(Last updated on June 29th, 2022)
The best black and white photography captures your attention. It tugs at your heartstrings. It can sometimes even take your breath away. Black and white photography often seems to have more soul than color pictures do.
Black and white photography involves far more than stripping away the color. Merely desaturating a color image does not produce strong black and white photos. The true skill lies in being able to ‘think’ and ‘see’ in black and white as you are taking photos.
In this article, I’ll cover what it takes to produce stunning black and white photos. You will learn about managing:
- Contrast and Shadows
- Shape and Line
Each of these elements works together to form images that can be more powerful and moving when they have no color in them. I also cover specifics on what it takes to make great digital black and white photos and why the process is important to learn.
Are you loading your first black and white film into a camera? Or do you want to use your digital camera to make black and white photographs? Either way, this article will help you to make better choices when creating images that contain no color.
- How To Get Started in Black and White Photography
- How to Make the Most Attractive Black and White Photographs
- Popular Genres of Black and White Photography
- Film or Digital: What are the Differences for Black and White?
- Frequently Asked Questions
How To Get Started in Black and White Photography
Taking the color out of a photograph using desaturation tools during editing makes it a black and white photo, technically. However, a photo that is only technically correct is lacking. As with any type of photography, starting with the intention to create wonderful images is key. Some aspects of black and white photography are the same as color photography and others must be managed differently.
When your purpose is to make black and white photographs the best way to proceed is to begin thinking and seeing in black and white. How can you do that? You may well ask! It might sound a bit crazy, because we always see in color, (unless our vision is impaired in some way or we’re in a special environment.) Using your imagination to perceive what you see in color as though it is black and white will make you a better creator of monochrome images.
Each color we see takes on its own gray tone when converted to black and white. As you look at colors and think in black and white you’ll come to understand the differences. How blue or red, yellow, or green appears in black and white all vary. Once you can see how colors render in black and white, you’ll compose your photos to make the most of these tone values.
You can see looking at the color wheel how each color looks when converted to black and white. The cooler colors, violet, blue, and green appear as darker tones. In grayscale, the warmer colors, red, orange, and yellow are lighter.
Practically converting colors to grayscale in photos you must consider the light and exposure. The shade or tint of a color, how light or dark it is, also affects the conversion to black and white.
You can use your digital camera to teach you to see in black and white.
Go into your camera’s menu and change the monitor and/or electronic viewfinder setting to Monochrome Live View. This may be listed by another name in your camera’s menu but will have the same function. Doing this means you’ll see a black and white rendering of what you point your camera at.
Looking at a monochrome image on your monitor or through your viewfinder shows you how colors in your composition appear as gray tones. This will help you get used to ‘seeing’ in black and white.
How to Make the Most Attractive Black and White Photographs
Most photographers appreciate it when people take an interest in their images. Learning what it takes to make someone stop and look at your black and white photos is different than with color photos. Tone, contrast, texture, and other aspects of a composition affect how attractive a black and white photo is.
Some of the most compelling black and white photography is just that. Black and white. With no other intermediate gray tones. Stark contrast in a photograph is very dramatic and often used to convey strong feeling.
Black and white photographers often strive for a smooth gradation of tone in their images. Capturing a full range of tones, from black and white, is a goal they like to meet. Capturing and processing photos that contain a full tonal range can create depth and character in photos.
Shapes and lines in grayscale photos play an important role, especially where they intersect with each other. Hard lines, hard light, bright blocks, and dark areas influence a composition. Images with these features are strong and commanding. Soft gradations of mid-gray-toned curved shapes create a more gentle alternative monochrome image.
Light and shadows along with your exposure choices dictate how a photograph looks in black and white.
Are you photographing in soft light or hard light? You can use either for good black and whites. Dark shadows and bright highlights force your decision on how to set your exposure. Often hard light your camera will not record good detail in both the brightest and darkest areas of a composition in a single exposure. You must choose to expose more for the shadow detail or the highlights.
Lighting and exposure in black and white photos also affect the appearance of texture. The careful use of the type of light and its location can heighten or diminish the look of texture in photos.
Managing all of these variables is most effective when you have a clear intent for the photos you take. Knowing what you want to achieve before you take your photos guides the choices you make about composition, tone, and lighting.
Soft light and smooth tones make for a more gentle, harmonious style of photograph. Hard light and high contrast black and white photos convey a much different feeling. The choices you make about composition, lighting, and exposure affect the mood of your black and white photos.
Popular Genres of Black and White Photography
You can take a black and white photo of any subject. Some of the more popular topics people like to photograph in black and white include:
- Street and Documentary
Street and Documentary Photography
In some respects, these types of images in black and white tend to force us to look more at what is really in the photo. Documenting a scene in black and white makes the subject matter more compelling. We see it and are forced to think about what we see differently.
These two genres of photography involve a detachment by the photographer from their subjects. There is often little or no interaction between them. By choosing to use black and white a photographer can present their street and documentary subjects in a more stark manner.
We are forced to think more about a black and white image because the color we expect to see is not there.
Portrait Photography in Black and White
From the beginning of portrait photography, black and white make for some of the most striking images of people.
A person’s face seen in monochrome often expresses more emotion than when they are in color. How light falls on a person’s face. How dark or bright the background appears. Strong contrast of soft tones. These all affect the mood of a portrait.
Use the most appropriate light to capture the tones you intend. This helps enhance the emotion a person expresses as you photograph them. Hard light and dark shadows can mean a melancholy portrait. Used differently and exposed to avoid dark shadows, the same lighting can convey a more joyful mood. Soft light and gentle tones are generally more flattering for portraits.
Black and White Landscapes
Taking the color out of a landscape means an image relies more on shapes, lines, and textures. Thinking in black and white as you line up your camera for a landscape photo can help you make better compositions, even if you take the photo in color.
Look at the lines in your composition. Where are they leading? What are the intersecting with? What are the most prominent shapes in the landscape? How does the tone of these shapes affect your composition? Does the sky have an interesting texture because of the clouds? Often a dramatic sky has more impact when photographed in black and white.
Film or Digital: What are the Differences for Black and White?
Loading a black and white film into your camera confines you to making only grayscale images until you load a color film. With digital cameras, you have so much more flexibility. You can photograph everything in color and convert it to black and white if you choose.
There are different types of black and white films. Each one has its own characteristics. Some render tones more smoothly than others. Higher ISO films display more grain than films with a lower ISO rating. The structure of grain is different between one type of black and white film and another. Each of these affects the look and feel of black and white photos made with film.
I spent many years photographing mainly with black and white film when I worked as a newspaper photographer. This taught me, among other things, to think and see my compositions in black and white. Even before I pressed the shutter button. Some photographers may consider loading a black and white film into a camera restrictive. I discovered that it help me develop as a photographer because I had fewer options.
As far as cameras used for black and white, you can use the same one you use for color. Whether you prefer to use film or digital, there’s no need to buy a special camera to create monochrome images. There is a small selection of digital cameras that only record in black and white, but these tend to be very expensive. There’s little difference in using such a camera and it’s more practical to use a regular camera for black and white and learn to post-process your images well.
The best option for saving digital images for black and white conversion is RAW. With RAW files you have all the information the camera records when you take the photo. Saving jpeg files the camera discards a certain amount of this information.
Editing in black and white is best when you have all the information of a RAW image because it allows for more flexibility. It means the photos are also of a higher quality.
Managing the conversion from a RAW file to a nicely toned black and white photograph requires study and practice. Don’t be tempted to simply desaturate your RAW files. This typically results in flat, dull-looking grayscale images. Spending some time learning to post-process your digital images in black and white will show you there are endless possibilities.
Working with software like Lightroom, Photoshop, or Affinity Photo, there are so many options for managing black and white conversion. You can do everything manually, but if you want to save time, any of these programs provides a selection of automated black and white conversion options.
Black and white photography is so much more than taking the color out of a picture. Learning to think and see in grayscale helps us to form more creative photos. Without color, tone and contrast have a more significant impact on how a picture looks. To manage the light and how you set your camera’s exposure shapes the mood of black and white images.
I hope you have found this introduction to black and white photography inspiring. If you are interested to see how the masters of photography use black and white, check out these photographers:
Frequently Asked Questions
Black and white photography is also often called monochrome photography. This type of photo uses tone and contrast to form an image. Monochrome photography can also include a single color, so still relies on tone and contrast to represent shapes and lines in the photo.Black and white photography is also called grayscale photography. Technically precise black and white photography features a full range of tones from white to black in an image.
Good black and white photography captures a viewer’s attention. It presents a subject using tone, contrast, texture, and other compositional techniques. There is no distraction created by color. The best black and white photographs also contain elements of emotion that viewers connect with.
A good understanding of how to use contrast and tone in compositions is one of the main techniques to master in black and white photography. Learning to think and see in black and white you can imagine how the relationships between shapes and lines interact.An appreciation for light and how to manage the camera’s exposure settings is another key technique for good black and white photography.
Composition rules generally apply the same to black and white as they do to color photography.
For many people, black and white photography can symbolize timelessness. Color photography did not become popular until the 1960s, so it’s easy to associate it with how life looked more than 50 years ago.
Black and white photography often symbolizes mood and emotion in pictures. This is especially so in portraits. Images of people seen in grayscale can convey more feeling often than color images do.
It can also be seen as being more artistic than color photography.
The mood in black and white photos is often perceived as more intense than in color photos. When you strip away the color from an image it takes on a more timeless look. We are used to seeing color everywhere. When we view a black and white photo, our brains are forced to subconsciously fill in the blanks left because color has been removed. We concentrate more on the story and emotion of an image without the distraction of color.
Kevin Landwer-Johan is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and author. He has been passionate about photography for as long as he can remember.
Kevin began his career in newspaper photography in the late 1980s and worked in editorial photography for many years. After this he interned with a commercial photographer, learning many new skills. From there he freelanced, covering many different genres of photography ever since.
He ran his own award-winning photography business before moving to Thailand in 2002. Since then Kevin has continued to work in photography and also moved into video production. For the first ten years of his life in Thailand, he focused on producing media content, both photos, and videos, for non-profit organizations. He funded these efforts primarily through the sale of his stock photography and videos. In more recent years Kevin has discovered a great enjoyment in teaching photography.
He also runs in-person workshops, develops online courses, writes, and creates videos about photography.