LEARN TO THINK IN BLACK AND WHITE
If you’re shooting in black and white, your biggest handicap is that your own eyes see in color. Color is vibrant and therefore dominating. Being able to perfectly visualize what you are looking at in black and white can massively improve your black and white photography. This is even more true if you are working in film, as you don’t have a screen which you can set to black and white.
Learning to turn off your “color vision” is neither easy nor difficult - it just takes some practice. If you make the effort, it will happen. Look at black and white images as much as possible, and then try to imagine them in color. Observe how the light looks indoors and outdoors at different times of day, intensity of shadows, shapes, forms and textures - they all look different in black and white versus color.
For example, if you are photographing a woman wearing red lipstick, it will be gray or black in black and white (depending on the shade of red and intensity of color.) Green leaves look gray. Navy blue turns black. Over time, you will be able to look at any scene around you and be able to imagine it perfectly in black and white, with different degrees of contrast.
PAY ATTENTION TO LIGHT
Paying attention to light is a basic tip for improving photography all together, considering photography is based on light. The way light falls on objects, landscapes and people is even more important in black and white, as there is no color information. The intensity of the light and how it interacts with the surroundings are key factors in black and white photography. If you’re using artificial light, you can control these factors. If you’re using natural light, you’ll need to learn to work them to your best advantage to achieve the style you want.
The time of year, time of day and position in regards to the sun are factors to take into consideration when shooting with natural light. Sunlight at noon in June does not look the same as at noon in January. Considering you won’t be able to alter the color balance to fit the mood you want, these factors become even more important.
PAY EQUAL ATTENTION TO SHADOW
Great shadow detail can truly make a black and white photograph look amazing. When shooting film, this works to your advantage as you’ll have more detail in the shadow areas than if shooting digital. Look for interesting patterns and textures when working in shadows, and to obtain maximum detail, meter the darkest area of what you are photographing and bracket based on that reading.
KNOW YOUR FILM
When shooting black and white film, your choice of film brand plays as significant a role as your lighting and camera settings. Grain size, contrast, sharpness, tonal range and push/pull factor will all vary with different types of black and white film. For example, many people rave about Ilford HP5 400 but personally I find it has too much contrast and grain for the type of black and white work I like to do. On the same note, Ilford FP4 tends to be my go-to black and white film because it’s extremely sharp, fine-grained and looks fantastic when pushed a stop or two. Everyone has their own specific taste and style when it comes to black and white photography and playing around with different types of film can help you find what works for you.
PUSH AND PULL
As I just mentioned, I like to push FP4 a stop. A lot. Why? Because it gives that extra little pop of contrast, for black blacks and white whites. If you were going for a more faded, vintage, washed-out look, pulling your film a stop or two would help you achieve this effect. Pushing and pulling can also save you in difficult lighting situations when you don’t have another ISO available.
WHEN SHOOTING PEOPLE, IT’S ALL ABOUT THE EYES
Have you ever noticed how Richard Avedon’s black and white portraits always have these ridiculously intense, piercing eyes? That’s because he bleached the eyes in his prints to lighten them. If you don’t want to mess with chemicals, you can also get this effect by dodging (both in the darkroom and/or in photo editing software.) If you’re an absolute purist, you can use a reflector but prepared for the model to squint.
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