Tips for Shooting and Processing Better Black and White Photographs
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Tips for Shooting and Processing Better Black and White Photographs

Photography, as you know, is fundamentally the capturing of light; you are not taking pictures of objects as much as you are recording the light that is bouncing off of them. In the early days of photography, the only medium available to capture this light was monochromatic film, commonly known as black and white. In the 1930s, the invention of Kodachrome, the first successfully mass-produced color film, ushered in an age of color to the art form.

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Instead of fading away, however, black and white photography remained throughout the birth of color, and even increased in popularity in the following decades, due to its simplicity and ability to display tones more dramatically than color usually can.

What makes black and white photography retain its timelessness? A compelling picture is always based on the same fundamentals; lighting, tonal range, shapes, patterns and textures. A black and white photo breaks these fundamentals down to their basics, and is not hindered by the distraction and complexity that color can sometimes contribute. It is truly an art form. The reality of a scene depicted in color is transformed into an artistic interpretation when shown in shades of grey.

So what do you need to understand in order to produce a great monochrome photo?

Visualize in Black and White

One of the most helpful things you can do is something that takes place before you even click the shutter button. Training yourself to envision a scene in black and white will help determine if it will work in that state, or if it would be better left to color. Since you won’t have color in the final shot, you’ll need to visualize the core of the scene instead:

  • How is the light behaving on the objects in the scene?
  • What forms are involved?
  • Are there lights, darks, and shades in between, giving you a good tonal range?

Scenes that contain contrast and texture will usually provide a good end result when converted to black and white. Fortunately, you can apply monochrome to almost any type of photography, including landscape, portrait, and street photography. The resulting feel of the image depends on the subject; landscape shots of the ocean will have more highlighted textures of the waves, and street portraits done in black and white can have a grittier, more dramatic feel.

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Taking the Shot

Many of the basic principles of photography apply when shooting for black and white as well. You’ll need to compose the scene properly, utilizing the rule of thirds where applicable, and properly expose the shot. As always, you’ll want to shoot in RAW, so that any necessary adjustments can be made such as exposure and levels before you begin post-processing.

When composing, pay special attention to the lines and shapes in the image. These components are even more important when the photo is desaturated.

Finally, you may benefit from using a polarizing filter. This lens attachment will reduce, or remove, reflections that may be apparent in water or other shiny surfaces. Since these reflections could take away focus from your subject matter, it’s best to do this during the shooting process rather than post-production.

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Post-production

The most important step in this process is actually converting the shot into black and white. While almost all DSLRs have the ability to shoot in black and white initially, you’re losing an important advantage; the photo will permanently be monochrome. Photographers sometimes think that a poor image can somehow be “saved” by being converted into black and white; this is not always the case. If you shoot in JPG format and the black and white (monochrome) setting on your camera, you’ll be producing a black and white JPG image, and lose the ability to convert to color or take advantage of RAW adjustments. BUT if you shoot in RAW in this mode you will still have all the colour data but have the advantage of seeing a black and white preview on the camera screen.

Black and white conversions in an image editor such as Photoshop can usually be categorized in two ways; destructive, and non-destructive. Obviously, destructive methods actually modify pixels and cannot be easily adjusted. Converting directly to greyscale is a long-used example of this method. Preferably, you want to use a non-destructive method that will allow you to make continued adjustments to the image until you have the tone and shading desired.

The easiest method (and the one that I prefer) is to use the Hue/Saturation/Luminosity tab in the RAW importer in Photoshop (the HSL panel in Lightroom also does the same thing). Alternatively, you can accomplish the same thing (albeit with a bit less control) by using a Channel Mixer adjustment layer after you’ve imported the RAW file into Photoshop.

Converting to Black and White with the RAW HSL Controls

Not only does this method offer more control than simply desaturating the image, it keeps the color profile loaded into the RAW (.CR2) file, allowing you to reopen and adjust it as you see fit. To convert using this method follow these steps:

  • Select the RAW file you wish to convert and open it. The file will open within Adobe’s RAW import dialog.

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  • Click the HSL/Greyscale tab on the right side of the dialog box (this should be the 4th tab).

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  • Tick the “Convert to Greyscale” box.

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  • You will be presented with eight color sliders. Adjust these sliders individually (ensure the “Preview” checkbox is ticked near the top) to see real-time changes in those color channels, and how those changes impact your desaturated image. With a color image, moving the “yellow” slider would modify the yellow in your image, but here, it will make the portions of the image that were yellow change in shading, either lighter or darker depending on which direction the slider is moved.

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That’s it, you’re all done. Few accomplishments in photography are as satisfying as producing a well-done black and white image. You have discarded color, and envisioned your story instead with shapes, lines, shadows, and textures. You’ve opened up a new world of imagery to yourself, and exponentially expanded your repertoire.

Now…what will you do with it? Share in the comments below if you have anything to add or would like to show us your new black and white images.

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Tim Gilbreath is a natural light photographer, writer, designer and musician with a love for nature and the outdoors. He's also a retro/pop culture aficionado, and although he was born and raised in Houston, Texas, he has called the Florida west coast his home for the last 10 years. You can see more of his work on his blog as well.

  • Keith Starkey

    Great tips! It’s my opinion that using the HLS/COLOR/B&W (and clicking B&W in Lightroom), as yo note, is one of the best ways to convert to black and white; you have more control over the depth of a picture than by other methods.

    Thanks much.

  • http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/ Gonzalo Broto

    I always use this method in Lightroom, as well: I convert to grayscale and then play individually with the colors to find the contrast/combination that gives the image the greater impact, and all this undestructively, which is a welcome bonus, since you can still process the image as a color capture as well!

    I just uploaded my first entry 100% monochrome in my blog, walking along the railtracks in Bangkok: http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2014/05/following-railtracks-i.html

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    I’ve found that to be an effective method too, Gonzalo. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    thanks Keith! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.in/ Raghavendra

    i love the Black and white pictures. Post processing is fine until you manipulate the subject.

  • http://scene-keepers.com Don Hendricks

    Excellent discussion – thanks Tim! Love your work buddy.

  • praveenkumar

    Very nice blog and good discussion about photography.If fallows this blog we one of the best ways to convert to black and white; you
    have more control over the depth of a picture than by other methods.

    praveen

    http://india.dialus.com/businessdetails/Mumbai/photographers.html

  • BruceLiv

    Nicely done, Tim. On certain occasions, I might boost the saturation and/or vibrance before I convert. This can boost the sensitivity when manipulating the color channels.

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    Good shot! I like how the tree bough more or less follows the cloudline. I agree, there’s something simplistic and natural about B&W photos. You’re stripping away everything, down to its core.

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    Thanks Bruce! Great point…that definitely can help. Brings out those colors that will contrast well when converting.

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    Well thanks Don! I certainly appreciate it sir!

  • Irawild Junior
  • Irawild Junior

    I just started studying photography in black and white. I love the emotional weight of this type of image.

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    I love the bokeh on this shot!

  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/patrick_kulwicki/with/14267549541 Patrick Kulwicki

    Great article! I had converted in a different manner and actually went back to a photo I did before with the tips you posted here. I used LR to process and was more pleased with the results. http://500px.com/photo/72444667/soft-rain-by-patrick-kulwicki?from=user_library

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    Great job Patrick! I love the contrast!

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    There’s definitely a story in that picture :)

  • Irawild Junior

    I take your comments on my two images as a great incentive. Even in this case where I shot with a non-professional camera, and the post-proc was in a non-professional software (iPhoto).
    Thank you, Tim.

  • https://www.flickr.com/photos/patrick_kulwicki/with/14267549541 Patrick Kulwicki

    I owe all the thanks to this article! I would have not posted that pic the way I had it before, but the tips in here helped make it pop the way I was wanting to see it. Again thank you for the article.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_hoppe/ Stephen Hoppe

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_hoppe/14319657684/

    I generally prefer color because it is how I see the world, but love to delve into black and white when I want to focus on a particular aspect of a shot. In this one I really wanted to play up the texture of the old walls and the leading line of the grand ramp up to the fort’s entrance. In color those details were lost to the richness of the stone’s hue.

    I like to use Nik Silver Efex for conversion, lots of extra tools to add color filters, adjust structure, etc. Really has saved a lot of time to work that way.

  • Rajkumar Jaiswal

    Black and white shows real impression

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    absolutely Rajkumar….it can be more challenging, but worth it in the end!

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    Good shot Stephen! The B&W definitely brings out the age and wonderful texturing of the walls. And Nik Silver Efex is an awesome program, I agree!

  • Guest

    I shot this image of a wall climber in colour, but the sky in near-perfect blue almost became a distraction in itself. So rather than have a half-blue sky, i decided to desaturate in CS5 and thanks to the focus on the rope was able to add a bit more texture feel to the image

  • Johan Bauwens

    No offence but I don’t think the b-w conversion works on the picture of this beautiful lady. She has beautiful red hair, but after processing it looks like she has black hair.

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    Hi Johan! No offense taken! To be honest, that was used strictly as an example of what can be done using that technique in Photoshop; it was in no way an indication of how I would personally process that photo. In actuality, that particular photo was used in full color. Thank you for reading!

  • http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.in/ Raghavendra

    Thanks for your valuable comments

  • http://www.robertomarzola.it/ Fotomaniac

    I prefer the colors, but some shots are much more evocative black and white.
    Here are some examples.
    http://www.robertomarzola.it/photogallery/black-and-white

  • Scott Franklin

    I always shoot ‘Raw’ color then manipulate to achieve the best possible flexibility, by manipulating the channel mixer in Photoshop you can really get startling effects, bit like Ansel Adams, might be cheating but if you are after results does it matter.

  • Alberto Perro
  • Alberto Perro
  • Anna Pontes Soares

    Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

  • angiemoore

    Sailboats on Lake Ponchartrain

  • Mary Lee

    I just read another B&W article on DPS (one of the links on the 6/19 weekly newsletter for a B/W challenge) and the author said to NOT use Grayscale because it changes your color profile and you lose information in your pixels. That author goes directly to the B/W option in Photoshop. I mainly use Aperture and NIK, although I am taking a B/W film class right now – and find that I LOVE the substantial feel of the physical process of developing film!

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    Anna, the texture in your image is awesome, well done!

  • http://www.timgilbreath.com Tim Gilbreath

    Good shots Angie! You already took the first step in separating the subjects from the background and foreground, I’d love to see this image after you play around with the color sliders and give it even more contrast!

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