A Beginner’s Guide to Doing Black and White Photography

NEW to dPS: 101 Landscape Lightroom Presets Pack

Buy Now

101 Landscape Lightroom Presets Pack

A Beginner’s Guide to Doing Black and White Photography

0Comments

If you’ve never tried black and white photography before, you may be wondering what the appeal is. After all, isn’t it a little like black and white television or silent movies – an anachronism in our modern, high-tech age?

Black and white photography

The answer is no, definitely not. In the photography world, black and white is considered an art form. Some would even say only the best photographers work in monochrome. It’s a medium with a rich history, (look at the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston or Henri Cartier-Bresson for examples) and a bright future.

Just as importantly, working in black and white can help you become a better photographer. How? It’s all to do with composition.

Colour is very powerful, and tends to dominate the photo so much that it’s difficult to see other elements like tonal contrast, texture, shape, form and quality of light. Experienced photographers instinctively see these things, regardless of whether they work predominantly in colour or black and white. But if you’re just starting out, you may need some assistance to do so, and working in black and white photography will help you.

Black and white photography

Black and white emphasizes the textures of the rocks and sea in this landscape photo.

Naturally, there are certain subjects that tend to work better than others in black and white; two in particular are landscapes and portraits. If this is your first time shooting in black and white, then these are great subjects to try out.

Black and white photography

Black and white portraits emphasize expression and quality of light.

Black and white on your camera

Before digital photography the only way to work in black and white was to use black and white film. Thankfully, now it’s much easier to work in black and white, just by switching your camera to Monochrome Mode (check your camera’s manual if you are unsure how to do so, look for Picture Styles settings).

Cameras with electronic viewfinders automatically display the image in black and white, helping you see how the image will look, before you press the shutter. If you have a digital SLR you will get the same effect in Live View. This may be useful if you are working with your camera on a tripod (for instance, taking a landscape photo).

Usually at this point I advise you to use the Raw format. In the long run it’s easier than using JPEG, and gives you better image quality. But I appreciate that if you’re new to photography you may still be working exclusively in JPEG. The rest of this article works on this basis.

Working in Monochrome Mode

Once in monochrome mode you will see some extra options. They help you set your camera up to produce the best results. Again, check your manual if you are not sure where to find them.

Colour filters

The colour filter settings are left over from the days of film photography. Photographers would buy coloured filters, and use them to alter the tones in black and white photos. For example, if your scene includes a blue sky, then using a yellow filter will make the sky a little darker, an orange filter makes it even darker, and a red filter darker still.

Black and white photography

This scene works quite well in black and white, but it’s not nearly as dramatic as it could be.

Black and white photography

Applying the Red filter setting makes the blue sky go much darker, creating a much more dramatic version of the same scene.

There is also a place for green filters, which can bring out more detail in green subjects like leafy forests. Those four coloured filters (red, orange, yellow and green) have made their way onto most digital cameras as black and white settings.

Contrast

If you take a photo in flat light (for example, a portrait of somebody standing in the shade) the photo may look flat (two dimensional). So, you need to compensate by increasing the contrast. You can either do this in Photoshop or Lightroom after the photo has been taken, or you can do it in-camera with the contrast setting.

Black and white photography

The model was standing in the shade when I took this photo. The light lacks contrast, and the black and white photo is flat.

Black and white photography

Increasing contrast creates a much stronger image.

Cropping and the square format

Most modern cameras let you change the aspect ratio. The reasons why you might want to do that are a little complex, but the main one is that it lets you shoot in the square format, something you may already be used to if you use an app like Instagram on your smartphone. If your camera has an electronic viewfinder, it will display a square image for you, making composition much easier.

Black and white photography

Cropping to the square format emphasizes the shapes of the three pots.

Toning

Finally, you may have the option to tone your images. To be honest, unless your camera lets you apply toning affects subtly, I wouldn’t bother with these, as the effect is usually too strong.

Have fun!

Black and white is a beautiful medium to work in, one which you will appreciate the more you practice. In the meantime – have fun and enjoy yourself. You are following a path trodden by some of the most famous names in photography. And of course, if you have any questions about working in black and white, please let us know in the comments.


Masterlng Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White by Andrew S Gibson

Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White

My ebook Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White goes into the topic of black and white in depth. It explains everything you need to know to make dramatic and beautiful monochrome conversions in Lightroom, including how to use the most popular black and white plug-ins. Click the link to visit my website and learn more.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • Spoonie

    Just out of interest why have you combined cropping with your post on B/W?

  • Because some readers may want to know how to shoot square format black and white photos.

  • Dixit Chouhan

    Is it good or bad? I just try the black and whote photography after reading this post.

  • Geoff Naylor

    Yes, that’s what I noticed Spoonie. Is cropping more relevant to b&w? I understand that cropping in colour and monochrome – even the same image – could lead to a different result, but is it more important to one method than the other?
    Many thanks for the tips Andrew.

  • Tim Lowe

    As a large and medium format photographer, I shoot mostly b/w. Digital monochrome is a pretty pale substitute for film. Digital sensors still lack the dynamic range of film and desaturating color files doesn’t fix that. Your article offers good suggestions for getting to “see” b/w. But if someone gets really interested, it’s very cheap and easy to get into 35mm film photography. Cameras are plentiful and cheap. If you choose wisely, you can stick with your DSLR lenses. A dark bag, tank and chemicals are cheap and easy to come by. And developing film adds more creative control over the final image. (It’s so easy, even a photographer can do it!) Beware though. You can easily become hooked and then your cameras keep getting bigger and bigger. 😉

  • NJP

    I am not a film hater. When I grew up we had a mini darkroom in the basement and that’s where I fell in love with photography. BUT, most film has about 13 stops of range while today’s new digital cameras have the same or more. The D810 is almost 15 stops. And there is no way that developing film adds more creative control. There is nothing you can do in a darkroom that can’t be done faster in Lightroom and/or Photoshop and there are millions of things software can do that film can’t. Again, not knocking film, it has its place as a form of art, but dynamic range and creative control are not among its selling points over film.

  • Tim Lowe

    I’m not a digital hater. I have a D800. (The world’s most expensive spot meter. 😉 But, it’s just not true that digital sensors have the same dynamic range as film. Particularly large format film. (The film isn’t any different but the real estate reveals more detail.) Digital sensors go to hell around zone 4 and blow out before zone 8. What passes for detail is mostly noise. This is why people pay thousands of $’s for D(single digit) cameras and whatever the Canon equivalent is these days. They have a great dynamic range and are particularly good (noise free) at high ISO. But this is why HDR was first created. And if it’s done correctly, avoiding the cartoonish look, it can be quite effective.

    It’s an artistic preference for sure, but messing with digital files in software just leaves me cold.

    All of the above references b/w film. C41 has far less latitude and E6, while just beautiful, has a very small dynamic range.

  • Scott Hamill

    My favorite split toning for B&W portraits is Highlights Hue at 34 Saturation 4 and Shadows Hue at 40 and Saturation at 4. It’s just a subtle effect that you don’t realize is there unless you take it away. Just gives a little life to the portrait.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Andrew
    I agree with many of your points, and as a former darkroom amateur I cannot emphasise too strongly the joy of creating black and white images. However, you say that “it’s all to do with composition.” I disagree – it is more about tonal balance producing a more intense impact for the main story elements of the image by highlighting textures and forms. The picture of the wood-turner is well composed, and would also have been the same composition if it was in colour. What B&W does is to emphasise the texture of the wood shavings, and the wrinkles in the carver’s hand, which tells the story of what is being done; any irrelevancies such as the colour of the tool’s handle are eliminated. BTW that’s a great photo of Taputeranga Island!

  • Hi Bob, that’s a good point, I always tend to think of elements like emphasising texture and tonal balance as part of composition, but there’s more to it than that. Glad you like the photo of Taputeranga Island. I liked to take photos of it on a calm sunny day when we lived nearby.

  • Good tip. Toning is better done in post-processing than in-camera because you can make it much more subtle.

  • Were you trying to post a photo for us to see? It hasn’t appeared if that’s what you were trying to do.

  • For what it’s worth, I’ve never quite understood the film vs. digital debate. The basics of photography (light, composition, an interesting subject etc.) are the same regardless of which you use. There are photographers producing beautiful, high quality work with both. It’s just personal choice, nothing more. Some people prefer film, others digital.

  • Dixit Chouhan

    Yes I was trying to post a photo.

  • You’ll have to try it again if you’d like us to see it.

  • James Patrick Sandiego

    I like to use B&W to rescue shots with too much noise, due to improper exposure or if you needed to shoot at an ISO that is too high on the go.
    Then increase clarity and the contrast in Lr to give an intentional grain look.
    However, if you shoot in staged sessions like the one above you would likely have a tripod an no noise sooo…please disregard this comment.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!


DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed