How to see in black and white

Black and white photography is timeless, but it’s also a very creative way of photographing. With black and white images the absence of color reveals so much about the composition and lighting of an image – two essential elements to a great photograph.

Some scenes and subjects are just made to be black and white. In this tutorial we’ll take a look at what makes a great black and white image and how to see in black and white.

Elements that work well for black and white photography

  1. Texture
  2. Tone
  3. Contrast and form
  4. Composition

1. Texture in black and white photos

Because you don’t have color to distract the eye, or make an image more interesting, texture becomes really important with black and white photography.

In fact, black and white is perfect for capturing texture for this very reason. To increase the dominance of the texture it is best if the light is angled either from the side or low from behind to cast shadows.

The contrast of shade and light amplifies the texture.

Black and white will also emphasise the roughness of a rough texture next to the silkiness of a smooth texture. This is why long exposure black and white photography works so well with water.

Further reading:

Direction of light – how to use side light

How texture in photography composition adds interest

Texture in black and white photography

Black and white was used to photograph this mother and baby elephant up close to emphasise the texture of their skin.

2. Tone in monochrome photos

Speaking of light and dark, tone is a wonderful tool ideally suited to black and white photography. Tone can highlight the subject matter and add to the feel of the photograph.

For a dreamy feel, muted tones work well. So, shades of gray rather than the stark contrast of black and white.

The highly contrasting tones of black and white without much grey creates crisp, bold and strong images that stand out.

Further reading: Using the zone system in photography for perfect exposure

3. Contrast and form in black and white photography

Shadow and the strength and crispness of shadows is what creates form and contrast in black and white photography.

Again, without color to inform the viewer of the subject matter, we rely on shadow to show the form of subjects.

When the shadows are sharp and change from dark to light quickly the contrast is high. When shadows are softer and move from light to dark evenly the contrast is low. For this reason light, and the type of light used, has a big impact in black and white photography.

Further reading: 

How form in photography brings subjects to life

How to use tonal contrast in photography

How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere

In a studio environment light can be controlled with the use of modifiers and diffusers to soften the shadows. When shooting with natural light, reflectors and diffusers lessen the shadows for a softer look.

Time of day when shooting with natural light, weather conditions and the absence or use of open shade will all have impact on the contrast within an image.

4. Black and white composition

As before, the absence of color means that the composition of an image must be strong to be engaging. In fact, the lack of color often allows the composition to really stand out.

Use leading lines to direct the eye, diagonal lines for tension in the image and keep the composition of the image minimal with simple shapes.

Further reading: 19 photography composition tips you need to know to be awesome

Elements that don’t work for black and white photography

  1. Colorful subjects
  2. The colors themselves
  3. Cloudless skies

1. Colorful subjects

It stands to reason that if you’ve photographed a subject, because it is wonderfully colorful, changing the image to a black and white photograph would detract from the image.

Colorful balloons

This shot would never have worked in black and white – the whole point of the photograph was the riot of color.

2. The colors themselves

Some colors look great in black and white, others are bland.

It’s worth bearing in mind that complementary colors on the color wheel don’t photograph well together in black and white.

So, while blue and orange look wonderful together in color, in black and white they are not that dissimilar, so will not stand out enough. This will result in a lack of contrast, which reduces the impact of a black and white photograph.

Further reading:  How to use color for eye catching photography composition

3. Cloudless skies

White clouds agains a blue sky look great in both color and black and white.

Stormy clouds are also wonderful in black and white photographs, especially with a bit of dodging and burning in post production.

A beautiful blue sky of wall to wall sunshine and no clouds, however doesn’t translate well in black and white photography. It will just be a large expanse of grey. For a blue sky to work, you would need to have some strong design element, such as a white building with minimalist black signage shot from a low angle against a blue sky.

Shooting styles ideally suited to black and white photography

  1. High key
  2. Low key

Because light is everything when it comes to black and white photography, even more so than in color photography, I thought it would be good to look at two opposing types of black and white images.

1. High key black & white photography

In high key black and white images there are very few shadows and the image overall is very white and bright. The effect is a bright, airy, tranquil image.

Further reading: What is high key photography, and how to master it

High key black and white boudoir photography

2. Low key black & white photography

By contrast, low key images are very dark and dramatic. The lighting is strong and defines the subject’s shape, while the shadows are dark and dominant.

In addition, the light usually comes from behind or to the side of the subject. This accentuates shape and ensures the background is dark.

Low key maternity photography

Camera tips for photographing in black and white

Modern cameras are very well equipped for shooting in black and white and it is very easy to convert our photos to black and white on the computer. However, there are few things you can do to help your camera to achieve the best black and white photographs possible.

  1. Shoot in raw
  2. White balance
  3. Monochrome mode to help you see a scene
  4. Filters

1. Shoot in raw

I always recommend shooting in RAW. There are so many reasons, but from a black and white photography point of view, it allows you to capture so many more levels of brightness in an image. If you’re shooting a muted scene, this will be really useful in creating a smooth transition between the various shades of gray.

If you shoot in RAW, rather than JPEG, you will be able to increase the contrast in post production, decrease the shadows and brightening the highlights more than if the image was a JPEG.

Further reading: Image Quality – the pros and cons of RAW vs JPEG

2. White balance

You would think that if an image is going to be black and white, then the white balance doesn’t matter. But it does.

Bear in mind that color converts to tones of gray in black and white photography. So, if your white balance is not set correctly, the color cast on your subject will impact how dynamic the black and white version will be.

Further reading: What is white balance and does it matter?

3. Monochrome mode

While you’re still learning to see in black and white, you might find it helpful to set your camera to monotone so that you can take a shot and see instantly how well the colors in a scene may or may not work.

4. Filters

In the days of shooting film, filters were essential when it came to black and white photography.

  • An orange filter made a blue sky darker, which made cloud formations stand out more.
  • A red filter even more so.
  • A green filter lightened grass and foliage.

Although these filters are no longer needed, as it is easier to adjust the sliders in editing software.

Two filters that will have an impact on your black and white photography are:

Polarising filter

A polarising filter cuts out reflections in water, on glass or metal. This cleans up the scene so that you don’t have distracting elements.

Neutral density filter

Neutral density filters allow you to shoot longer exposures during daylight hours, which is particularly useful if you want to create black and white silky smooth waterfalls or seas.

Leave us a comment

If you have any questions about black and white photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our black and white photography tips have helped you to understand how to see and shoot in black and white, share that too.

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By Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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Black and white photography tips for beginners