Black and White Composition Tips - Part 2

Shape and Form
How do you know when the shapes and forms in your black and white composition will be effective? The best way to pre-visualize the impact of shapes on your photos is to practice separating form and function. In other words, try to forget about the subject matter of your photo as you abstract a composition from the shapes in front of you.

True, in an ideal world, form should follow function, and the two should be inextricably partnered in a dance that will last as long as we have material things. But as a practical matter, if you keep what something is too much in mind, then that very “is-ness”—the function of the object—will intrude into your vision and overlay issues of pure form. In fact, some of the most startling black and white compositions occur when the form portrayed in the image appears very different from the function of the object in the photo—or at least unusual, in the sense that the form isn’t usually associated with the object.

When you’re pre-visualizing an image, try to ignore the meaning and function of the actual object or scene in front of you. Look for formal components such as framing, lines, and shapes. Sometimes you’ll have a hard time looking at things in such an abstract way. When this happens, you’ll find that you can amuse yourself by inventing alternative scenarios. Picture the image in front of you as belonging to an alien, possibly absurd universe. Try to invent humorous stories about the objects. 

If you can succeed in inventing plausible alternatives, then it is very likely that you can sit back and “cancel out” both this everyday world and your invented alternative. With no points of reference to connect the objects or scene in your photo to “thingness”—the physical reality and function of the actual world—you are able to create visual constructs that use shapes as compositional building blocks and create forms that are fluid and graceful.

High Key
Black and white photography from a formal perspective is largely about the contrast between lights and darks. Powerful black and white compositions often require very dark blacks and very light whites—both in the same image. It’s interesting that the opposite approach can also work well. High-key photos are predominantly white, bright, and can be characterized as overexposed. Low-key photos are largely black, or dark—and can easily be considered underexposed. In these images, the single key predominates. Particularly with high-key imagery, there is seldom very much contrast at all.

To create a high-key image, look for a subject that is well lit and quite bright in tonal values. You may think this goes without saying, but if you look around, you may be surprised at how few compositions actually meet this requirement. A high-key composition as a whole may work best if it operates by intrigue, mystery, and indirection. In some ways it may not matter that much what your actual subject is since high-key compositions can be built around many different kinds of subject matter. You should look for simple, evocative, subtle lines and shapes that evoke a sense of wonder in the viewer.

High-key effects can be created in post-processing, although these after-the-fact techniques will not be appropriate for all photos. It’s best to shoot with high-key in mind. This means overexposing. It’s okay to bracket by shooting many frames at different exposures. That way you can pick the exposure that works best. You’ll be surprised by how far to the overexposure side a high-key image needs to be. So don’t be timid about your overexposures when you are going for a high-key effect. With a properly lit high-key image that is already creatively overexposed, exotic and attractive, you can proceed to use the post-processing techniques to amplify the impact of the effect.

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