At some point, black and white photography was the only medium of photography. While color photography has been around for quite a long time, with the first color photo ever having been taken in 1861, it was not until the 1960s when color started dominating the world of photography. Still, black and white photography has always been a very romantic medium. There’s just something magical about monochrome photographs – the timelessness of the photos, the beauty and emotion they convey, and how they bring different lighting contrasts to life.
While it’s now easier and much simpler to do monochrome photography than ever before, for some, it’s just as difficult and as complicated as ever. This guide will give you some ideas and insights to take your black and white photography to the next level. Here are our 12 tips to help you create better black and white photos
#1. Get Some Inspiration
One rather obvious thing that many people forget to do is seeking some inspiration. If you truly want to get better at black and white photography, you want to look at old black and white films and photos for inspiration. Back in the days where people had limited coloring options, they were forced to create fantastic shots that would get people hooked. So be sure to check out some vintage photos and films for some ideas. It’s also wise to look at contemporary photos in black and white.
The good thing about this is that these black and white photos and videos are readily available. You can easily find old movies online without jumping through so many hoops, and old photos are basically a Google search away. There’s simply no excuse for not checking out black white media for inspiration. If you find a film shot or photo that catches your eye, try figuring out what draws your eye, and take note.
#2. Shoot in RAW + JPEG, if Possible
Some of the best monochrome conversions are usually made by editing RAW files that have the full-color information. However, if you shoot in JPEG and RAW files simultaneously, and then set up your camera to a monochrome mode, you’ll get an indication of how the image will look like in black and white.
Since many photographers struggle visualizing a scene in black and white, monochrome modes are invaluable when it comes to scene assessment and composition. Many modern cameras are also capable of producing high-quality in-camera black and white images, and you should try experimenting with different image parameters (think filter effects, contrast, toning, and sharpness) to achieve a look you like.
Modern compact cameras and compact system cameras show you the scene with the camera settings applied, and you can preview your black and white image in the viewfinder or on the rear screen before you take the shot. If you’re using a DSLR, you can do this by activating the live view system of your camera, though the slow responses could mean that you may prefer checking the image on the post-capture screen.
#3. Experiment with Contrast
Black and white photography has mostly been a “contrasty” medium, while big contrast is often discouraged in color photography. In the days of film, photographers would often attach a red filter to help increase contrast levels when you’re shooting in monochrome.
B&W photography is all about playing with the blacks, whites, and the different shades in between, essentially emphasizing the contrast in the pictures you take. As such, when taking a photo, you want to think about how it will look in black and white. For instance, a bright sky will look quite interesting when contrasted with a very dark object. Placing the silhouette of an object or a person in front of a light background will create a striking contrast.
Contrast can also be used in fashion B&W photography – your options for creative experimentation are practically limitless. Be sure to take a few photos and try capturing contrasting elements. This will help you find ways in which you can take the perfect black white photo.
#4. Try Shooting at the Lowest ISO Setting
The grainy film look is quite popular in B&W photography, but using the lowest possible ISO setting tends to give great results when you’re shooting in this medium. Just as with the black and white conversion, the grainy look is best added in post-production. While shooting in high ISO will give your shot enough noise, digital noise is just not as sweet to work with as the analog one.
You want to be careful to avoid unwanted movement in your shots when using the lowest ISO setting. Modern cameras allow you to go up quite significantly before noise kicks in. However, it’s generally better to get a sharp shot with some noise other than a noiseless shot where the subject is a blur.
Keep in mind that when it comes to shooting a black and white photo, the one thing you really need is a clean black and a clean white. While this isn't necessarily a rule of thumb, it’s a great starting point in your thinking when capturing and editing a photo. Without clean whites and blacks, photos will end up with a “muddy” look, where you will have a bunch of shades of gray. If you find that your black and white photos don’t seem to have a real zing, then it could be because of no clean whites and clean blacks.
#5. Work with Filters
Filters make a huge difference in the world of photography; black and white photography included. In fact, polarizing and graduated neutral density (ND grad) filters are just as useful in monochrome photography as in color. You can use a polarizer to darken the sky, which will result in big-time black drama. You can also use the split-grad for the same purpose.
ND grads are helpful when you’re looking to retain detail in a bright sky, while a polarizing filter can come in handy to help boost contrast and reduce reflections. You should also consider taking two or more shots using different exposures in order to create an HDR (high dynamic range) composite.
Colored filters, which form an essential part of a black and white photographer’s arsenal, are quite useful in manipulating contrast in digital photographs. Colored filters usually work by lightening up objects of their own color while darkening objects of their opposite color. For instance, an orange filter will darken a blue sky while a green filter will lighten any foliage.
#6. Consider Using Long Exposure
In monochrome photography, long exposure shots can work wonders, especially in situations where there are moving clouds or water. During the exposure, the highlights of the water or clouds will be recorded across a wider area than normal, which can help to enhance the tonal contrast of the image.
Blurring movement can also add textural contrast with any of the surrounding solid objects. Where necessary, you can use a neutral density filter to lower the level of exposure and extend the shutter speed accordingly.
Naturally, when you extend exposure beyond 1/60 sec, you will need to use a tripod to keep your camera still and avoid blurring of the image. It’s also wise to use mirror lock-up and a remote release to produce super-sharp images and minimize vibration.
#8. Use Post-Processing to Enhance
While colored filters can be used to effectively manipulate contrast when shooting digital black and white photos, it’s a lot more common to save this work until the processing stage. Photoshop’s Channel Mixer has been the preferred means of turning normal colored photos to black and white until the introduction of Adobe Camera Raw a few years ago. Adobe’s solution has more powerful tools in its Grayscale/HSL tab, which ideally lets you adjust the brightness of eight individual shades of colors that make up the image.
You can adjust one of these colors to make it anything from white to black using the sliding controls. However, it’s important to keep an eye on the whole image while you adjust a certain color because subtle gradations could easily get unnatural looking. If you are adjusting the brightness of a pink or red shirt using the red sliding control, for example, this could have an impact on the skin of the subject/model, especially the lips.
You can use the Curves and Levels controls to manipulate the contrast and tonal range of the image, but the Grayscale/HSL controls will let you create a separation between objects of the same brightness using different colors.
#9. Ideal Situations to Shoot in B & W
Many digital photographers prefer shooting their black and white images in low contrast situations. As such, an overcast or dark day can be a perfect time to shoot outdoors. Ironically, these are some of those days where those who shoot in color sit at home sulking about the poor lighting. So, the next time you find yourself in a gloomy or dark day, consider shooting in monochrome.
Another element to look out for when shooting a picture in black and white is patterns. No matter the medium of shooting, a good photo usually has some sort of pattern to it. This is essentially something that makes the viewers’ eyes follow the main pattern and look for other patterns. Patterns can be anything from blades of grass, rocks on the ground, vehicles moving in a given direction, or any other repeating design, texture, or object.
For instance, capturing patterns in monochrome street photography can make your images distinctive and allow the main subject to really grab the attention of the viewer. Patterns tend to work well in B&W photography, as there are not many colors to distract you. So, as you take your shot, be sure to look for patterns. If your eye follows a pattern, it may be a sign that you should take the shot. Give this a try and see what you come up with.
Don’t shy away from using the flash. It might be a bit of a taboo to use it when taking natural photos. However, in B&W photography, a flash might be essential. Flash will help you create varying shades of gray when you turn the photo monochrome, allowing for more contrast.
#10. Express Emotions, don’t Just Remove Colors
Sometimes, you may think a photo will look great in monochrome because it lacks striking colors in the first place. This could be a close-up shot of a zebra, pictures of black and white checkered surfaces, a gray/dark sky, etc. You may think that such shots will greatly benefit from a black and white filter, but in truth, monochrome photography is all about telling a story, which entails highlighting the subject and expressing their emotions, the distraction colors could bring. So, it isn't just about shooting a subject that lacks color.
Black and white photography can also be a little dramatic, nostalgic, and moody – use this to your advantage. You can easily transform an ordinary object or scene quite dramatically by converting your shot to a black and white picture. Without color, the mind and eyes of the viewer will immediately see the subject, the mood, components, and composition of the image without any distracting elements.
#11. Choose your Subject Wisely
Some subjects will naturally lend themselves to color but aren't nearly as effective in monochrome. For instance, sunrise and sunset photographs tend to rely on the color of the sky for their impact, and will rarely produce a great black and white photo. Subjects such as flowers, colorful birds, and fashion often logically call for shooting in color. However, some subjects are just suited to monochrome photography.
Since this is a classic medium, it tends to naturally work well with old fashioned subjects. Rustic items like an old wooden fence, old farm equipment, or a tumbledown shack will be wonderful subjects for B&W shots. When people are your subjects, age can be a factor. A close-up of an aged face that shows all their lines and wrinkles can have a great impact in monochrome.
#12. Learn To See In Black and White
The world looks so different in black and white. When you learn to “see” your subject or scene in black and white, it will be easier for you to pick situations that are perfect for great black and white photography. Try to imagine how your image will look in monochrome before taking the shot. However, this will require some practice, though there are a few things that could help you get there.
Look for shapes: Shapes will cast shadows that often highlight the shape of a subject. If the source of light is hard, the shadows will definitely show it. Beautiful shapes may disappear easily when color is abundant. Black and white pictures will help you bring out the shapes again.
Leverage structure: Without color, the structure becomes critical to black and white photos. Create or use lighting that enhances structure. You can find structure in many subjects, including skin, hair, wood, and sand.
Use contrast wisely: Too much contrast in a color photo tends to result in harsh and rather confusing images. But when you remove color, harsh contrast becomes a great way of attracting attention to the subject of your shot.
For anyone who loves photography and wants to stretch their horizons, black and white photography is something absolutely worth experimenting with. It will open your eyes to the different aspects of your world that you’ve never seen in that light before.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed reading through our black and white photography tips. Is there anything we might have missed? What’s your go-to tip when shooting in monochrome? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.