Learning to master black and white photography will lift your general photographic skills to another level. It is well worth the effort it takes to dig deeper into the genre of black and white photography than merely making a superficial and automatic conversion of color photos into black and white to see if they by chance look good.
This guide is about removing the layer of reality that we know as color and bringing forth other elements.
Black and white photography is where it all started since, at the beginning of photography, you couldn’t capture the world in colors. Masters of black and white photography like Ansel Adams, created amazing black and white landscape photos showing the potential of this genre to the rest of us.
In the presence of colors, our eyes trick our brain into putting less emphasis on other aspects of the image, and sometimes we barely notice them. However, when you remove colors from your images, you will shift attention, mood, and the reality perceived by the viewer, by letting the other elements be the guide of perception.
In this guide, I draw on my work within landscapes, macro, long exposure, nature, city, and urban photography, all within monochrome photography.
In my photographic work, you will not find any portraits, or many street photos featuring people and their mood or expression as a dominating characteristic. This guide focuses mostly on fundamental elements in black and white photography and how to make it stronger. All the techniques covered can with a little imagination, can be transferred to any kind of photography included people and street photography.
What is Monochrome Photography?
When people think of monochrome photos, most think of “black and white” images made up of gray tones ranging from the darkest black to the brightest white. However, monochrome refers to any ranges of shades within a single color from the darkest to the lightest tone version of that particular color.
For instance, we might think of a pure blue color (hue). Now mix that with white, and you get what is called a blue tint color on the color wheel. If you instead mix the blue with gray, you will get a blue tone color. If you combine the pure blue hue color with black, you will get what is called the shade color of blue. All these variants of the same color make up the range of tones that we call a blue monochrome color range.
Below, you will find an image that borders what many will consider as a monochrome image. I include it here to let you reflect on what you think counts as a monochromatic image.
I didn’t process this image to be monochromatic, as you can see on the railing and light from the door, but still, it comes close to being a naturally monochromatic image because of the colors present when I took it during the blue hour. The image mainly consists of blue shade, tone, tint and hues making it a monochromatic image.
Nik Collection by when owned by Google featured this image on their website, with this comment:
“This image caught our eye with its cool blue hues and simple composure, not to mention that this type of colorful image is a great twist on a monochromatic image. Do you ever feel that you are drawn to colors that match your mood? Does it affect your editing? Like maybe red or orange hues are great if you are feeling energetic and free, but something like these blues may appeal more when you’re feeling calm and content? Something to think about. Thank you +Peter Bredahl Dam, for inspiring us!”
Black and white photography only uses the gray monochromatic scale. In this guide, when I say black and white, I am referring to a gray tone. If I want you to think other ranges of shades of a particular color, I will be specific about it.
Enhance Your Black and White Vision
Expert photographers will say, again and again, that you should “learn to see in mono.” Don’t take this literary, because we will never be able to perceive without colors. However, you can learn to judge whether a subject will make a great black and white photo. Gradually your photographic vision develops so you can sort of experience or get a mental image in black and white of the final result, just by thinking about a place or a subject. But this comes from practical experience, and with a little knowledge of how subjects and colors convert into monochrome.
When starting out in black and white photography, some set their camera’s LCD screen to display photos in monochrome to aid them to see things in monochrome. Whether you want to use this technique is up to you. However, I would definitely recommend that you instead learn, play, and experiment with how colors convert into monochrome. It will give you excellent knowledge and understanding of the relationship between colors and black and white conversion.
Basic Camera Setting for Black and White Photography
File Format and White Balance
If you want to have the freedom of doing serious post-processing, there is no way beyond storing your images in-camera in the RAW file format. Not only does RAW contain more data than a JPG file format, but you can also do more dodging and burning, and other post-processing before RAW files begin to suffer visibly from the edit.
Furthermore, RAW-format also allows you to play more with the white balance, without it being set in stone when you take the photo. Let your camera automatically chose the white balance for you, unless you already have experience with how white balance works. Even if you choose the white balance manually, you have the freedom to be able to change the white balance in post-processing later if you shoot in RAW-format.
Converting to black and white will also introduce additional noise to your image, so RAW files store everything that your camera sensor can register. In a way, you can say that RAW files stores all the possible interpretations of light in a scene. By altering the white balance in post-processing, you change between the different interpretations. Adjusting the white balance can have a significant impact on the black and white conversion. The JPG file only stores the one white balance version used when capturing the photo.
By using the RAW file format and trying to keep your ISO low, you can shoot and use your camera as you normally would. Of course, you should take care not to underexpose or overexpose your images since this will also give you fewer data to work with when developing your image.
ISO for Digital Black and White Photography
Traditionally in the film days, many photographers preferred fast films with a little higher ISO because of the grainy aesthetic look they could achieve as a creative touch to their work. However, in digital photography pumping up the ISO will give you noise, which is not aesthetically pleasing.
Try to keep the ISO as low as possible. If you wish to have a grainy look as a creative retro touch to your black and white photos, apply it as a final step in post-processing.
What Makes a Great Black and White Photo?
What Will Replace Colors?
Colors are usually great at drawing our attention. But what happens when we get rid of the colors by converting a photo into black and white? The attention shifts, but to what? You need to have other attention-grabbing elements to guide the viewer to what you want to show in your photo.
You will never have just a black and white photo that is strong because it is black and white. Just like a color image is not great just because it is in color. Any great photo relies on multiple compositional elements. But the need for strong compositional elements becomes a bit more critical when capturing images with black and white in mind.
You can use lines to make your photos stronger in several ways. Often lines are used to enhance the perception of depth, having a convergence point far in the distance. At other times, lines ensure a connection between elements in your photo and create tension, calmness, or add a touch of elegance.
Leading lines are great for guiding the eyes from one part of a photo to another. They allow the viewer to get “pulled” into the scene and create depth in your image. An implied line, like for instance a series of stones, is often enough to guide the viewer to follow the line until its ending point, but the stronger or more clear the line is, the better. Fences, wires, roads, pavements, walls are generally great leading lines.
When you convert to black and white, all the distracting colors will disappear, which usually enhances the power of lines. However, this also depends on the amount of color contrast and how visible the line is in the grayscale version.
To make your image stronger, make sure that the lines lead towards an interesting subject placed either at the very end of the line or along its pathway.
In some cases, the lines are interesting enough in themselves, and here your job is to make your photo all about the lines, and nothing else, by simplifying the composition and eliminating everything else that could take away the attention from the lines.
If you place your camera near the ground, you will make leading lines stronger. Don’t be afraid to get a little dirt on you, to get the right shot, even though it means lying flat on the ground to get in the right position.
If you can get the leading line to enter the frame from a corner, it will help draw the attention from the edges of the image in towards your main subject and add some energy to the composition.
Lines and Mood
The way you position lines to run across the frame can have an impact on the emotion your photo triggers. Below I have outlined how different types of lines can have an emotional effect.
Horizontal and Vertical Lines
Horizontal lines bring about a feeling of lack of change or timelessness. Vertical lines often imply a sense of stability, when used in rock formations or buildings, while trees that make out for a dominating vertical line in your image can contribute to a feeling of peace.
Diagonal lines are better at conveying a sense of action than horizontal and vertical lines. They are also often better at getting our attention. Therefore, they are said to be more powerful, however, as with anything else it, when to use them depends on the context and the story you want to tell with your image. Furthermore, diagonals entering the top left corner and moving down towards the lower right corner are said to less energetic than lines starting from the bottom left and moving upwards towards the top right corner.
Uneven and irregular lines create a feeling of unease and tension. These lines can be powerful in reinforcing a sense of darkness, conflict or mysticism.
Curves bring a sense of grace and elegance an image. You can find curves almost anywhere in nature. Coastal lines often include broad curves, while branches of trees or grass or leaves create smaller curves that you can use in many creative ways.
Texture is great for adding a sense of atmosphere to a photo. When you can see the single strands of hair in a bull’s fur, it is almost like you can feel and touch it. Or when you can see the vein structure of a leaf or wetness of its surface. Because of the details, the viewer can easier get a feel of the place and your subject.
When you shoot an image where you want the texture to be visible, be aware of the time of day. Harsh midday light is not what you want in most cases, depending on how you angle your subject to the sun or your light source. If the sun or light source is positioned directly above or in front of your subject, all cracks will be lit, making the texture less visible.
The best time to capture texture is when you have light at a low angle, like when the sun is low in the sky, during the golden hour. When the light hits your texture from the side, it leaves small shadows from the irregularities and crevices, which enhance the perception of details or texture. Of course, you need the light to work for the rest of your image as well, if the texture is only one feature of your subject that you want to bring forward in this particular image.
Getting texture to be a prominent feature of your image is about, first of all, getting close enough, and secondly, finding an angle that lets you capture your subject, the environment, and the texture. By using a shallow depth of field, you put even more emphasis on the texture and the story it shows of old age or decay, or whatever characteristic the surface tells about your subject.
Color variation helps to make your subject fascinating, but within a grayscale range, the variety between gray tones is harder to discern for the eye and can make the subject look flat. When you remove color, you remove a layer of details from your subject, which can make it look dull and uninteresting. By emphasizing texture, you bring back otherwise unseen details to your photo.
Shape is the two-dimensional contour or silhouette of your subject. Lines connect closely with shapes since the edge of a shape is a line.
By contrasting an interesting subject against a well-lit background, you can let the subject be underexposed, and thereby the shape of your subject becomes prominent. However, for your subject to be interesting as a shape, you have to forget what the subject does and how it functions. Attempt to focus, just on the outer lines and contour of the object. Can it reveal an unusual aspect of your subject?
Think about how you position the subject before you press the trigger. Can you enhance the shape even further by moving the subject or finding another point of view?
An excellent way to capture shapes is to position the subject against a well-lit background and create a silhouette. Meter and expose for the background using the spot metering feature of your camera. Use your camera’s exposure lock (AE-L) button. By locking the exposure, you can recompose and autofocus on your subject while still getting a proper exposure of the background and letting your subject become underexposed, so it stands out as a silhouette. If your subject is too dark, you might have to set the focus manually.
When shooting silhouettes be sure to turn off features like Active D-Lighting (Nikon) or Auto Lighting Optimizer (Canon).
Form is the three-dimensional representation of your subject, like what we usually see. However, when you make it into an image with your camera, you present in a two-dimensional way. Add to this the fact that you remove the colors by converting your image to black and white. This conversion can make some parts of your image merge with each other because of the way colors are displayed in grayscale tone. To counteract this, you should work with separating the elements with the help of changing the point of view, depth of field, and creating depth to bring back the perception of three-dimensional forms in your images.
When you have a single subject like a flower, animal, or statue that you want to capture, you can separate it from the background by using a low depth-of-field. By just having the main subject in focus, you make it stand out and avoid the eye wandering off to other not so important parts of the image.
A shallow depth of field is quite helpful when you have no choice to change the point of view, but you also have a distracting background. With a blurred background, all attention will be on your main subject.
Depending on the quality of your lens and the light available, you might be able to add some beautiful circular bokeh to the blurred background. Using an aperture in the area of f/2, you will be able to create good separation between your main subject and the rest of the scene.
Remember that your distance to the subject determines how big a range will be in focus at any given aperture. This means that with an 80mm lens and an aperture at f/2.8 and your subject 10 meters away will provide you with a depth of field of approx. 1.8 meters (on a crop camera). If you move in closer to about 4 meters from the subject with the same settings, the area in focus will now be only 0.28 meters.
Whether you can successfully separate the subject from the background also depends on the distance between them. However, you cannot move a statue further away from the background. Instead, if you experience that the background is still not blurred enough for your taste even at f/2.8, one way to fix this is to get closer using the same settings, since this will also decrease the area in focus.
When you want the whole scene in focus, you can work with enhancing the perception of form and depth in your image by separating elements using different techniques.
You can do this by changing your point of view. For instance, make sure that a statue is adequately separated from the background for the statue’s form to appear clearer to the viewer. A step to the side might give another colored background to the statue.
Let your subject ‘break’ the horizon line by getting down low and shooting upwards towards it. This will give the statue a distinct shape and form of its own.
In landscape photography, separating layers, like sea stacks, from each other helps the viewer’s eye to navigate from one sea stack to the other. Otherwise, everything becomes one big mass, where the sea stacks hide behind each other, and you cannot see where one sea stack ends, and the next begins. This is especially true in black and white photography, where you only have the monochrome color range to work with.
When you are at the location, try to change your point of view to figure out where your subject’s form is most distinct and salient. Moving around gives you immense possibilities to work with enhancing both the perception of form and depth.
Changing focal length can also be used to improve the perception of depth. Wide-angle lenses stretch the perception of depth while a telelens will give you a more compact composition. This is of course not relevant only in black and white photography but helps in any type of photography.
Working with Contrast in Black and White Photography
When you capture a scene that you know you will want to convert to black and white, colors don’t matter, right?
Wrong! We still have to compose with colors in mind. This is because of color contrast and how they convert into grayscale tones.
Look for Dark and Bright Tones Instead of Colors
When capturing your subject, you can benefit from paying attention to the tonality of each color. If your scene only consists of bright colors tones, (like bright yellow, bright green bright red or bright blue), they will all convert into the brighter tones of gray, and you will get a photo without tonal contrast.
Likewise, darker colors will all translate into very similar gray darker tones. Instead, aim at including both bright and dark colors to get a significant amount of tonal contrast in the finished black and white image.
Besides considering dark and bright tones at the scene, you can also look at how the colors contrast each other. Take a glance at the color wheel converted to grayscale, using a standard conversion in Lightroom.
Analogous colors, which are next to each other on the color wheel, convert quite similarly without a significant amount of tonal contrast. If your scene were like this, your image would end up very uninspiring. Looking for complementary colors in your subject will help you achieve a better black and white photo as a result.
By mounting a color filter on your lens, you can control which colors convert into bright tones and which convert into dark tones, instead of being limited by the standard conversion. You can also apply a color filter effect in post-processing.
Color filters work by making one particular color convert into brighter tones and the complementary color convert into darker tones. For instance, with a photo of a yellow-orange boat on blue water (like below), you could apply a yellow filter to give the boat a brighter gray tone.
This also means that the blue water and sky will become dark. If you want the boat to have a dark tone, you should use the filter of the opposite color, a blue filter.
The bar below shows how different color filters affect the same image. Because yellow and blue colors are so dominant in this photo, I find that the most beautiful conversion comes from using a yellow filter, giving a bright-toned boat.
Knowing the color wheel and the complementary colors will, therefore, benefit you a great deal when creating black and white photos.
Framing and Cropping
You can significantly enhance your images by considering the frame and cropping used. With framing, I don’t mean the framing you add when you print and hang your photos on the wall. Instead, I mean the edges of your image. Look at the way lines enter and exits the frame and think about whether another framing of your subject will enhance it. If possible, recompose.
This is even more important when your image only has tonal values from bright to dark without any other colors drawing the attention. Without colors, bright highlights steal the attention, and if they dominate the edge of the frame, they allow the eyes to wander outside the frame.
Black and white images often signal elegance and simplicity. Using a proper crop that suits the image can enhance this further. Try to experiment with using different crops in your images. DLSR cameras create a 2:3 format image. Adding a 1:1 crop, making your image the same size on both sides instead can add a sense of elegance to your photo.
However, your framing should follow the content of your image. A photo with a cluttered composition and many things happening at the same time will not become elegant by using a 1:1 crop. If you know that you want to create an image using a specific crop like 1:1, or a panoramic format like 10:16 you should remember this when you compose the shot and perhaps include enough space around your subject to crop out later in post-processing.
Light in Black and White Photography
Learning to use natural light to your advantage will also help you create better black and white photos. To get unusual light in your photos, you will have to forget the safe holiday photo tip to have the sun behind you. It will undoubtedly result in flat looking images. Instead, you can create much more spectacular images by following some basic photography tips. When focusing on getting the best light, a low-angled light from the side or having a backlit subject is particular effective.
Don’t let ‘poor’ lighting stop you. Experiment on how to make use of any light available. Each type of light suits different kinds of photos. However, seeing harsh light’s positive qualities can be very challenging when you have your mind set for shooting in a softer light.
Making the best of the light available at the time you take out your camera will make you grow as a photographer. Strong, harsh shadows can turn out to be great if you use the lines and curves they create in your composition. Check out the work of Junichi Hakoyama for examples of how to use harsh shadows as strong elements in your black and white photography.
The most important thing to remember about light is that larger light sources give softer, more diffused light while more focused sources yield harsh, intense light.
In landscape photography, of course, all of our light comes from a single source: the sun. But a midday sun high in a blue sky is a relatively small focused source of light compared to the same sunlight diffused through a blanket of clouds.
The midday sun will give you washed out colors, harsh contrasts, and deep shadows, whereas the same scene on a slightly overcast day will look rich and warm. Similarly, the light is more diffused and, therefore, softer when the sun is low in the sky – around sunrise and sunset – than during the middle of the day.
Timing is Everything
Since outdoor photographers rely on capturing the best natural light for the effects we want to achieve, timing is crucial. You may have heard about the ‘golden’ and ‘blue’ hours.
The golden hours are the hours right after sunrise and just before sunset when the sun is low in the sky. They offer vibrant colors, interesting shadows, and soft lighting because the sunlight diffuses through the atmosphere. Because the atmosphere filters out much of the green and blue light at this time of day, colors look warm and gentle.
The blue hours occur before sunrise and after sunset when the sun is below the horizon, but residual light still brightens the sky. The light is diffuse and very soft. Because red light passes straight out of the atmosphere at this time of day, blues and purples are the predominant colors.
The golden and blue hours are often considered prime times for outdoor photography, and that also goes for black and white photography because of the gentle softness of the light, which contributes to the perception of depth in your images. However, that’s not to say they’re the only options. For example, there might be times that you want the dark shadows and sharp contrast of a harshly lit day.
Where To Find Great Black and White Photo Subject?
Black and White Flower Photography
We usually get attracted to flowers because of their colors. However, black and white photography is excellent at bringing forth the elegance and delicateness of flowers. A single flower on a black or white backdrop will allow one to appreciate the shape and form of a flower. Remember that the ‘unexpected’ perspective of photographing a flower from below or a low angle also works in black and white.
Portraits are one of the genres that are most popular for black and white photography. And for good reason. Often good black and white images of people include great use of soft light and letting the texture of the skin come forward.
Patterns are a repetition of shapes or forms that create a visually pleasing whole. You can find patterns on many different scales, from buildings or trees down to the repetitive pattern of seeds on a sunflower.
Patterns include variation in shapes, lines, and contrast, which is one of the reasons that they do well in black and white. When shooting a repetitive pattern, if possible, try to include an element that breaks the otherwise endless pattern, or show the end or edge of it. This can lift your shot to another level entirely.
Another way to go with patterns is to take a more abstract approach, which leaves the viewer guessing and wondering and therefore maintaining attention on the photo for longer than a more static pattern image. When you choose an abstract pattern, it is essential to consider a strong composition that makes the abstract pleasing to the eye, so you avoid falling into merely random shots.
Black and White Landscape Photography
To be successful in black and white landscape photography you need to practice one thing in particular. Separation. By ensuring that each component in your composition is separated you avoid the perception of elements ‘melting’ together.
You can achieve this by changing your point of view when you compose your image. If you haven’t been able to do this at the location, attempt to correct it in post-processing. It can be done by selectively change a color of an element before you convert it into black and white, or by dodging and burning to separate two components that have too similar grayscale values in your image.
Long Exposure Brings Magic to Black and White Photography
Long exposure photos can be a great addition to your black and white photography portfolio. It almost screams of being converted into a black and white photo. Of course, you can find great long exposure photos that look astonishing in color. However, black and white adds a level of elegance that goes very well together with the long exposure genre.
Condensing time as you do with long exposure photography, you already step away from reality and create an ethereal piece of work that seems exceptionally delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world. By converting a long exposure into a black and white photo, you enhance this feeling.
Often in long exposure photography, you will find very simple or almost minimalistic landscape compositions with great leading lines.
Architecture photography is all about lines, form, and shape. This is perfect for black and white photography. Eliminating color will enhance this as mentioned earlier. While many modern buildings emphasize straight lines or soft curves, they in most cases lack interesting texture, with the exterior of a building made mostly of glass or steel constructions. However, glass can create beautiful reflections that can work well in your composition. On the other hand, reflections can also create lines or highlights that distract the eye. In this case, use a polarizer filter to minimize the reflections.
Old buildings and statues are often more winding and tortuous resulting in more complex shapes. They also have more texture and beautiful weathered surfaces that can look fantastic in black and white.
In any case, a great trick is to contrast the building against the sky. It allows the shape to become more prominent and eliminate a lot of other elements in the environment that would otherwise clutter the composition.
Improving your skills in creating amazing black and white photography doesn’t need to be hard. With this extensive guide on which elements you can use in your black and white photos to make your images stronger, you should be well on your way to compose and capture monochromatic photos on a new level.