Black and White Photography

A Complete Guide to Black and White Photography

Do you love the use of black and white photography to really help viewers focus on subjects?

Perhaps you are new to the niche and want to get better?

Do not worry. We all have to start somewhere and this in depth guide will get you shooting some of the best photos you have ever taken.

How do I Produce Black and White Shots?

There are two ways to shoot black and white photographs. You can select to shoot black and white in camera. Most modern cameras will have this technology now. Or, you can convert the image to black and white in any editing software after you have snapped it.

Personally, we would opt for shooting black and white in camera as you can make sure you get the highlights and shadows correct in the moment. However, you may find it easier to edit a colour image to black and white as you can see a few more details in colour.

If you shot in black and white before the digital era, you were stuck with the outcome. Editing was a huge time constraint and very restrictive. Nowadays though there are so many options out there to make your black and white shots the best that they can be.

Black and White Photography
Image by our Facebook group member Joann Villeneuve

Less Is More

Eliminating distractions is often the key to shooting black and white. You will get away with having more ‘open space’ in a black and white shot as long as the contrasts are there.

Large areas of the frame can be left empty to add emotion and portray a certain feeling.

Contrasts

When thinking black and white you should be thinking bright areas and dark areas. Can these areas help you separate the subject or a point of interest from less important areas of the frame?

At first, it can be a bit difficult to try to disregard the colours and look for dark and bright tones. However, if you consciously make a habit of spotting where the darkest area and where the brightest areas are in the frame you will soon be able to spot whether a scene can make a great black and white photo.

Applying that to portraits

The most powerful black and white images use shadows to their advantage.

In portrait photography skin tone and other physical features of subjects will affect the look of the final product. Pale skin often looks overexposed in black and white. The elderly, whose faces are etched with time, can have great impact in both color and black and white photographs.

When shooting portraits, study your subject’s complexion. Aim for texture in your photographs. Think of freckles, laugh lines and wrinkles that tell the stories of still portraits.

Applying that to Landscapes

Really think about the light and dark areas of the frame. Imagine the light areas in white and the dark areas in black. Where are the shadows. Will there be any sharp lines that sill add great contrasts from white to black? Will the contrasts add some leading lines?

Even midday lighting can work well in black and white. Look for contrasts on buildings where one side in the light and one side in shadow. Find great shadows on the ground coming from trees. Do not be afraid of shadows in your images, especially in black and white photography. The lack of shadows is what can make your black and white images look drab and flat.

Editing Black and White Shots

Converting a colour image to black and white is usually an easy one click adjustment. However that is only the beginning. This will unlikely be your final outcome.

Just like we have touched on above think about the highlights and shadows in your image when it has been converted. Try to really magnify your dark and light points of the image. Where do the viewers eyes go first? This should nearly always be your main subject.

Use your sliders! Have a play around with the exposure, contrasts, highlights, shadows and clarity and try to get a sense of what they are doing to your image.

Photo Credit: Gary Black

Notice how the clouds have been highlighted more effectively in black and white in the above image. You can see the dark contrasts in them. The castle also seems sharper. The distraction from the colour grass has all but disappeared and the whole mood of the image has changed.

Remember there is no right or wrong way to do things as long as you are happy with the outcome!

Convert in RAW in Adobe

RAW gives photographers the most control over any editing process including black and white shots. If you took the shot as a RAW file instead of a JPEG, think about converting the image to black and white using the Adobe Camera RAW instead of Photoshop or Lightroom. Use the black and white tab (it looks like a zig zag) and check the box at the top that says you want the photo converted to black and white.

You can then use the sliders in the same panel to adjust. Each slider represents a colour. Moving the slider’s position adjusts how light or dark the shade of grey is for that particular colour. This is a really great tool for creating contacts between many colours. It’s also a good way to fix errors like a portrait with too much redness in the skin or a landscape with to much hue.

If you want to keep both colour and black and white then save as a copy or hold down the ALT or option key when you click open from the RAW editor.

Use a Black and White Adjustment Filter

If you did not shoot in RAW do not worry! We always recommend you do but there are many reasons you may be shooting in JPEG. File size for one.

Read why RAW files may be for you here

Instead of using one of the one-click methods, work with an adjustment layer in photoshop instead. In Photoshop go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black & White. This will give you adjustment options with sliders, similar to your options with a RAW file. The sliders allow you to adjust how light or dark a colour converts to. There’s also a drop down menu at the top, which contains a few presets that sometimes come in handy as well.

Make Whites White and Blacks Black

WHITES WHITE and BLACKS BLACK

MAKE WHITES WHITE AND BLACKS BLACK

Ideally a black and white image should have both a true white and a true black somewhere in the photo. This is to try and avoid the whole image blending into an almost grey appearence. Try to make this your first edit. Where can I have my true white and true black? You can get a true black and a true white by using colour adjustment sliders. Alternatively, you can also adjust the contrast, brightness or exposure to get a range of tones that expands from pure white to pure black.

Try using the histogram to guide your tonal edits. You will want the tone map to just touch each edge of the chart. In Camera Raw, you can easily see the histogram at the top right and use it to make informed edits.

This point is especially important if you are shooting headshots.

Adjust the Yellows to Smooth the Skin in Portraits

If you are editing a portrait, make sure you consider adjusting the yellow channel. While this will depend a bit on your subject, often, using the yellow slider will help you achieve softer, smoother skin in the black and white converted image.

The red channel can also often be helpful in portraits, for reducing skin redness, or perhaps even enhancing the blush on your subject’s cheeks.

Want to take awesome portrait shots? Check this out

Focus on All the Details

Editing the little things go a long way when it comes to editing black and white shots. Remember eliminating the colour often causes us to pay attention to other details. Seemingly minor edits make a big difference in the overall shot. If you’re editing a landscape and there’s just one tree that isn’t quite right, take the time to fix it. If in a portrait shot part of the face isn’t correctly exposed then spend some time getting the edit right.

There are a few good tools for making those little edits. The adjustment brush in Camera Raw and Lightroom. In Photoshop, the dodge and burn tools help to lighten and darken specific parts of the image. The clone and healing brush tool also helps with those little edits. Before you make each edit on photoshop, make a new new layer so you can easily see the changes and undo them if necessary.

Convert potentially ruined images

Sometimes when colour in the image is distracting in some way you may think the shit is ruined. Perhaps there is something in the background that’s brightly coloured and pulling attention away from the subject. Maybe the subject itself is a colour that isn’t appealing. This is a good time to do a black and white conversion.

If your image is overexposed or underexposed and you just cannot rescue the colour version in editing then again this may be a great time to convert. The over/under tones may even serve the image better in black and white.

Shooting Black and White Photography in Camera

You need 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 colour reveals so much about the composition and lighting of an image. It will highlight errors more and peoples focus can be pulled to certain subjects more. It is important to remember this and make sure that you are putting the focus of the shot on the right areas.

Elements that work well for black and white photography

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

Texture in Black and White Shots

Because you don’t have colour to distract the eye, or make an image more interesting, texture becomes really important with black and white photography. Stone walls sharp details are revealed, shadows become more prominent and shades on flowers show up more.

To increase the appearance of the texture it is best if the light comes in from the side or from behind to cast shadows. The contrast of shade and light will really bring out those textures and hidden details.

Think about shooting a long exposure. Remember that textures can be smooth aswell as rough. A flowing stream can appear really smooth in black and white especially if there are some sharp rocks in the frame to add some contrast.

Tone in Black and White Photography

Tone can highlight the subject matter and add to the feel of the photograph. A frame can all of a sudden have a spooky feel or fairytale like appearance by simply adding or taking away the light and dark tones.

For a dreamy feel, muted tones work well. So, shades of grey rather than the stark contrast of black and white. For a more dark and ethereal feel you should really focus on hard blacks.

Contrast in Monochrome Shots

Contrast can be similar to tone but in black and white it more refers to the quick change between light and dark. Between highlights and shadows. The shadows really are the pivotal part of a black and white shot as there is no colour to give us context.

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 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.

In landscape photography think about the 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. Choosing the best time of day to shoot can be very important.

black and white photography

Black and White Composition

Think about photography techniques you know. They can really make a black and white shot look powerful. Use leading lines and rule of thirds to frame your shot and make sure you are pushing the eyes to the main subject. Remember that you can use the contrast of light and dark as a leading line if you get it right.

Elements that Might not Work for Black and White Photography

We say ‘might’ because it is a matter of opinion. You may find you can produce some brilliant shots working with the below.

  1. Colorful subjects
  2. Cloudless skies

Colourful subjects

If the main part of the image is made better for having the colour in then it stands to reason that the shot should not be black and white.

Cloudless skies

Beautiful clear blue skies look great in colour. They remind us of holidays and feeling warm. However if you flick that blue sky to a plain white/grey sky you take away all the colour but add no drama. To make it worth changing to a black and white shot you really want some clouds in there to add more contrast to the image.

Having said that. There are exceptions. Just look at the below image.

If those clouds themselves start to become dramatic then the temptation to shoot in black and white gets even greater. A storm can really tear the sky open and fill it with cloud shapes. What a great opportunity to add some drama and highlight these clods more by framing the scene in black and white.

Purposely Over/Under Expose

As you can see from the image above there is a technique you can use to purposely add more contrast to your shots. Using ‘key’ photography means you can focus on the highlights or shadows of your images more. The image above has been shot in high key to blow out the sky and foreground. Removing all the details by over exposing your shot means that you can focus on the main subject more.

High Key

High key photography effectively removes shadows and tones. The aim is to add a bright feel to an image. You usually shoot the image 3-5 stops over the correct exposure so a lot more light is let in.

Low Key

Low key photography is the polar opposite. The image is shot 3-5 steps under the correct exposure to real focus on the dark elements of the image.

Both forms of shooting will likely require a bit of editing after but you can get some great and unique results. Particularly when you combine with black and white 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

Shoot in RAW

We always recommend shooting in RAW as we have mentioned above. There are so many reasons, but from a black and white photography point of view, a lot more information is stored in each image. This means that in editing you can really bring out those shadows or bring down those highlights. In short you have a lot more editing options. Who wouldn’t want that?

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.

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.

Filters

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. Simple.

Neutral density filter

Neutral density filters allow you to shoot longer exposures during the day daylight hours. The filters block a lot of light so you can really slow down that shutter speed. This is particularly useful if you want to create black and white silky smooth waterfalls or streams.

Conclusion

Like everything in photography it is practice, practice, practice. Do not be afraid to make mistakes. The best thing to do is make errors and learn why they have happened.

Black and white photography is all about contrasts and tones. Make sure the blacks are truly black and the whites truly white and you will be well on your way to producing some stunning images.

We hope this detailed guide helps you improve your black and white photography shots. This should be the only guide you ever need on the subject.

Don’t forget to check out our Facebook group. We run daily photography competitions!

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