Teeksa Photography

Photography of Skip Schiel

Exercises for Learning Black & White Photography

By Skip Schiel

May 2005

© All text copyright Skip Schiel, 2005 and earlier

Comparisons between black and white (BW) and color—

1. Photograph scenes with minimal color and with maximal color, making notes about colors and shades and tones and light sources. Observe later how each color renders, and how the light sources affect the rendering. If using digital, make BW and color prints to compare.

2. Convert color photos into BW—by photocopy process, tracing, Photoshop operations, or rephotographing using BW film, or some other method you devise. Put the original and the BW version side by side to compare.

3. Use filters, at least yellow, orange, red, also try polarizing and blue. Keeping notes about original colors and filters used will help later make comparisons. Photograph sky, human skin, foliage, colored signs, rocks, and colored clothing, at minimum.

4. Add color to a B/W photo, by painting, magic marker, food dye, digitally, or some other means you can concoct. Try at least one image that is only partially color, and one that is only one color.

Distinctly BW—

5. Use a variety of BW films. Try infrared, slide (conventional film reversed in processing), Polaroid (Polapan), copy, and high contrast. Compare the qualities of light.

6. Print the same negative on a variety of BW papers—resin coated vs fiber based, different surfaces, different colors. Or print the same digital image on a variety of papers, with a variety of printers, if feasible.

7. What distinguishes BW from color? Simplicity? Dreamlikeness? Unreality? Design and implement an exercise that explores this question.


8. Let your eye be drawn by special forms of light—shadows, reflections, through translucent materials, doubling, hazy, etc. And photograph the light, bracketing your exposures (bracketing means making a series of exposures—at the light setting suggested by your light meter, plus one full stop or half stop on either side).

9. Create with light, using some form of artificial light, such as strobe (flash), photoflood, high intensity incandescent light, or some combination. Or try “painting with light,” i.e., in total darkness, using time exposure, spread light from a flashlight or some other portable source.


10. Choose one subject and photograph it with a variety of frames, angles, distances between camera and subject, height of camera, tilt of camera, etc. Work the idea thoroughly but only by changing frame, nothing else.

11. Choose one frame, don’t change it, make a series of exposures, so the only thing changing is the subject or light. (Examples: a crowd, runners, the landscape during waning or waxing sun)


12. Show action, by panning, using a slow shutter speed, photographing something moving rapidly, or in some other way, imply motion.

13. Exploit stillness, the unarguable stoppage of time that photography seems to invariably do. Try a still life, a serene scene, a grove that appears to have been hidden for millennia, or something like a rock that suggests timelessness.

Vantage point—

14. Make a series of photographs very close to the subject. You might try close-up devices, such as a macro lens, extension tubes, close-up lens, or bellows. Explore a startlingly new world.

15. Suggest intimacy, either through physical closeness to what you photograph, or in the expression of the thing being photographed (person, animal, tree), or in the quality of light.

The thing itself—

16. Show something as accurately as you can, where verisimilitude predominates. Make a true rendering. This could be a building, or interior, or window view, something you know well and now are truthfully portraying. Or the thing shown might be an event.

17. Show something as metaphor, the thing standing for something else, such as a tree for the tree of life, or the moon as the mother of creation, or wrinkled skin as aging. The image is the equivalent of something that might not be photographable.

Some of the notions these exercises are based on are from John Szarkowski, former director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. To him and his observations, I am indebted.

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