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Black and White Photography: A Quick Study

Canon EOS 70D, EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, f/2.8, 1/60sec, ISO 100

Why choose black and white when there’s colour? What can black and white images do that the coloured ones cannot? This genre of photography has existed for over two hundred years, and for many reasons, remains popular until today. That is because there’s so much more to black and white photography besides its rich history and timeless quality.

A Visit to the Beginning

In the mid-1820s, Nicephore Niepce, a French inventor, successfully combined the principle of the camera obscura with substances altered by exposure to light to create the first camera images: he invented photography. But it was Sir John Herschel who coined the term “photography” in 1839, giving birth to practical photography that very year. During the Industrial Revolution, demand for portraiture among the middle class rose, and the development of photography flourished (the surge in demand could not be met in volume or cost by oil painting).

The first hundred years in photography were mostly etched in monochromatic tones. Colour photography was also sought after from the beginning, with successes achieved by inventors and physicists of that time. However, early colour film processing and printing were expensive and its quality often unremarkable. It was only until the 1970s that colour photography started popularising thanks to better colour film and more affordable photo processing, and thereafter a full-coloured media world ensued. It was also then that the black and white film plummeted.

The world of full colour, however captivating, did not cast black and white photography into obscurity. The monochromatic style remains appealing, and in recent years has been favoured by many renowned photographers. But what are its charms exactly?

Canon EOS 70D, EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, f/2.8, 1/4000sec, ISO 100

Visual Intensity

Colour accents may draw the viewer attention away from the subject of the photo if the accented object is not the main subject. A black and white photo removes colour and any emotional context associated with it. With the colour removed, it highlights certain details in the composition that are often obscured by colour. Drama can then be emphasised through strong contrast and heavy vignettes, creating a more effective visual punch.

Canon EOS 70D, EF50mm f/1.4 USM, f/1.4, 1/125sec, ISO 800

The Educational Aspects

The black and white style is a great tool to understand photography as a whole. It allows one to learn the concepts of highlight and shadow detail, adjusting image contrast, determining film and exposure latitude, as well as capturing the right tonal range (wider for more contrast, or narrower for a more restricted area between the lightest and darkest values).

Canon EOS 70D, EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, f/2.8, 1/30sec, ISO 200

Romanticising in Black & White

Many argue that black and white photos exude a timeless look that reminds us of the past. It is also a wonderful medium to express an idea when time does not matter in a photo. For example, colour helps us judge time–red and yellow leaves signify autumn and the golden rays across the sky early morning and late evening. By removing the colour, it makes the image timeless.

Furthermore, most of us do not see in black and white (Achromatopsia), which means a rendition of the world in monochrome makes it more interesting to look at. It makes us pause to take a closer look, and draws our attention to the lines, shapes, and lighting in the image.

Canon 70D, EF-S18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS, f/3.5, 1/40sec, ISO 200

Whether it is a wedding photo, a street portrait, or an undulating landscape, there are numerous reasons to give a photo the monochromatic treatment. Always contemplate these reasons before taking a black and white photo. Will it look timeless? Will it guide the viewer’s eye to the subject? Will it make the photo a memorable one? With all that in mind, there will be so much more a photographer can achieve with black and white photography.

“When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!”

–Ted Grant, photojournalist and author of the book ‘Real Photographers Shoot Black and White. Sometimes Colour.’

All images are shot with Canon EOS 70D.

EOS 70D (Body)

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Darren Wong
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A writer on the weekdays and an amateur photographer on his day off, Darren enjoys both tremendously, and not forgetting good coffee, inspiring designs, beautiful movies, and exotic travels. Darren also believes that good conversations feed the soul of a writer, for there is nothing more invigorating than an inspiring exchange of ideas. For more of his works, visit