Get in the Zone with Black-and-White

Black and white photos have a special appeal all their own. Perhaps it’s the effortless antiquity, or the stark contrast of myriad different grays that draws the eye. Whatever the case, knowing how to take a truly gorgeous black and white picture is the mark of a good photographer. Hit the jump for some inspiration from one of the best.

Photo of the Hoover Dam – Ansel Adams, 1941

Ansel Adams is the poster child of black and white landscapes. He helped bring photography into the modern age with an emphasis on crystal clear images and depth. His use of bright whites and deep blacks, and the way he employed grayscale the way others use color, resulted in truly outstanding images that have stood the test of time.

So how can you get some of that magic in your own work? Practice, obviously, and a nice camera, but more to the point … by using zones.

The Zone System

Ansel Adams and Fred Archer developed the zone system to help photographers properly expose photos. There are variations of the zone system; some say there are 10 zones, some 11, but most go with 9. In this system, zone 1 is pure black and zone 9 is pure white. 5 is in the middle, and is therefore referred to as “middle gray.” Each number is one f-stop away from the next, and is either doubling the luminescence (as you go up) or halving it (as you go down)

Learning this system inside and out is time-consuming and tricky, requiring lots of notes (and a real live dark room), but you can snag some of the basic tips for your own photography with a lot less work. Basically, you’ll use these zones to decide how exposed you want your photograph to be. With a little planning, it will turn out a lot closer to what you’d hoped than if you just point and shoot.

Using the System

The zone system helps you decide where the lightest and darkest parts of your photo will be. It helps to have a chart showing grayscale tones with you for comparison.

Now look at your scene. Say it’s a mountain scene with a forest in the foreground. You might decide you want your snow-capped peaks to be a 7, i.e. a light gray but not total white. Meter the mountains and determining what number they’re showing up at. Let’s say they’re showing up as 6; all you have to do is adjust the exposure one f-stop up.

Canyon de Chelly – Ansel Adams, 1941

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. There are lots of extra details you can take into account to make for an even better photo. You can read more about the zone system and how to use it here, but you can also just play around with this concept, which helps you visualize your landscape in final form and adjust to make it come out the way you want. You may never be Ansel Adams, but with time you’ll produce some darn good black and whites.

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