Some of the most iconic photos are black and white and stand out even with all the advances of digital photography. It’s not just the composition or subject matter that makes them so great. It’s that black and white photographers knew how to see the world in black and white for great photos. So I hope these black and white photography tips help you to view the world differently too.
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 of a great photograph.
Some scenes and subjects are just made to be photographed in black and white, without the distraction of color.
Compositional elements that work well for black and white photography
- Contrast and form
1. Texture in black and white photos
Unlike color photography, because you don’t have color to distract the eye, or make an image more interesting, texture is really important with black and white photography.
In fact, black and white is perfect for capturing interesting textures 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 high contrast of dark shadows and light amplifies texture in black and white images. Photographing a scene in black and white rather than color emphasizes the:
- Roughness of a rough texture (like a brick wall)
- Silkiness of a smooth texture (like skin)
This is why long exposure black and white photography works so well with water.
Converting this close up image of a mother and baby elephant to black and white emphasizes the texture of their skin.
2. Tone in monochrome photography
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 monochrome images.
- For a dreamy feel, muted tones work well. So, shades of gray rather than the stark contrast of pure black and pure white.
- For bold and strong images that stand out, use highly contrasting tones of dramatic black 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, particularly the strength and crispness of shadows, creates form and contrast in photography, but even more so in black and white photography.
Without color to inform the viewer of the subject matter, we rely on shadow to show the form of subjects.
When deep 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 the light source can be controlled with the use of modifiers and diffusers to soften shadows. When photographing 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.
4. Black and white photography 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 b&w photography
- Colorful subjects
- Some colors convert well to black and white
- Cloudless skies
This shot would never work in black and white – the whole point of the photograph is the riot of color.
1. Colorful subjects
It stands to reason that if you photograph a scene, because it’s wonderfully colorful, changing the image to a black and white photograph would detract from the image.
2. Some colors don’t convert well to black and white
Some colors look great in black and white, others are bland.
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 photography, in black and white they aren’t that different, so don’t stand out enough. This results in a lack of contrast, which reduces the impact of a black and white photograph.
Likewise with green and red. They’re both demanding colors and they stand out alongside each other in a color photo. In fact, both colors look great when converted to black and white. However, when side by side in a black and white image they’re too similar.
Further reading: How to use color for eye catching photography composition
3. Cloudless skies
A beautiful blue sky of wall to wall sunshine and no clouds looks great in color photography, but doesn’t translate well in black and white photography. It’s just be a large expanse of gray.
However, white clouds against a blue sky look great in both color photos and black and white photos.
Stormy clouds are also wonderful in black and white photographs, especially with a bit of dodging and burning in post production to emphasize the different shades of light and dark gray.
For a blue sky to work in monochrome photos, you need to have a strong design element, such as a white building with minimalist black signage. To make it more dramatic, photograph it from a low angle against a blue sky. Then adjust the black and white mix during the editing process to deepen the dark gray of the sky to nearly black.
Photography styles ideally suited to black and white images
- 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 they tend to be soft. The dynamic range is limited and the image overall is very light. The effect is a bright, airy, tranquil image.
A black and white conversion of a high key color photo makes it even more minimalist and therefore calm without the distraction of color. It’s one of the great advantages of digital photography over film photography.
Just remember to photograph in RAW file format, because RAW images retain so much more data than JPEG images and are therefore better for adjusting during the editing process. More on this in a moment.
Tips for better black and white high key images:
- Use soft light – indirect window light if indoors, overcast days if outdoors are both great natural light sources for high key images
- Position your subject in a low contrast scene, wearing light colored clothing
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, which is why they’re ideally suited to black and white portraits. 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, which accentuates shape and ensures the background is dark.
Low key black and white photography tips:
- Photograph against a dark background
- Use Rembrandt lighting or split lighting for particularly dramatic images
- Ensure that you have both pure black and pure white with dark shadows and bright highlights in the image
- Consider using contrasting textures for added interest
Further reading: Low key photography lighting tips for dramatic photos
Digital camera tips for monochrome photography
Modern cameras are very well equipped for photographing in black and white and it’s very easy to convert photos to black and white on the computer. However, you can help your camera to achieve the best black and white pictures possible by:
- Photographing in RAW
- Setting the best white balance
- Using monochrome mode to assess a scene
- Using lens filters
1. Photograph black and white images in RAW
I always recommend photographing 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 photograph in RAW, rather than JPEG, you can increase the tonal contrast during the editing process by darkening shadows and brightening highlights more than if the image was a JPEG
- Using Lightroom color grading to adjust the intensity of colors so that they look better in black and white (for the same filter effects of color filters with black and white film cameras – more on this in a moment)
2. White balance for black and white photography
You’d think that if an image is going to be processed black and white, the white balance wouldn’t matter. But it does.
The color information captured by digital cameras 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 learning to see in black and white, you might find it helpful to set your camera to monochrome mode (aka black and white mode). This way you can take a shot and see instantly how well the colors in a scene may or may not work.
If you’re photographing in JPEG the image will be captured as a black and white image. However, if you’ve set your file format to RAW, they will be color images, even though you see black and white images on the LCD screen. This is because it’s a black and white preview of how the image will look with your camera settings.
If using a mirrorless camera, you’ll see a black and white image in the electronic viewfinder.
4. Lens filters for better black and white photos
For film photographers filters are essential for more dramatic black and white photography.
- An orange filter makes a blue sky darker, so clouds stand out more. It’s also good for black and white portraits as it affects skin tones in portrait photography.
- A red filter makes a dramatic sky even more dramatic
- A green filter lightens grass and foliage
With digital cameras color filters aren’t needed for black and white photography, as it’s easier to edit white digital images by adjusting the relevant sliders in editing software. However, two filters that will have an impact on your black and white pictures are:
Polarising filter for B&W
A polarising filter cuts out reflections on shiny surfaces, such as:
This cleans up the scene so that you don’t have distracting elements in the image.
Neutral density filter for B&W
Neutral density filters allow you to capture longer exposures during daylight hours by partially blocking out some of the light. This is particularly useful black and white filter for silky smooth waterfalls or seas with a long exposure as it allows you to set a slower shutter speed.
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