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
- Contrast and form
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 make the texture really stand out and cast deeper shadows as the light skims over bumps and dents:
- Angle the light from the side of your subject, or
- Low from behind
The contrast of shade and light amplifies the texture. Photographing a scene in black and white will emphasize the:
- Roughness of a rough texture
- Silkiness of a smooth texture
This is why long exposure black and white photography works so well with water.
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 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.
- For bold and strong images that stand out, use highly contrasting tones of strong blacks and white without much gray.
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.
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 impact on the contrast within an image.
Further reading: Open shade photography the right way – avoid rookie mistakes
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
- Colorful subjects
- The colors themselves
- Cloudless skies
1. Colorful subjects
It stands to reason that if you’ve photographed a subject, because it’s wonderfully colorful, changing the image to a black and white photograph would detract from the image.
This shot would never work in black and white – the whole point of the photograph is 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 against 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 gray.
For a blue sky to work, you need to have a 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
- High key
- 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
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.
Further reading: Low key photography lighting tips for dramatic photos
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.
- Shoot in raw
- White balance
- Monochrome mode to help you see a scene
1. Shoot black and white 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.
- When photographing a muted scene, RAW is good for capturing a smooth transition between the various shades of gray.
- If you shoot in RAW, rather than JPEG, you’ll be able to increase the contrast in post production, decrease the shadows and brightening the highlights more than if the image was a JPEG.
2. White balance for black and white photography
You’d 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 camera setting
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 for better black and white photos
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 clouds stand out more
- A red filter even more so
- A green filter lightened grass and foliage
These filters are no longer needed for black and white digital photography, as it’s easier to adjust the sliders in editing software. However, two filters that will have an impact on your black and white pictures are:
A polarising filter cuts out reflections on on shiny surfaces, such as:
This cleans up the scene so that you don’t have distracting elements in the image.
Neutral density filter
Neutral density filters allow you to capture longer exposures during daylight hours by partially blocking out the light, which is particularly useful if you want to create black and white silky smooth waterfalls or seas.
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