The Rules Of Gray or The Ten Commandments of Good Black and White Photography

A black and white photography tutorial


By Joel Tjintjelaar

Sneak Peek into the eBook From Basics to Fine Art, a book on Black and White Architectural Photography and more by Julia Anna Gospodarou and Joel Tjintjelaar

eBook from basics to fine art

FROM BASICS TO FINE ART, a book on Black and White Architectural Photography & more by Julia Anna Gospodarou and Joel Tjintjelaar

This is the first fragment of the book we are posting publicly: highlights from two of the most important chapters of the book From Basics to Fine-art : “The Rule of Grays” by Joel Tjintjelaar and “Practical Guide to Discovering Artistic Vision” by Julia Anna Gospodarou. The book is the product of more than one year of intensive work and also of many years of studying art, architecture and photography and has been released in May 2014.

Rules of Gray or The 10 monochromatic commandments for good black and white photography

So how to create a good black and white photograph, knowing that it’s all about light, and light only? In other words, what makes a great Black and White photograph? I’ve made up a set of principles that I will call the Rule of Grays or the 10 Monochromatic Commandments that will help you understand what a good black and white photograph is made of.

1.Gray rules. There’s just one color in black and white photography that really is interesting: gray. Not black or white, no gray. Black is the complete absence of light and white obviously the complete presence of light. When we’re talking about  black and white photographs we’re not really talking about a photograph consisting only of a black or a white tone. They are the least interesting. No, we talk about the gray tones. Black is the darkest gray tone, stripped of all light, white is the lightest gray tone, exposed with too much light. In both cases we don’t see anything, because it’s either too bright or there’s no light. Add a bit of light to black and you have a dark gray tone, remove a bit of light from pure white and you have a light gray tone. There’s only one pure black tone and there’s only one pure white tone, but there are 253 shades of gray. Gray rules and should be dominating a black and white photograph: the rule of grays.

2.Selective tonal contrast. Any good black and white photograph has contrast. The eye is always drawn to the area in a photo that has the most contrast. If there’s an area in the image that has pure black against pure white, then that area will get all the attention. If you create an image with too much contrast that hasn’t been carefully chosen then the eye will go all over the image and doesn’t know where to look at. How to create contrast in a correct way? It’s not just a matter of hitting the contrast button. It’s a matter of analyzing first where you want the eye to look at. If you do it right then you start with creating contrast by getting it right in-camera with your DSLR or any other camera.But even if you don’t do it right in-camera because the light isn’t perfect, then you can always create more contrast in post production in the areas in the images that you’ve selected as an artist. That’s one of the benefits of converting color to black and white instead of having the black and white in-camera. You can simply create contrast where there was no contrast and remove where it once was. If you have a color photograph that has a subject with a blue shirt against a blue background then the subject will fade away against the background. But you can decide in post-production to translate the blue background to different tonal values than the subject with the blue shirt. The freedom of black and white conversion. Creating contrast or enhancing contrast should be done carefully and very selectively and not by just brightening the whites and darken the blacks. Selective use of tonal contrast is one of the most important elements in any great black and white photograph.

3.Tonal separation. Opposite to color photos, different objects in black and white photos that intersect or overlap each other are not separated by colors but by shades of gray. If intersecting or overlapping objects have the same shade of gray then this should be “corrected” by manipulating these tones until they have values that are further away from each other. The more they differ in values, the better the objects are separated, the more presence and depth they will have. An example of that is the photo called Visual Acoustics IV – Silence and Light – Tour Total where I separated the statue in the foreground from the building in the background by manipulating the tonal values in and just around the statue to create subtle contrasts and  make the statue stand out more from the background.

Visual Acoustics IV – Silence and Light – Tour Total

4.Presence and depth. What the human eye can see has a far greater dynamic range than the most expensive camera can capture. Add to it, that what the mind can make of what the eye can see and this results in perceiving a situation, an object or a location, in a very different way than what a camera could ever do. The act of perceiving is a human act and it’s a culmination of personal experience and individual physical and emotional processes in combination with, and as a response to, what the eyes see. The camera can only record and ‘see’ but cannot perceive, that is something reserved to the human mind only and it’s the citadel from where art originates. There’s a very interesting article called “The Black and White Master print” by George DeWolfe, that forms the foundation of what I do in black and white photography post processing. It’s about the importance of creating presence and the difference between luminance and luminosity by author George deWolfe. Here’s an important quote from that article: “The basic physical difference between the two states – Luminance and Luminosity – is largely one of defining edges and altering contrast”. What any good black and white photographer should aim for is to create presence by expressing in his photo what we as humans and artists perceive – instead of expressing what we see only – by altering the contrasts and tonal relationships and defining edges in such a way that it gives luminosity to an object. In other words: that it gives volume and depth to that object and hence to the entire image. On the next page a photograph is shown where I altered the contrasts and tonal relationships and have defined the edges. It’s the Salk Institute in La Jolla California. The color photo is the original version and if you look closely you will see that in the black and white version the translation of colors to black and white tones has no 1:1 relationship at all. It’s purely focused on how to interpret light and darkness, not on how to interpret colors. Again, the careful distribution of light in all its intensities is the main objective in my black and white photographs. I used my artistic freedom to come up with a different interpretation of colors, by looking at light, edges and volumes for the sake of creating depth and volume. My view on artistic black and white photography, is that we should never settle for whatever objective reality the camera and the supporting editing software is providing us, only settle for the image you saw in your mind and felt in your entire existence when you took the photograph.

Salk Institute – Original color photograph

Salk Institute – Black and White photograph

5.Minimize the use of the darkest black and brightest white. Gray tones can be separated between achromatic gray tones and chromatic gray tones. Achromatic gray tones are tones whose red, green and blue values are exactly equal. Silver  for example has the color values (192,192,192) and Gray, not being Dark Gray, Medium or Light Gray, has the values (128,128,128) and are exactly in the middle. Chromatic gray tones or off-grays like Platinum are gray tones that don’t have equal red, green and blue color values. There are 256 shades of achromatic grays varying from (0,0,0) which is completely black to (255,255,255) which is completely white. So when we talk about dark, low key photographs, we talk about using tones lighter than (0,0,0) – only use these darkest values for just a few percent in the image but not in those areas in the photo that contain details that should be visible. Same applies to high key photographs: try to use tonal values that are darker than (255,255,255) and when you do use the tonal values (255,255,255) then only use them in areas where details shouldn’t be visible.

6.Use of adjacent tonal zones to zone 0 for low-key photographs. When you create a black and white photograph then almost every black and white photographer knows how important it is to cover a full tonal range, from zone 0 or (0,0,0) to zone 10 (255, 255, 255), that’s what Ansel Adams has been teaching us. This doesn’t mean however that when you create a dark low-key image, which you can roughly describe as an image with the emphasis on tonal zones 0 to 4, that you should use pure black from tonal zone 0 to create black. No, always avoid the use of pure black as much as possible because black is just complete absence of light, there will be no definition at all. Instead use the tonal zone adjacent to zone 0: zone 1 and zone 2. And only use tonal zone 0 for just a few percent, to complete the tonal range coverage. The result of that is that you would still have a very dark low-key image but with a silky and very subtle effect to it that isn’t hard on the eyes and is far more aesthetic. Simply because you can still see it and all the details that are in it. Remember, pure black is absence of light, you can’t see without light.

7.Use of adjacent tonal zones to zone 10 for high-key photographs. The same applies to creating a high-key image which can roughly be described as an image with the emphasis on tonal zones 7 to 10. If you want to create brightness, eye-catching bright highlights, then use the zones adjacent to tonal zone 10: zones 9 and 8. And just like in low-key images use tonal zone 10 to complete the tonal range coverage. Zone 10 is complete presence of light, eliminating every shadow, every detail, just like the complete absence of light does.

An analysis of a black and white photograph in tonal zone areas and contrasting areas

8.Subtle tonal transitions. Looking at how light behaves on an object, on a surface and if you would look closely, very closely with a discerning eye, then you will see that light transitions from dark to light and from light to dark in very subtle ways, sometimes even so subtle that the untrained eye doesn’t see it. Light never has the same intensity on all areas of a surface: it fades from dark to light and vice versa all the time. It’s this aspect of light that gives an object its substance, that gives an object its dimensions and depth, that determines the shapes and lines in an object. Understanding how light makes this subtle transitions from dark to light and from light to dark and how to create this in a very subtle way in a black and white photograph is the key to great black and white photography. But transitions always need to be very subtle since nature doesn’t know a harsh transition from light to dark or vice versa on an uninterrupted surface, unless we’re looking at shadows, or at corners and edges. Subtle tonal transitions can be created by using my iSGM2.0 method of black and white photography conversion.

9.Mid grey magic. Another important aspect that is related to having a complete tonal range and the right amount of contrasts on the right places, is to have enough mid-gray tones in your photo to make it visually pleasing and to not be overpowered by contrasts. There are many theories why mid-gray tones play an important role in a good black and white photograph, but personally I think you need some neutral ground where the eye can ‘relax’ inside of the frame, instead of looking for a refuge outside of the frame. And I think the silvery mid-gray tones add a lot to the richness of a good black and white photograph. If you would look at the great black and white photographs then just look how many of them have those silvery mid-gray tones to compensate for the drama and contrasts in a black and white photo.  I consider anything between tonal zones 4 and 8 the mid-gray area and I would recommend adding them to your portfolio of black and white photographs, in such a way it doesn’t take away from the effect you wanted to achieve.

10.Personal signature style and tonality. A great black and white photographer always knows to leave something of his personality, his unique signature style, in his photograph. A signature style can consist of a specific subject matter, style of composition and style of black and white photography treatment and approach, a story telling theme or a specific mood that has been created and is easily recognizable. Very often it’s a combination of these individual elements, but always try to make a difference with as many of these elements as possible to create a highly individual style. One of the elements where you can separate yourself is by trying to create a “signature tonality”. Personally, when I create a low-key black and white photograph or something between low-key and high-key in, let’s say mid-key, then there are some tones I like the most: it’s the richness and darkness, yet with a glimpse of light on it from the tonal zones 2 and 3 mixed together. These tonal zones have such a richness in tones that can make an image stand out. I’m not sure why that is, and of course it’s highly subjective, but my guess is that one of the rule of grays state that pure black from tonal zone 0 shouldn’t be used because it is complete absence of light. While tonal zone 1 should primarily be used to create the blackness in an image with just a few touches of tonal zone 0. The first tonal zone after 1 that isn’t used to create the blackness in an image is tonal zone 2: it has the darkness of 1 with a promise of light. Same goes for tonal zone 3 to a similar extent. It’s the dawn of grays, the dawn of what will finally be revealed in your black and white image. That’s why I probably like it so much and you will see these tonal values a lot in my images and they form a substantial part of my signature style.