Without the distractions of colour, the genre of black and white photography has a refined and sophisticated quality. It’s classic, romantic and timeless. Attention focuses the attention on shape, form, shading, pattern, and other graphic concepts, to give them an unusual quality with tone and hue. Low light, near sunrise and sunset, and overcast days make texture, forms and pattern stand out sharply.
Thinking in monochrome for such a blatantly colourful city is by no means an easy task. We think of Tokyo in particular being defined by colour – for example, bright fashion, neon, girls in kimonos and anime. Shooting in black and white is quite a challenge when eliminating its most famous aspect. But remember, Tokyo was just as colourful back in the 1950s and 60s when only black and white film was available so it’s certainly possible to capture its feel without needing to lean on colour.
So how can a black and white photograph be successful without the use of colour? It is first necessary to look at the basic compositional elements of a good photographical image to search for answers.
From an artistic viewpoint; color depicts reality. Black and white is an interpretation of reality.
After studying the classic photographers of yesteryear who shot in black and white, I made a list of 16 topics which I think make up the elements of great bw photography. The overall immediate feelings that spring to mind from looking at these photos are of: being musical, mysterious, poetic, iconic, timeless, elegant, a ‘je ne sais quoi’ feel, emphasizing the unusual, having depth, no sense of the photographer (unless taking portraits) and most of all soul. We are transported to another world and forget the everyday banality of life. Tokyo may be a city filled with colors, but it’s equally dramatic in black and white.
Line 1: neon, drama (suspense, film noir, mystery, what might happen next, impending doom), human expression, pattern,
Line 2: shapes and form, strong contrast – black, grey and white, background and foreground – at least 2+ points of interest, doesn’t scream for colour,
Line 3: architecture – angles, cinematic – tell a story, span, the big picture, introduction, look good in bw and colour, the full experience – we feel it – 5 senses – smell, sight, touch, hear, taste,
Line 4: movement and capturing the moment, abstract, people in groups or crowds, reflections