Finding the Light | Monochromatic Light

Seeing light in black and white.

Arguably, one of the most important things we can learn to do, is to see and capture the world and the light that makes it visible, in monochromatic tones. I mean, there are a very complex set things we must understand to take great photographs, but making an outstanding black and white photograph often relies heavily on using light well, and we all know how important light is. When bold color is present, it can offset a lack of good use of light – take the color away and you may not have enough to wow the viewer.

Photographically, monochrome typically refers to a black and white image. The true definition, though, translates like this: mono meaning single, and chrome meaning color, so monochrome means “single color”. Sometimes a scene is naturally monochromatic without being a converted black and white photograph in the literal terms we usually think of it in. Something to keep in mind as we shoot this theme – and always really – don’t take it at face value. Look for literal definitions and abstract ones. Stretch the themes, stretch your creativity.

With black and white + light being our primary focus, though, let’s talk about how the two work together. In a black and white image, light, shadows, texture, minimalism all become extremely important. We are essentially using light and shadow to make our subjects, our photographs, come alive. Color is gone and the way the light hits the person, or the scene, is all we’ve got. So we have to make it count.

When the entire image is shades of “one color”, the subject can get lost if we don’t use a strong composition, a minimalistic approach, complimentary textures, or important pieces of the story that keep the viewer’s eye wandering and mind wondering. You can use light in black + white images to really make textures come alive – whether it be the texture in hair or skin or a screen door or a leaf. You can use light and surroundings to simplify the scene through exposure – choosing a lower or higher exposure to brighten or darken, resulting in a simpler version of what we see with our eyes. Every piece we include in our frame, in this black + white photograph, and where we place our subjects, it all matters a little bit more. Most of the time, it’s important to know ahead of time whether you’re shooting for color or for black + white. Not always, but usually. Is there something in the scene or subject that is setting the mood for black + white? A calmness, a simplicity, perhaps? I think this is one of those instinctual things, where you just feel the need for that monochromatic photograph. The light is right and the mood is right. Photography is every bit about a feeling as it is about all the technical stuff. Go with that gut feeling.

For more tips on black + white images, check out my tutorial.

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The patterns in the hat the kitty is in are so bold in black + white, therefore draw attention right to the subject – along with that amazing light!

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The harsh light and the dark shadows combined with the mostly monochromatic elements of this image, make it monochrome without being converted to black and white. 

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The texture of these pears in a sink full of water is really brought to life in this high contrast black + white image. The light is only able to touch the tops of the pears, leaving everything else to fall nice and dark.

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A great example of a photo that I knew I would convert when I took it. The texture in the rocks, the mud on his skin, the water splashing, the way he’s holding his hands together, and just enough light to perfectly illuminate it – all of these things make for great elements in a monochromatic image.

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Just an ordinary moment in flat light, made dramatic by this conversion. You don’t always need “in your face” golden hour light to make a great black and white image. You just need to know how to use any available light well.

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  • September 9, 2016 - 5:42 AM

    Angie Eads - Thank you for this article and helping us all grasp the depth and importance of rich black and white images. I love reading this and look forward to expanding my creatively daily :)ReplyCancel

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