How to Improve Black and White Photography: 8 Useful Tips

Most of us take it for granted that we see the world in a full range of colors but, photographically speaking, this hasn’t always been the case. Prior to the invention of Kodachrome film in 1936, photographers had one way to share their photos of the world with us – in black and white. Since then one would logically expect the black and white genre to have declined in popularity but, even today, it remains a natural choice for many photographers, myself included.

If you’ve never tried black and white photography (or even if you have!) here are seven tips to help you improve your pictures.

1. Choose a shooting format

One of the hardest aspects of black and white photography is knowing what will work well as a monochrome image. We naturally see in color and not every scene will be appropriate. Of course, one of the joys of digital photography is the way you can experiment freely and the pictures you take cost nothing after you’ve made your initial investment in a camera.

One really good way to learn what does and doesn’t work is to use the built-in monochrome mode – most cameras have this option these days and it can really help you get a feel for how scenes look in black and white. When your camera is in this mode, all images on the LCD screen will appear in black and white so you have instant feedback about their success or failure.

Shooting in monochrome

So how does monochrome mode work? Every time you press the shutter button your camera collects all the data needed to create your image. In color mode, the camera then adds the necessary contrast, saturation and sharpening to make the picture pop and bakes all these ingredients together to create the final JPEG file.

When shooting in monochrome mode, the camera strips the color data from the file before creating the JPEG file, leaving a black and white image. This can work beautifully but sometimes it will leave you with a rather insipid image, lacking in contrast and bite. With many cameras, you can alter settings to add more contrast before the camera creates the final JPEG so it’s worth experimenting with this too. Do remember, if your picture is only saved in black and white in the camera you can’t go back and turn it into a color image.

If you’re in the habit of shooting in the RAW format it’s important to be aware that photos shot monochrome mode will almost certainly be saved as JPEG files. If like me, you prefer to have total creative control over your output, there is a solution – simply set your camera to shoot in RAW+JPEG. By doing this, the LCD will continue to display a monochrome JPEG image, but the RAW file will be saved alongside it in full color. This means you can make an informed choice later as to whether you wish to keep the black and white version.

So what happens once you’ve completed your shoot in monochrome mode? Well, if you’re happy with the black and white JPEG output from your camera that’s great – you’re done! Alternatively, if you feel the pictures are too bland, you can always import them onto your computer and add a little contrast in your favorite photo editing software. Just remember you’re dealing with a JPEG file though, so if you do too much work it can degrade the quality of the image.

A photo showing two black and white photos of a church interior. One edited with in camera and the other with Nik's Silver Effect pro
A comparison of different black and white conversion tools. The picture on the left is straight out of the camera, shot using the in-camera monochrome setting. However, the right-hand picture was converted in Nik Silver Efex Pro and the end result has much more impact and contrast. Photos by Helen Hooker

Shooting in color

In my opinion, a better option is to shoot everything in color and use photo editing software to convert your picture to monochrome later. This gives you total control over the amount of contrast in the image and the overall look is up to you. Remember, if you’re new to black and white you can still set your camera to RAW+JPEG and monochrome mode. This way you get the benefit of seeing your pictures in black and white immediately while still having the flexibility of a RAW file to work with later.

2. Post processing black and white images

All the major photo processing programs offer ways to convert color pictures to black and white and you have as much control over the end result as a film photographer would have in the traditional dark room. In particular, you have control over the intensity of individual color tones in the image – this can make a huge difference to the final result. For instance, you could deepen the blue tones in a landscape image to darken the sky and really make the fluffy white clouds pop.

I often convert my images in Lightroom but my favorite conversion tool is a plug-in called Silver Efex Pro, part of Google’s Nik collection of tools. This plugin, which can be used in conjunction with most of the common photo editing programs, gives you total control over contrast, exposure, manipulation of color tones, simulation of film types and much more. Even better, it’s completely free!

An image of a beautiful landscape post processed with sepia tones using Nik SilverEfex Pro
I converted this misty shot into sepia tones using Nik SilverEfex Pro. Photo by Helen Hooker

Shooting on film

In this article, I’ve assumed most people will be shooting digitally but there’s no reason why you can’t pop a roll of black and white film into an old analog camera and shoot with that. I’ve done exactly this with my old Ricoh rangefinder camera and have found it a good discipline. Shooting with film makes you aware of the cost of every picture and you have to consider each frame carefully before opening the shutter. If you fancy trying this but don’t have a film camera it doesn’t need to cost the earth – old cameras can be picked up cheaply on eBay or from charity shops, so why not have a go?!

3. Simplify and refine

One of the most notable qualities of black and white photography is its ability to simplify a scene. What might have been a colorful distraction in the background – the pesky person in a red coat who walks into your shot, for instance – becomes much less intrusive when the color is removed. Keep this in mind as you may find you are able to shoot scenes you would have rejected in color.

Try looking for structure too when you’re out shooting in black and white. In architectural subjects seek out lines and patterns–the removal of color boils the image down to its simplest elements and a city scene can become a dramatic study in structure and form. Why not see if you can create an abstract image from the patterns you see in a cityscape?

A black and white photo of London's Barbican Centre highlighting the architectural lines
A black and white conversion really draws attention to the architectural lines in this photo of London’s Barbican Centre. Photo by Helen Hooker.

4. Seek out light and contrast

It’s easy to assume that a dull, overcast day would be an ideal candidate for the black and white treatment – after all, sometimes dreary weather seems to naturally sap all color from the world in any case. However, scenes like this can simply end up looking very gray and dull.

A better approach is to look for light and contrast. A scene that might seem too contrasty and garish in color can be perfect for black and white. Remember, a black and white image is simply a collection of gray tones, from the very brightest (pure white) to the darkest (pure black). If all these tones are bunched up in the middle it can make for a very flat picture. However, an image containing a wider range of tones can be much more dynamic. When you’re shooting with black and white in mind, look out for contrasts in light and shade and notice how much more drama this can add to your photos.

A photo of pedestrians walking with strong backlighting. Shadows add drama to black and white photography
The low sunshine in this shot creates long shadows and adds drama. Photo by Helen Hooker

5. Look for textures

I know I’m not alone in finding textures interesting and I often find myself shooting what must appear very odd subjects to the rest of the population at large – perhaps a lovely piece of peeling paint or rusty metal. These textures can become even more interesting in black and white so do keep your eyes open to textural possibilities. This is where light can be important too. An interesting texture that’s lit straight on can become a very dull photo. However, add some raking sidelight and it can be a totally different matter.

A monochrome treated photo of a feather showing great details
The monochrome treatment has really brought out the delicate textures in this feather. Photo by Helen Hooker

As photographers, e know the golden hour (the hour just after dawn and before sunset) is one of the best time to take photos. In a landscape setting, this is often down to the colors created. However, the light’s sculptural qualities, as it hits the land at a more acute angle, can be a great way to create texture too. Of course, if you’re using artificial light, be it lamps or flashes, you can create this type of light at any time of day by carefully positioning the lights in relation to your subject!

6. Find your inner journalist

Black and white photography has long been the go-to medium for journalists. Of course, historically this was because it was the only medium available. Even when color film became popular newspapers were still printed in black and white so monochrome imagery continued to be the documentary photographer’s standard output medium until relatively recently.

Why not find your inner journalist and set yourself a project to document a scene or an event in black and white? Black and white has always been popular for street photography – indeed, it’s my first choice when taking candid shots of people. You don’t need to find a newsworthy event to take on this challenge – you could go for something as simple as documenting the people and places of your hometown. Look for strong subjects – be that interesting characters or settings with dramatic lighting – and see how black and white can remove distractions and simplify the scene.

A black and white photo depicts the chaos of tourists on the River Cam in Cambridge
This scene depicts the chaos of tourists on the River Cam in Cambridge. The use of black and white creates a documentary feel. Photo by Helen Hooker

7. Don’t overlook unlikely subjects

While black and white photography is commonly associated with certain subjects, don’t forget to try other genres too. For instance, when photographing a beautiful landscape at sunset you were possibly drawn to the scene because of the golden hues. It may be the quality of light is beautiful too so you might find it also works well in black and white. This may seem counterintuitive but the quality of light is important in any image, be it color or black and white.

Likewise, natural subjects, such as flowers and wildlife are often overlooked. However, it could be that a simple monochrome treatment can enhance the light or structure of an already beautiful subject.

Black and white photograph of a lion backlighted by natural light to expose great details.
The golden side-light on this lion’s mane and enhances the texture and brings out every hair. Photo by Helen Hooker

8. Learn from others

With the internet at our disposal, it’s easier than ever to explore the work of others. Studying pictures taken by the very best photographers is a good way to learn what style of monochrome photography appeals to you most. Here are just a few of my favorite black and white photographers to get you started.

Ansel Adams – arguably the most iconic landscape photographer of them all. He was a master printer too and I would urge you to grasp any opportunity you are offered to see prints of his work in person. I recently saw a print of his Moonrise Hernandez New Mexico for the first time and I was amazed at its luminous quality.

 

Edward Weston was a genius at maximizing the gorgeous tonal qualities of black and white. His specialisms include nudes but also the most amazing still life images of vegetables. Vegetables may seem unlikely subjects but his ability to make exquisite images of these mundane items is unrivaled in my opinion.

Don McCullin is one of the famous photojournalists of the modern age. His documentary images are known the world over and he has continued to photograph in war zones well into his seventies. In recent years he has been exploring landscape photography more, finding beauty away from the torment of war.

Sebastião Salgado photographs everything from documentary work, to wildlife and landscapes. His images are simply breathtaking and his use of tonality brings beauty to the most apocalyptic of scenes.

Vivian Maier was a Chicago nanny whose photographic work was only discovered after her death in 2009. She spent decades photographing the people and places where she lived and worked, taking over 150,000 pictures. For me, her use of light (along with her ability to get close to people) makes her one of the street photographers I admire the most.

Now it’s your turn…

If you’ve never tried black and white photography before, what are you waiting for? My challenge to you is to go out and shoot for a whole day in black and white, either using the monochrome mode on your camera or with the intention of converting your images when you get home to your computer. Either way, try to learn which scenes work best – that way you may see the potential for further black and white images when you’re out and about in the future.

Please do share your results, either here in the comments section or over on Photoblog.com – I can’t wait to see your pictures!

8 tips for Improving Black and White PhotoGraphy

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About the author

Helen Hooker

Helen Hooker is a musician and photographer based in the UK. Helen has been photoblogging every single day since November 2008 and has a particular passion for architectural and wildlife photography.

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