Black and Whites…

As you will no doubt see from the majority of the work I post on this blog, I am a sucker for rich, saturated colours.

My all time favourite accessory, which breathed life into the aging D80, is the polariser that my dear mum bought me for Chrismas last year.

It’s amazing.

A twenty quid piece of glass you screw onto the end of your lens, and through a series of ingeniousness and marvel, it helps give deep blue skies and vivid greens.  Essentially, it is like having a million little ‘venetian blinds’ on the end of your lens, so as you turn the filter around, it allows light through the gaps in one direction…this means that green leaves that normally reflect the sunlight back into your lens, can have the reflective light ‘removed’ and only the green of the leaves is captured.

It truly is a magic device, and anyone with a DSLR should buy one.  Quickly.

I took this photo when Sian and I were on Honeymoon in the states – I used my polariser with a cheeky Grad filter over the top to get that beautiful blue sky and the vivid colours of the buildings in the background…it really is an awesome bit of kit…

But black and white has its place; and that’s what this whole post is about – when, why, and where.

As far as I can tell, there are two types of photographers out there -‘the cerebral’ and ‘the feeler’.  Neither is necessarily better than the other, but they do approach photography in vastly different ways…my sister and I are wonderful examples of the two extremes.

Felicity, Felix, or Zincy to those that really matter, is my big sister and she is frighteningly artistic. I mean, seriously.

It’s terryfying…

But on the other hand, she is also terrifically academic.  She recently got her PHD at Oxford Brooks, of which we are so proud, and of which I am relieved that we finally have a real doctor in the family, and not just a couple of clown shoes GPs 😉 (Love you daddy and big bro Ed) But anyway – I digress…despite her awesome academic background, and love and want to read every and any article,book or manuscript that has even the faintest whiff of interest to her, she approaches photography in a much more ‘feely’ way than I do.

She is the first to admit that she is not an authority on f-stops and shutter speeds, yet with her donated Pentax, she wanders around with her eyes wide open, and takes astonishing pictures like this:

My sister, Zincy's shot of Linahall - a concert hall in Talin

I love this picture – the exposure, the colours the composition…everything just works.  Now, I am sure that if I had been there with her, I would have captured a similarly striking image, but I dread to think how long I would have toiled with myself before taking the frame.  I would have instantly thought:

  1. Want a lot in focus – shoot narrow – maybe f13-ish
  2. Want to bring in that industrial ‘blue tinge’ to hit the concrete, hit the tungsten White Balance
  3. Need a slowish shutter to blow out those windows and light up the inside – but not too slow to overexpose and lose the windows all together – all depends on my –
  4. – ISO? Want it high enough to allow for a handheld shot, but don’t want any unecessary grain…better keep it safe in the 1,000ish range
  5. Should I chuck it into RAW in case I get it wrong with the white balance and need to correct later?
  6. Oh hang on – maybe I want to highlight the contrast of that concrete next to those (bottles?) in left of frame – should I use a single flash off camera, close to the wall which I will shop out later to bring out that texture?

And by this point, Zincy has alrady seen her shot, snapped it (in P mode?) is happy that she recorded what she wanted, and has moved on through the hall…and is enjoying her visit to Linahall an awful lot more than me, who by this point is having an aneurism  from the possibilities that this scene throws up.

But that’s me – I am a bonified ‘cerebral’ photographer, and it drives me nuts.  Lots of people, like my sister, can see an image and just make it happen – their view of the world is what makes them awesome with a camera.  I see things well too – but training the eye is a lot harder than training the hands.  Within a month (if she wanted to) Flick could have a comprehensive knowledge of her camera’s functions and foibles, a good grasp of the theory that backs it all up, and a better understanding of how to go about taking ‘that shot’.

I, on the other hand, can read every blog, every manual, every book that there is on photography, but training my eye to see things like Flick does…I don’t know if you can learn that…But this is not about ‘woe is me’ as a photographer – far from it, I am very proud of my work, and I know I get great results – the point that I am trying to make (and it has been a long time coming, I know!) is that when I take a picture, I normally know how it is going to look, and when I open a file in photoshop I ALWAYS know how it is going to end up.

And this is vital for black and white photography.

—> Insert blog start here

When  you’re shooting for black and white, you have to know what you’re looking for, and what will work in the frame.  Seeing as you lose colour as your number one language, you rely solely on contrast to convey your image.  And contrast means texture in the game of black and white.

To prove this point – here are a few black and white pictures from the engine room of one of the cruise ships I worked on once upon a time:

As you can see – I have gone crazy with the contrast to bring out all of those wonderful, man made textures that are present in the Engine Room.  If I had left these images in colour, your eyes would be bleeding from the putrid colours that would be visible on the screen.  The green paint of the engine parts would clash horribly with the red checker plate floor, and I would be the first blogger to induce so much vomiting from a single post.

By making the images black and white, I am able to emphasise the different textures of the various metals.  The shiny, smooth metals of the exhaust pipes, for example, are very, very different to the beaten and tired piston heads. (Yes, they are pistons – from memory there were sixteen in total, and each one was bigger than me.)


Textures are rife in industrial settings, like this, but they are also very prevelant in the great outdoors.  Sian has very helpfully been going through the old harddrive with me to find good examples of black and whites, and she spotted this corker that she took in Nolos – one of the thousands of tiny islands in Greece:

This was a great example for Sian to pick out – it has all the classic features of a strong black and white – the cobbled street is brought out in the contrast, and I love the way that she has silhouetted the chairs against that washed out horizon.   The sign, made of metal, almost looks super-imposed as it stands out against the white background…this is a cracking shot – all credit of which goes to Sian 🙂

And next, we jump back to Gunhill – the very photographs that inspired this post:

I simply love that texture coming through from the wooden slats of the roof, and then you have the harsh stone of the chimney juxtaposed next to the velvet skyline…this is one of my favourite black and whites to date…

This was taken in a shipyard in Morrocco.  I knew it was to be a black and white the moment I shot it.  The sky was a horrible dull grey, and I wanted to emphasise the gnarled wood and the rusty iron on the floor.  The boats’ hulls also offer a nice slab of wooden texture, and as the contrast has been increased every plank and rivet becomes more obvious.

This was taken on the same day, with much the same in mind.  I like the rock in the foreground – it throws in an extra texture to this very busy scene.  Coincidentally, when in black and white, it is amazing how much more crowded the yard looks.  In colour, your mind automatically distinguishes one boat from the next, but here, where only contrast is available, it becomes very difficult to discern where one boat ends and another begins…I must confess, this was not at the forefront of the shot at all…but I love the effect it has.

And finally:

Don’t forget to look for textures in nature!  This bird’s feathers are screaming for a black and whitening, and once you take those colours back, you can really push the contrast to emphasise each and every one…

So, in conclusion – the moral of the story is THINK before you shoot.  Or, if you’re like my sister and have an annoying gift of being able to get incredible photographs from just ‘feeling them’ (bloody amateurs) then think before you process.  I cannot tell you how many times I have seen my guys, sat in front of a computer flicking from black and white to colour asking themselves ‘which looks better?’  The easy answer to that is should it be in black and white at all?  To justify black and white, you need texture – you need some reference for the contrast in order that your brain can work out what is going on with the image.  If there is no texture, there is no contrast…and as such, there is no black and white photo.

Keen eyed spotters may notice I had this very problem with a portrait of Sian in my last post…but just look at the left of the frame – see the palm leaves, see the TEXTURE, and see why it works so well in black and white…

I hope that this has been helpful – as always, if you have any questions, or you want to tear me apart – my deets are below 🙂

Thanks for reading guys – subscribe if you like – I will have a lovely special present for my subscribers once I hit 25…tell your friends!

Ferg xxx

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4 thoughts on “Black and Whites…

  1. Aw Fergy, you make me blush. I love reading all the technicals here about how you achieve your stunning results w. photography! Will read all in detail laters, I have to get to TEAL now for some canal boat action. photos to follow! x

  2. Love the black and whites, particularly the Pulitzer engine room number and the Gunhill shot. For all our shippy friends you will note the deliberate mistake – Nolos was the name of the bar, Samos was in fact the Greek island that we were lucky enough to visit (thank you Santorini for your windy ways!). I too love the blue glow in the Talin shot – it is beautiful 🙂 x

  3. Pingback: A Blomage: Episode 1 – Leanne Cole « thisisferg

  4. Pingback: Ship mates | thisisferg

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