Black and White Composition Tips - Part 1

You could also say that black and white composition is like composition in color—only more so. Since color is not present to entertain, beguile, and misdirect the eye, formal composition becomes more important. The elements of formal composition that are most important to black and white photos include:

  • Framing and the relationship of an image to its “frame” 
  • Patterns and symmetry
  • Use of lines and shapes

By definition, a photograph appears within a frame—which is to say that the image is bounded and has a boundary. It’s important to design your framing to present an interesting view of the world. The way your image is framed should complement—rather than compete with—the rest of your composition. Essentially, your framing puts the world within a rectangle. You should consider why the particular rectangle you’ve chosen is interesting, whether your choice of rectangle is as compelling as possible and how the framing rectangle relates to the elements within your composition.

When you are thinking about the black and white composition of a photo, you cannot ignore the frame and create a successful image. We’re not talking about picture frames here, but rather the edges of the photo. Black and white composition requires a particularly forceful approach to framing—because there are fewer compositional elements to play with than in a color composition. In addition to featuring an interesting view of the world, strong framing often divides the frame, or presents a frame within a frame. The two effects can be combined for more compositional power.

Here’s how it works: frame division focuses compositional elements into different discrete areas—for example, shadow and light. Dark areas that are in shadow contrast with bright areas that are well lit and combine to create the formal composition.  Often the elements used to divide frames are exclusively horizontal, or vertical—although diagonals can also be involved. A frame within a frame uses elements within a photo to construct a virtual frame within a composition. The virtual frame can be literally created by causing the viewer to “look” through a window of some sort. Alternatively, the inner frame can seem to be a natural consequence of the shapes of the composition.

When frame dividers also serve as an inner frame then you get the power of frame division and of having a frame within a frame. When you are pre-visualizing your black and white compositions, you should also think about the role framing will play. It pays to make the most use of framing possible, and to see if you can maximize the power that good framing brings to any composition.

In photographic composition, a visual pattern is a repetition of similar, or essentially similar, shapes that combine to create a pleasing whole. Patterns are an important part of how we perceive the world and can add to the power of black and white compositions. Patterns are made up of lines and shapes, and can occur at many different scales. In black and white, the most important aspect of a pattern is the repetition of a specific variation in contrast. It’s interesting to consider the end of a pattern. A pattern that goes on forever is not all that interesting. On the other hand, many patterns don’t continue infinitely. Therefore, there must be an end to the pattern, either present in the photograph or visually implied. Some of the most interesting black and white compositions that rely on patterns use the pattern boundaries to combine the impact of the pattern and the way the pattern interrelates with the frame.

Black and white photographs are made up almost exclusively of lines and shapes. Lines connect points and enclose areas to create shapes. The edge of a shape is a line. So lines and shapes are related, but for a moment consider the simplicity and occasional complexity of a line itself. A line moves across a composition in one of several ways: it is horizontal, vertical or diagonal. Lines themselves can be curved or straight. Curvilinear lines are different from straight lines. Lines have width. They have brightness: you can have a dark line on a white background, or a light line on a black background. 

A simple line can be a most expressive thing! Lines are particularly compelling in monochromatic compositions. When you are shooting for black and white, look to see how the lines in your compositions interrelate; and look to see what you can do to strengthen the way those lines express emotion.

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