When I started in photography in high school, color film was available, but it was recommended that I start on black and white. At the time I wasn’t sure why experienced photographers recommended that to me, but now I know. Learning how to make a good black and white image helps you become an overall better photographer. It helps you to see photographs differently and to understand the components that make for a dramatic image in their simplest form.
Here are the components of dramatic black and white photography:
Dramatic images have contrast. They have areas with 100 percent dark black and 100 percent bright white. In many cases, you will lose some detail in those gray areas when you crush the whites and blacks, but it will be worth it. The subtle gradation of tone in a black and white image is not what catches your eye to begin with. It’s that in-your-face black versus white tone scheme that takes your interest. Look for scenes that already have very clear positive and negative space and amplify those spaces as you edit or process the images.
2. Clean, clear white
Many times an average image will have just a little bit of white, maybe as part of a specular highlight on a reflective object or someone’s eye. Look for a scene where you can get a clean, clear and noticeable white space. This means there is no gray textures in your focal point white space. Similarly, have at least one part of your image that is a clean, clear black. A space without gray texture diluting it’s impact.
3. Underexpose or overexpose
The key to a normal scene turning into a dramatic one may be as simple as underexposing or overexposing the image. A properly exposed image of a cloudy sky may have it look mostly white, which is what we are used to seeing with our eyes. But an underexposed image will bring out textures in the clouds and give it some visual interest. This little trick can be the difference between a boring photograph and a dramatic one.
4. Shapes and leading lines, patterns
Drama can be created using framing, composition and choosing interesting elements. Look for leading lines that draw your viewers eye through the photograph and to a focal point. Since there is no color helping to guide a viewers eye, we have to use lines and shapes in black and white. Patterns can also add drama, especially when they are broken. A broken pattern indicates a focal point to the eye and an area of special interest.
Pay attention to your white and black balance. Oftentimes a dramatic image will have an even balance of white and black tones. Other times, an image will be almost completely black with just a small amount of white, or vice versa. This is for dramatic effect. Either way, paying attention to your tone balance can help you to achieve a purposeful feeling of drama in your images.
6. Contrast between tones
You can use sharpening, high-pass or HDR filters to add contrast between your tones for added drama. These kinds of digital filters make the areas where light and dark tones meet even more contrasty — but without adjusting the contrast of the entire image. This kind of contrast can make your images pop without losing the detail in your midtones.
7. Other filters
You can also use filters on your lens or simulate these filters digitally. Polarizing filters help to cut down on reflected light and to make skies and seas darker. Gradient filters can make parts of the image darker than others. Color filters can cut out certain wavelengths of light for added drama, and in Photoshop you can simulate this effect using the HSL sliders or curves.