Why Composition Is Critical To Black and White Photography


A classic view looking through an archway onto a bridge and onwards towards historic buildings in Bruges, Belgium.

I love color photography yet, at the end of the day, some subjects or scenes are simply not well suited to being reproduced in color.

Frankly, sometimes color just gets in the way.

Conversely, professing a preference for black and white is not enough. You need to understand what subject or scenes will look good reproduced in a black and white photo.

Likewise, you need to know what to do in camera and, where applicable, on the desktop to produce the best black and white image you can. 

Let's look at some subjects that aren't well suited to being rendered in color. 

How about some scenes that may not photograph all that well in color?

  • An interior photograph where an incorrect white balance has been manually set by the photographer with their camera in JPEG mode.

    That problem can often be remedied in camera, with a subsequent image, as long as you know what to do to fix the problem.

  • A scene where shape, texture and/or relatively hight contrast are central to the success of the image

Shape And Texture Are At The Heart Of Great Composition

The above photo is the result of a day happily exploring Bruges in the Flemish speaking area of Belgium.

I love Bruges, it's one of the most beautiful cities I've ever had the pleasure to visit and photograph.  

The conditions where quite overcast and the day was drawing to an end. The scene contained very little color yet with compositional elements such as light, shape, texture and tone I knew I was on a winner.     

Nevertheless, it was a very difficult image to make. It was really tricky getting the right framing and balance (another important element of composition) I was working to achieve.

This kind of image really needs to be, dare I say, perfect. Sharpness, framing and depth of field (DOF) are critical to its success.

Enter my lovely Right Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod and Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballhead.   

The framing was very hard to achieve, particularly as I was standing on uneven cobblestones in the middle of a thoroughfare.

It wasn't exactly peak hour, but no sooner had I got my composition just about right when someone would walk onto the bridge causing me to have to move my tripod to allow them to get past.

This happened numerous times until, finally, I was given enough time to make the image and am very happy to have done so. 

You'll notice the amazing amount of sharpness, from foreground right through to the buildings in the background, in this photo.

Maximum sharpness, achieved by supporting the camera on a tripod and employing a large depth of field (DOF), was essential for me to showcase the tremendous texture within the structures I was photographing.

You can imagine that to achieve such a large depth of field, under such low light, required a very long exposure time. Again, a quality tripod and ball head to the rescue. 

I'd say there are a few other examples of how strong composition elevated this image beyond that of a snapshot. Let's explore a little deeper. 

How To Direct Attention In The Frame

The lovely archway provides a great way to frame the other pictorial elements within the scene including the stone footbridge and the splendid Church Of Our Lady Bruges in the background.

Look For Shapes In Your Photos

This image is full of shapes. Notice how the shapes that are most dominant, such as those of the archway and bridge, have been accentuated by light.

The absence of light causes shadow and when an illuminated area is adjacent to a shaded area shape is enhanced. 

Line Leads The Eye And Helps Structure Your Photos

Notice how the vertical walls on either side of the bridge, as well as the handrail, led the eye through the frame. This adds significantly to the three-dimensionality of the photo. 

Tantalizing Texture and The Wow Factor

In addition to the use of line, the unevenness of the cobbled pathway and the use of bricks throughout the frame make texture the defining compositional element within the image.

Being mindful of such things should help you improve your composition by framing your image around what’s important. 

Photography And Light | A Most Intimate Relationship

Photography is nothing without light and it's the way that light gently caresses the individual stones that really brings this scene to life. 

Look For Truth In The Beauty Of Metaphor

Whether universal, cultural or personal the presence of metaphor in photographs should never be downplayed.

At the very least this image talks about a way forward, through the inevitable trials that life throws up at us all.

I feel the light on the bridge encourages the viewer forward, not just visually, but literally.

There’s just so much to see in a photograph. There’s what’s there, in the picture, and there’s what’s referred to.

The more time we take to look for such connections, and to think about why the image moves us, the more we learn and the better and more meaningful our own photography practice will become.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru