How to Compose Brilliant Black and White Photos

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How to Compose Brilliant Black and White Photos

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Composition in black and white photography

Brilliant black and white photos are created in two steps. The second of these is post-processing, and is very important. But before you get to that stage, you have to learn how to see and compose photos in black and white. This is just as important as processing – it doesn’t matter how creative or clever you are in Lightroom or Photoshop, if the image is badly composed, or the subject just isn’t suitable for black and white, then you are going to struggle to make a half-way decent monochrome conversion, let alone a great one.

I thought it would be interesting for you to look at some of my favourite black and white photos and learn why they work in terms of composition.

Wooden boats – Puerto Aysen, Chile

Composition in black and white photography

Puerto Aysen is a small port town in south-west Chile. The weather is often cold and miserable, even in summer. It rains a lot. I was wandering around the outskirts of the town when I came across these old wooden boats. Initially I was attracted to the atmosphere of the scene – there was a soft rain, and in the original uncropped photo you can see the hills on the horizon fading through the drizzle. The scene worked in colour (see below), but in the post-processing stage I also realized that it would come out beautifully in monochrome.

Composition in black and white photography

The reasons the image works well in black and white are:

  • Tonal contrast: The boats are painted light tones and the background is mainly comprised of dark tones. The eye is naturally pulled to the largest boat in the scene which becomes the focal point of the photo.
  • Texture: The weathered surfaces of the boats and the grass are beautiful textures which tend to be more effective in black and white than colour. This image wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if the boats were brand new.
  • Lines: The position of the boats in the scene creates two diagonal lines. The first moves from the bottom left through to the top right, and the second line, formed by the rowboat, creates a second diagonal line that meets the first. Diagonal lines pull the viewer’s eye through the photo and help add a sense of movement to the composition.
  • Panoramic crop: I decided the hills in the distance were a distraction and cropped the photo to concentrate attention on the boats. This took place in post-processing and strengthened the composition by focusing attention on the boats.

Chairman Mao watch – Shanghai, China

Composition in black and white photography

I went to Dongtai Road antiques market in Shanghai, an open-air street market comprised of stalls and shops where you can buy a variety of genuine and fake antiques, plus kitsch ornaments and souvenirs. I found the watch that this vendor was offering quite amusing. I didn’t want to buy the watch, but I asked if I could take a photo. The answer was yes.

Why the image works in black and white:

  • Strong use of shape: The watch face is a circle. It is placed in the centre of the composition and dominates it.
  • Lots of texture. The textures of the watch and the vendor’s hand are very strong.
  • Strong diagonal lines. The vendor’s fingers create lines that pull the viewer’s eye up from the bottom of the frame. I deliberately framed the photo so the fingers ran at an angle across the frame rather than parallel with the edges. This creates a more dynamic composition.
  • Simple composition. I moved in close to create a simple composition that emphasized shape, line and texture, the dominant elements of the photo. Another benefit of moving in close and using a wide aperture was that the background went out of focus, eliminating potential distractions.

John – Wellington, New Zealand

Composition in black and white photography

I got in contact with John via Model Mayhem and we arranged a portrait shoot. The setup was simple – I used an 85mm lens (with a full-frame camera) and a wide aperture of f/2.8 to blur the background. The portrait is lit by natural light – John stood underneath an archway so the light fell from his left (camera right).

Men can be great subjects for black and white portraits because there is no pressure to retouch skin. Black and white emphasizes texture – the texture of skin can be a beautiful thing that doesn’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) need retouching as often as some people think it does.

Why this photo works in black and white:

  • Strong eye contact. The strength of this portrait is in the eye contact. John is gazing directly at the camera which creates a powerful connection with the viewer. His face is level with the camera so I could use a wide aperture to defocus the background, while keeping both eyes in sharp focus.
  • Texture. The texture of John’s skin, especially in the sharpest areas around his eyes, renders beautifully in black and white. The background is out of focus and lacks texture, and this sets up a contrast between the sharp areas of the model’s face and the heavily blurred background.
  • Tonal contrast. The model’s face is a lighter tone than the background. Light tones pull the eye, and the tonal contrast here (combined with the strong eye contact) establishes the model’s face as the focal point of the composition. The side lighting effect, created by asking the model to stand in an archway, means that one side of his face is lighter than the other. This creates depth, by revealing the shape of this face.

Common themes

Analyzing these photos is a simple exercise but it brings up several elements that work well in most black and white photos – texture, line, shape, tonal contrast, and simple composition. When you find a subject where these elements come together, you know you have the potential for a great black and white photo.

What do you think is important for a brilliant black and white photo? Please let us know in the comments. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think.

Editor’s Note: We recently ran a series of articles this week featuring black and white photography tips. Look for more on this topic below.


Mastering Composition ebookMastering Composition

My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images.

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.

  • Jeff

    Hi

    These are my favourite articles. This is how I think photography should be taught.
    We too often read articles on shutter speeds and apertures but not a lot of articles on how and why a photograph was taken.

    Please make these posts more often, you guys did a great job in this one!!
    Any recommendations on similar posts or maybe books?

  • “Men can be great subjects for black and white portraits because there is no pressure to retouch skin.” Amen to that! Unfortunately, my favorite model of 34 years is a woman…
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/tankhimo/18775131793

  • Joshua Clarke

    Dark Hedges

  • Haytham Mohamed Aljaili

    I took the picture at the sunset.the colors are not so bright.so I prefered black and white .

  • Egg MacGuffin
  • Annie Metcalfe

    One of the many bridges over the River Liffey in Dublin, on a typically rainy, grey Irish day. In colour, it was really dull and obviously grey, so works much better in B&W

  • Redwing

    one from this weekend, no studio lights just flashgun. Quite happy with the results.

  • Leah Overman

    Central Park players.

  • Ed Younan

    Balloons play with texture. Light & shadows, tones and DOF and are best expressed in monotone.

  • An image of my granddaughters tiny, new born feet. Lint included!

  • Martin Williamson

    Fabulous street musician in Toraquay 2015 – made his own electric guitar from an old cigar box!

  • Guillermo Rosas

    The mood for this photo works better in B&W

  • Guillermo Rosas
  • Guillermo Rosas
  • Brenda E Phillips

    taken at the demolition derby.

  • Tony de Latour

    Selfie in my gym tent.

  • ohneefie484

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  • Manisha Agrawal

    This was taken while the sweeper was sweeping the playground making the atmosphere dusty and a young girl refused to get out of the swing

  • Thanks Jeff, this is the type of article I like to write so hopefully we’ll be able to publish some more in the future.

  • Thanks for sharing your photos everybody, there are some great images in there.

  • George Hossack

    Wildebeest looking like siamese twins

  • Dave

    Looking at B&W photos on a monitor compared to seeing a good print is like comparing Reddi-wip to home made whip cream. What’s the point?

  • Susan R Nelson

    Trying for a ‘Noir’ look.

  • Jaffer Bhimji

    Portrait of Salgado in London in monochrome it looks ten times better.

  • Lee Sowers

    I call this “Moody Teen” but really he’s always eager to pose for me. 🙂

  • jilljsandoval

    JOBs AT  HOME SPECIAL REPORT………After earning an average of 19952 Dollars monthly,I’m finally getting 98 Dollars an hour,just working 4-5 hours daily online….It’s time to take some action and you can join it too.It is simple,dedicated and easy way to get rich.Three weeks from now you will wishyou have started today – I promise!….HERE I STARTED-TAKE A LOOK AT….ytrw…

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    JOBs AT  HOME SPECIAL REPORT………After earning an average of 19952 Dollars monthly,I’m finally getting 98 Dollars an hour,just working 4-5 hours daily online….It’s time to take some action and you can join it too.It is simple,dedicated and easy way to get rich.Three weeks from now you will wishyou have started today – I promise!….HERE I STARTED-TAKE A LOOK AT….aws….

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  • Adedotun Ajibade

    Inspired by ‘5 Simple Ways to Create Expressive Photos in Black and White’, Here’s my most recent BW photo… https://www.flickr.com/photos/dotun55/20435876834

  • Tim Lowe

    One of the few things that is good about being relatively color blind. 😉

  • Christine

    An old-time steam shovel on display at Steep Rock, Manitoba, Canada.

  • TR Young

    One of my favorite B&W portraits that I’ve done.

  • Andrew Kliss

    San Diego Zoo, California. This young male gorilla was a very willing model, staring into the lens and keeping his composure long enough to fire off half a dozen photos.

  • Geoff Naylor

    Thanks for the article Andrew. I really like the Mao watch photo.
    A lot of what makes a good monotone photo – for me at least – is instinctive. Plenty of contrast is useful, and not having too many fixed criteria helps; often it’s the image that shouldn’t-work-but-does-somehow that’s most satisfying.
    Personally I’m keen on pictures that take some deciphering as well…

  • PSW

    Self portrait shot with timer in early morning natural light with my trusted nifty fifty

  • Alienor Llona

    Originally I shot this in colour, but the light was dull and I was about to bin it when I tried turning it into bw, the cloudy sky came to life and makes the picture.

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