The Black and White Composition

An excerpt from The Photographer’s Black and White Handbook: Making and Processing Stunning Digital Black and White Photos by Harold Davis, published by The Monacelli Press, 2017.

BW cover webPhotography is applied design, and according to classical design theory the principal building blocks of two-dimensional design are:

  • Making the best use of both external and internal boundaries
  • Acknowledging and working with the underlying shape in the image
  • Constructing and depicting exciting and dynamic forms

As opposed to color photography, the boundaries in a photo are not obscured by an attractive color palette that can distract the viewer’s eye. This means that getting your composition right is even more important with black and white photography than with color.

The concept of a boundary speaks to areas in a photo that are bordered in some way. In a photograph, the most important boundary of all is the visual frame for the photo—how the photo is cropped, how the content of the photo relates to the frame, and how the edges of the frame are treated. (Note that this does not refer to a picture frame, which is an entirely different issue.)

As an example of the frame edge treatment, a photo can go straight to the edge without a break (so the break is the edge), it can be bounded with a black retaining line, or it can be surrounded with a regular white area. These possibilities can be combined, and of course there are other possibilities as well.

Within the image itself, boundaries help shape the building blocks that are the shapes that make up a composition. Boundaries work best with defined edges, and when an edge is used appropriately in a black and white composition, an image can be created that uses the interplay of positive and negative spaces (see “Using Negative Space,” starting on page 53). The ability to effectively contrast positive and negative space in this way is an element that is simply not present in most color compositions.

Finding the edges that frame spaces within a monochromatic composition does require experience and an affinity for seeing in black and white. Becoming edge and frame conscious is essential, but otherwise there really are no hard and fast rules. But once you get the hang of it you’ll be well on your way toward creating great black and white compositions.

Keep in mind when choosing your black and white subject matter that you cannot actually photograph an object. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it is true whether you are working in color or black and white. To restate this idea, you cannot make a photo of a given subject; the only thing you can capture is the light reflected or emitted by the subject.

While true across the domain of photography, this idea is particularly helpful to keep in mind when considering black and white photography, because the absence of color reduces the composition to its minimal elements, meaning it is more closely tied to the way the light that is captured behaves.

Photos that are primarily about light, in as pure a form as possible, almost always lend themselves to black and white compositions.

Within the image itself, and in addition to being aware of the importance of light and edges, here are some of the remaining significant compositional issues to keep in mind when you are looking to make a black and white photo:

  • Look for the dark side: Strong and compelling shadows often don’t work well in color, but can be a hallmark of great black and white photography.
  • The absence of color is, well, the absence of color: Compositions that are otherwise interesting but only have a little in the way of color variations, or are mostly presented in a single color, can work very well in black and white, as they are almost always not about color.
  • Ramp up the range: In the Western desert we are home on the range, and much good black and white photography also shows a strong range between lights and darks. If there is little variation between the lightest lights and the darkest darks in an image, this may be a sign that it is not inherently workable in black and white.
  • Intentionality about graphic design: Omitting color is an act of abstraction in the sense is that it is creating something artificial in relationship to the way that most of us see. Therefore, subject matter with abstract characteristics—that might work well if you didn’t know what in the world you were looking at—can make great black and white imagery.
  • Keep it simple: An image without color is an image with an important and complex element removed. Therefore, you want to look for imagery where there is at least the appearance of simplicity, and where keeping things simple is an important aspect of the composition.
  • Watch dem bones: Black and white photos don’t disguise the underlying structure, or bones, of their compositions as much as color images do. It’s therefore important to work toward black and white imagery where the compositional elements are striking.
  • Patterns are the best: Many black and white images take advantage of patterns to create striking and highly abstract compositions.
  • Shades of gray: Since black and white images are by definition in shades of gray, look for compositions that feature a subtle range of gray layers, like sand on sand, clouds, mountains in the desert, and many other kinds of subject matter.
Harold Davis-Spiral

© Harold Davis

This form of aloe is well known to plant lovers for the intricate spiral that it forms over time. It is an Aloe polyphylla, commonly called “the gem of the Drakensberg,” named for its native mountain range in the Kingdom of Lesotho, near South Africa.

Interestingly, these spirals, which grow either clockwise or counterclockwise, grow very slowly. Some of the larger gems are literally hundreds of years old. The one shown here is probably quite venerable. By the time they get big, they are considered quite valuable and command high prices at horticultural nurseries.

One thing that always catches my eye when I am wandering about is an interesting spiral, whether natural or man-made. So I was delighted to come across this beauty as I wandered in the late afternoon through some lonely California hills. Who planted this lone specimen so long ago, and why here?

I was really glad that I had my iPhone with me. The late afternoon light was shining right on the center of the plant as I snapped this shot.

iPhone camera app, processed and converted to black and white using Lo-Mob.

© Harold Davis

© Harold Davis

The great Columbia River rolls between the states of Oregon and California, out to the Columbia Bar, graveyard of ships, in the stormy Pacific. Once a massive and fiercely independent torrent, the Columbia has been tamed with a series of hydroelectric dams that allow spawning salmon to swim upstream via fish ladders.

About 50 miles east of Portland, Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge allows this mighty river to cut through the Cascade Mountain Range. Numerous side waterfalls flow over the brink of the precipices into the Columbia River.

Exploring the scenic Columbia River Gorge area, I took a trail up to the top of the cliffs. From a vertiginous overlook, I peered down the rushing waters to the floor of the Columbia River Gorge.

From this cliff-top vantage point I continued up the trail past numerous waterfalls with names like Dutchman Falls, Weisendanger Falls, and Ecola Falls.

As I hiked, morning turned to afternoon, and the shadows in the lee of the Columbia River Gorge cliffs lengthened. On my way down, I passed Fairy Falls, shown here. As I started photographing the falls, I was struck by the way the light funneled from the top of the falls, almost as if the arc of light were flowing on purpose with the water. This seemed to be a perfect subject for a low-key black and white image. I also wanted to lengthen the exposure time so that the water appeared soft and blurred.

I wanted to convey a spiritual effect in this image, and it was accomplished technically by both intentional underexposure and intentional lengthening of the exposure. I lengthened the exposure by adding a 4x neutral density filter and by lowering the ISO to 31. By way of comparison, an overall average exposure for the scene would probably have been 4–8 EV brighter.

50mm, 0.6 seconds at f/22 and ISO 31, 4x ND filter, tripod mounted; converted to monochrome in Nik Silver Efex Pro.

© Harold Davis

© Harold Davis

Looking up through the layers of rock viewed from the bottom of Upper Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, made me feel that I could see the structure of time moving at a geological pace.

This is an exposure blend of five on-tripod bracketed captures, giving me plenty of exposure range to capture the detail within the dark areas as well as the lighter sunlit band at the top of the image. But back in my studio at my computer when I saw the individual frames, I decided I actually wanted to make an image with outer bands of blackness, even though I had plenty of exposure information to also show the detail in the dark areas if I had chosen to do so.

From a formal viewpoint, this meant that the image’s narrative was there to tell the story about the contrast between the dark area—which is the negative space—and the light areas—which is the primary subject. Put another way, it is visually about the interplay between the negative spaces—the dark upper and lower bands—and the detailed ribbon of light in the center of the image.

26mm, five exposures with shutter speeds ranging from 3/5 of a second to 20 seconds, at f/25 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined and processed in Photoshop, and then converted to black and white using Nik Silver Efex Pro.

The Photographer’s Black and White Handbook: Making and Processing Stunning Digital Black and White Photos by Harold Davis, published by The Monacelli Press, 2017.