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Black & white photography: the difference between good and great
Black & white photography: the difference between good and great

Ever wondered why some black and white photos hang in art galleries, while others go completely unnoticed? Or why an expensive photographic print is so different to one of your iPhone snaps? Unless you’ve studied the subject (or happen to live with a pro photographer) you probably haven’t encountered the principles of photography that define great images. They’re definitely useful to know about, though, so we’ve recapped the main ones below. Now you’ll know what to consider next time you’re in the market for something new to hang on your wall – and if you find yourself at an exhibition surrounded by artsy hipsters, you’ll have some insightful things to say!

Glamour is dead long live glamour 1 by Elena Iv-Skaya
Glamour is dead long live glamour 1 by Elena Iv-Skaya

Subject matter

The first thing you’ll often notice about an image is subject matter. While some subjects rely on colour to pop (think vivid sunsets and cityscapes), many others stand out better in black and white. Landscapes, portraits and still life images can look especially striking in monotone, especially for moody images (many believe that ‘if you want to shoot emotion, shoot in black and white’). Maybe this is why those silver-screen-era Hollywood images have stood the test of time.

Humphrey Bogart - Hollywood Classics
Humphrey Bogart – Hollywood Classics

It’s also worth noting that the subject matter doesn’t have to be thrilling or unusual to make an image great. Even a humble pair of chairs of train station staircase can be made beautiful when shot in black and white – it’s really down to the skills of the person behind the lens.

A considered composition

Composition is essentially the way an image is put together, and without colour, it’s more noticeable than ever. If you want a standout piece on your wall, look for a shot where the horizons and vertical subjects aren’t smack bang in the middle of the shot. This is called ‘off centre composition’. Or, if you want something dynamic, consider an image with strong lines (preferably diagonal ones), as they catch the eye much more than a picture with straight horizontal lines will.

Doge's Palace by Stefan Stroher
Doge’s Palace by Stefan Stroher

A striking contrast

Contrast is the difference between the darkest part of the image and the lightest. While it’s present in any image, it’s definitely easiest to see in black and white – and images tend to be most powerful when contrast is strong. What’s important to remember is that contrasts between colours (like, say, purple and green) don’t always translate in black and white – colours all just appear as different shades of grey, so if the tones are too similar the objects will start to wash together. If a black and white image has caught your eye, chances are there’s a significant difference between the lightest part of the image and the darkest.

Erasmusbrug by Jesús M Garcia
Erasmusbrug by Jesús M Garcia

Taking advantage of light

Lighting is critical, and can really make or break a black and white shot. Because monotone photography relies so heavily on shadows to define shapes and details, the wrong lighting can kill a potentially brilliant piece of art. The right light on the other hand, creates shadow, and shadow creates interest, especially when there’s no light to attract attention.

Sing An Obsidian Aubade by Ron Molnart
Sing An Obsidian Aubade by Ron Molnart

It’s said that lighting from the side creates the most dramatic black and white shots, as it highlights the edges of shapes, adds focal-points, creates shadows, and enhances textures and patterns. If you’re in the market for a portrait though, look out for a piece with soft lighting because it’s much more flattering.

Intimacy by Gabi Guiard
Intimacy by Gabi Guiard

Incorporating textures

Textures add real depth to a photo, and also actually appear much more clearly in black and white, as there’s not as much distracting the eye. With this in mind, if you want to pick up a captivating piece you can look at for hours, it’s not a bad idea to select one with lots of texture going on. If you need some inspiration, scenes from nature include incredible patterns that can be brought to life in photo, like desert sand, animal fur, ripples of water or river stones.

GRVTY2 by Daniel Garay Arango
GRVTY2 by Daniel Garay Arango

High quality print production

Even if the piece you love has nailed all of the criteria above, it won’t count for much if the print is cheap. After all, you’ll want your photography art to last, and maybe even increase in value, so whether you’re after a glossy or metallic finish, it’s a good idea to invest in a good quality print. All our art photography at is printed on high-quality archival grade photographic paper, under the supervision of the artist, and each image comes with an individually numbered certificate guaranteeing authenticity and traceability.

At the end of the day, art is subjective and a piece you love could do nothing someone else. But, armed with the photographic insights above, you should now be able to choose your photographic art with a bit more confidence – and choose pieces you’ll love for decades. Who knows, you could even apply some of this knowledge when you next pick up the camera yourself.


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