.
During our first year everyone was taught with the assumption that each student knew absolutely nothing about photography and that was probably a good thing. Everyone of different abilities had to re-learn what they thought they knew about photography.
Even with all of us receiving the same instruction and having the very same assignments our work was different from one person to the next. We all interpreted and executed the same assignment differently. So, when you ask someone what a good black and white is you will probably get as many different answers as there are people.
A good black and white is like a good meal. It’s subjective. What I like you might hate. Who is right and who is wrong?
The answer is… We’re all right. I can only tell you what I think constitutes a good black and white photo and even to that there are exceptions. High key and low key photos don’t fall into my loosely set guidelines.
Aside from the obvious compositional and aesthetic considerations it is all about the tones for me.
I have seen lots of dull and to the opposite overly contrasty black and white photos. A photo that has no pure whites and no solid blacks doesn’t cut it just as a photo that has only blacks and whites without a wide range of grays also doesn’t make the grade.
When processing digital images the very first thing that I do in Photoshop is go to the levels slider and adjust them until I have a 100% white and then a pure black. That is my starting point. Of course if you happen to be photographing in very flat light your scene may not have a solid black nor a pure white. For most daylight scenes they do.
Now I concentrate on the middle tones making sure that there is separation to make the scene more alive. Sometimes the shadows will be too crowded or collapsed and by using luminosity masks I can select a certain tone and work only on that. Likewise for the lighter tones.
Once the overall look is achieved I’ll close the photo and forget about it usually returning in a day or two. This makes a huge difference at least to me. My eye and brain seem to adjust to what I am looking at and I lose distance from what I am doing. Your brain can get used to something being too light or dark. Returning to it a day later I have “fresh eyes” and can be more objective about what I am seeing.
If the tones are fine then my eye goes over the scene looking at where it is dark and light. Where does my eye travel? Is this spot dead? Does it need lightening. Is that spot too dark and it is a void?
I tend to burn and dodge at this stage. A good example of what I will do is the tree trunks in the photo above. After I had gotten all the tones where I wanted them the trunks of the larger trees seemed flat. Using the dodge or lighten tool in Photoshop I ran the tool up and down the middle part of the trunks to give them more shape and depth. Some of the leaves in this infrared image also felt too dark so I did the same to them lightening them a bit.
So there you have it. My idea of what constitutes a good black and white and it is only my idea. You might process this completely different and your opinion would be just as valid as mine because in the end it doesn’t matter what others think of your art, it only matters what you think.