Photo: Sebastião Salgado - Selected Photographs
If you were to make a list of the most socially relevant photographers of all time, then this man should make ,at least, the top 5. Sebastião Salgado has a PhD in Economics and picked up photography in his 30's. He traveled to Africa as an economist working with the World Bank, and quickly switched to photography full-time. He's won numerous awards and honors for his work since.
I've chosen a few photographs from his website to show here.
Photographer Ted Grant once said "When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But, when you photograph people in black & white you photograph their souls."
One of the first things you notice is that Sebastião Salgado's (published) work is all in black & white. Black & white photography has a completely different element to it. It focuses much more closely on the composition, or what's within the photo, rather than focusing on the bright colors. It invokes a mood and depth that color photography doesn't quite reach. Color is much more broad and encompassing, while black & white makes you focus on certain elements of a photograph you wouldn't otherwise. For example, if the photo above were in color your eyes would certainly focus on the red and orange flames first and foremost. Because the photo is in black & white, it forces you to look at the entire photo on equal ground (with respect to which color grabs your attention first).
In this photo, Salgado absolutely nails it.
He manages to compose this shot quite well. He uses the rule of thirds to bring attention to the trains. Furthermore, the trains in this shot function as a lead-in, bringing you into the shot by creating lines along a certain plane that your eyes naturally follow. Salgado, uses this to bring out the people leaving the trains in the foreground and background by framing them within this plane. Then to provide a sense-of-motion he's slowed the shutter-speed down to where he can capture the movement of people as a slight blur.
Lighting is a (if not THE) fundamental component of photography. To understand photography, is understanding just one facet of light. Photography is a visual manipulation of light and without light, you definitely won't have a photo.
That being said, lighting is more important in black & white photography than it is in color. When using color in our photographs we can rely on certain colors and saturation levels to guide the viewer through certain the parts of the photo. Color is a powerful visual aid. Without the aid of color, our eyes look for something else to grab our attention in a photo, and this is where lighting comes in.
You can get one, or a few, spectacular effects with good lighting. One of the essential things lighting provides in a good photo is a large dynamic-range, or a high level of contrast. If you look at the spotlight in the photo above you can see multiple tones ranging from almost-absolute-white, to absolute-black. Such a wide range of contrast in a photo creates a great amount of interest. It's one of the things that pulls people into the details of a photograph.
It's through that contrast that lighting can also provide a fantastic sense of texture. Look in the detail of the rope the man is sleeping on. If the scene were more evenly lit, the rope would appear much more boring because it would seem much more uniform to our eye. The strong, angular lighting in this shot helps us notice the texture in the details in ways that we wouldn't otherwise.
Lighting also guides our eyes. The ray of light shining down on the man puts focus on him and everything else falling under it's beam.
Because Salgado publishes his work exclusively in black & white rather than color, learning these techniques is much more important. Practicing photography without the visual aid of color forces us to focus on the other elements that make our photography great. Color can distract, and as someone who is just starting or has been shooting for a while we can benefit significantly by restricting ourselves to black and white.
I myself picked up photography with black and white film, and I loved it. Physically making a photograph with film, light, paper, chemicals, and your bare-hands is satisfying and thirst-quenching beyond belief. If I were to recommend anything to people who want to try out photography, it would be start with a black & white film class.
Sadly, the truth is, darkrooms are slowly dying off, so if you are not able to work in a darkroom then try working with black & white in digital.