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Effective Architectural Photography: Black and White

This article is the first in an occasional series about the elements of good architectural photography. It is intended for art buyers, marketing professionals, and anyone else who commissions or creates photographs of the built environment.

Architectural photography is full of choices, because there is rarely just a single way to photograph a space. Becoming an informed viewer of architectural photography can help you navigate the possibilities, and obtain photographs that say what you want them to.

One choice that is sometimes overlooked is color versus black-and-white. For much of the twentieth century, black-and-white had a significant presence in architectural photography. This mainly had to do with the vagaries of film: compared to early color films, black-and-white films were more archival, less expensive, and easier to develop. Moreover, color films did not always reproduce color accurately, while black-and-white offered greater control over the wide range of brightness so prevalent in architectural work.

Color films eventually improved, but now the digital age has largely pushed film aside and made good color even more accessible (though still not free from complications). As a result, color is now the dominant mode of architectural photography. Nor is this surprising. Considering that color is usually an integral part of a design, and given the precision of modern color rendering, it makes perfect sense to show the space with all of its important features.

Nevertheless, black-and-white still has a place. Thoughtfully deployed, it can add a unique aesthetic and accomplish some useful effects.

By removing color, black-and-white highlights other characteristics, such as line, shading, mass, and volume. It tends to portray subjects more graphically, which can be very exciting if the design lends itself to that sort of treatment.

Consider these two photographs, the original color version next to the eventual black-and-white (click to enlarge):

This photograph was an excellent candidate for black-and-white conversion. The photo is designed to illustrate the compound curvature of the main wall, contrasting with the straight lines of both the entry space and the street on the right. The vertical corrugations provide a similar contrast, their shadows adding depth to the wall while again juxtaposing linear elements against flowing ones. The dramatic cloud pattern was a nice bonus, as it frames and emphasizes the subject. The photo is mainly about the graphic elements of line, shape, and volume, and I actually found the color to be a hindrance, despite the gorgeous hue of the sky. Even if you prefer the original, you can see how the removal of color highlights other elements of the building, which matched my concept of what the photo should do.

Another example is this photo of a much taller building.

The composition tends to idealize the building, all sleek lines and dynamic thrust as it rockets skyward. In black-and-white the graphic elements come out in a very dynamic way. In addition, the black-and-white version shows a greater contrast between the curtain wall and the sky, further emphasizing the shape and presence of the structure. Using black-and-white also helped to deemphasize the foreground and focus attention more strongly on the subject.

Here’s a final example, not exactly architecture, but still an image of line and structure.

This Ferris wheel was not very colorful to begin with, but I thought that the colored lights, as well as the green tinge of the stanchions, stole attention from the very interesting skeleton of the machine.

It is worth noting that converting from color to black-and-white is usually not as simple as one click in Photoshop. When color is removed, sometimes the relationship among the gray tones can become a problem. For instance, mid-toned greens and yellows may convert to the same shade of middle gray, which can cause loss of contrast and visual confusion. Fortunately, Photoshop allows the adjustment of individual color channels within its black-and-white conversion interface. This provides a way to compensate for conversion problems, or to introduce new tonal variations in a more artistic way. Duotones or tritones can also be used to good effect. The process of tonal adjustment can be an art in itself, with tremendous creative potential.

So next time you are commissioning or creating architectural photography, consider including an image or two in black-and-white. It can show your subject in striking ways, and it provides another useful tool for communicating your vision.

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Architectural Photographer

Charlotte, NC


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