The black and white photographer’s guide to light and contrast

The black and white photographer's guide to light and contrast

Exposure tips for black and white photographers

Exposure tips for black and white photographers

Few black and white images are perfect straight from the camera. Just like in the old darkroom days, you may be better off aiming instead for an ideal ‘negative’ ready for dodging and burning later on.

Digital cameras have brought an advance which really has changed the way we can control exposure: the histogram.

This is a graphical representation of the distribution of tones in the image.

The left-hand end of the scale represents a solid black, the right hand end of the scale represents 100% white, and in between is the full range of brightnesses in the image.

Vertical bars are used to indicate the number of pixels in the image corresponding to each brightness levels, but they’re so narrow and there are so many of them that they merge together to form a histogram ‘shape’ rather than a bar chart.

There are certain things you need to look out for, and the most important is ‘clipping’.

This is where the histogram is chopped off abruptly at either end of the scale.

This means that there are lots of black or white pixels (depending on which end of the scale it is), and these correspond to unrecoverable shadows or ‘blown’ highlights.

The histogram will also show, broadly, how bright the image is. If the histogram peak is more or less in the middle of the scale, the picture has average overall brightness.

If the peak is to the right, this indicates a bright, or ‘high key’ image. If it’s over to the left, it indicates a dark, or ‘low key’ image. Some subjects are naturally light or dark.

If you’re shooting a bride in her wedding dress, you’d expect a high-key image with the histogram peak pushed over to the right.

Or if your subject is a black cat in a coal cellar you’d expect to see a histogram with the peak pushed over to the left.

If you don’t, it’s a sign that you might need to adjust the exposure to get a more realistic result.

Black and white photographers' guide to exposure

Intrinsically light or dark subjects will always fool a built-in meter. This subject needed an extra 1.3EV exposure compensation.

There’s one more twist to this subject, though. Much advice about metering assumes that you’ll want to use the image ‘as is’ without further manipulation.

Black and white photographers, though, tend to spend a little time manipulating and adjusting the image.

What you may actually need is the perfect ‘negative’ rather than a finished image.

This ‘negative’ needs to have the widest possible range of tones, given that you can make all the other adjustments you need on the computer.

For anyone aiming to produce the perfect digital ‘negative’, there are two pieces of advice: (a) use your camera’s histogram, and (b) shoot RAW files not JPEGs.

PAGE 1: The black and white photographer’s guide to lighting direction
PAGE 2: The black and white photographer’s guide to light quality
PAGE 3: Understanding point source lighting
PAGE 4: Working with natural light in black and white
PAGE 5: Metering tips for black and white photographers
PAGE 6: Exposure tips for black and white photographers


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