3 Simple Steps to Craft Better Black and White Photos

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Have you ever wanted to know how to create nice black and white photos? Well there’s good and bad news. First of all, shooting in black and white is still photography. That means if the image is not good, no amount of black and white wizardry can save it, that’s just a fact. But the good news is, there are particulars to doing black and white photos that allow a lot of creative control in post-processing. Here are three to help you out.

#1 Get the settings right first

Let’s get started. There is only one requirement for doing black and white photos and that is to shoot in raw. If you can’t do raw, shoot color JPGs. Ironic, I know, but I’ll get to why in a little bit.

Also when you are shooting, this is not an ironclad rule, but it’s better to have your shadows clipped rather than your highlights. Meaning, it’s better to underexpose rather than overexpose, because overexposure doesn’t look to good in black and white. But that is, of course, up to you and your intent. If you want to overexpose for a reason, that’s up to you! Depending on the image, like the one below, you might want the highlights blown out.

3 Simple Steps to Craft Better Black and White Photos

Most cameras nowadays can shoot in pure RAW and still have the screen display the image in black and white. If yours can, do that! When you shoot, your image will be closer to your end results which is to be desired.

#2 Two things to look for

Black and white is usually treated as an afterthought. If your image doesn’t look so hot, convert it to black and white and have a great image. But it doesn’t work that way. If an image looks good in black and white it’s because the building blocks were already there at the start. In any case, intentional black and white photos will always be superior to ones where black and white was used as a rescue device.

When you shoot for black and white, there two things to specially look out for, contrast and shapes.

Contrast in light and color

Look for contrasts in light (light versus dark), but also contrast in color (irony again!). Once more these rules are not set in stone. But if you are just starting out, it’s better to understand the rules first and then break them.

Let’s look at a graphic:

3 Simple Steps to Craft Better Black and White Photos

On the color wheel, tones that are close together will tend to look flat when put next to each other (like the two orange tones above). While colors that are far away from each other, like at the opposite ends of the wheel, will look more contrasty (like blue and orange).

Look for shapes

In black and white photos, things are stripped down to their essence and there is no color to take attention away from the shapes. Meaning, your composition needs to be strong, because the building blocks of the photo are more easily seen. Kinda kills the argument that black and white is easy, no? Let’s look at another example using the colors above.

3 Simple Steps to Craft Better Black and White Photos

The blue rabbit stands out more here than the darker orange one due to color contrast.

In Lightroom

This is where black and white photos can really come alive. I will explain why I recommend shooting in color (or raw) first. You see, if you shot in black and white first, you would be stuck with the shades of gray that the camera captures. But if you shoot in color beforehand, you have a lot of more wiggle room to play around with tones later in post-processing. Have a look below:

3 Simple Steps to Craft Better Black and White Photos

The one strip of color above produced the three different strips below in black and white (gray tones). In a previous article, I said that photography is plastic, this is one way it is so. The black and white tones you get are plastic. See how the red patch can give you three different shades of gray?

When you shoot in color, you can essentially say, “red color get very dark and blue color become very light.” You can also do the opposite where you say, “blue become very dark and red get very light.” Now can you see why shooting color is important? You lose these options when you shoot in black and white.

The B&W panel in Lightroom

In Lightroom, go to the develop module, scroll down and click on B&W (in the HSL/Color/B&W panel on the right). All of the color sliders are there for you to play with. Take the first slider. Sliding the red one to the left will make every red tone in your image darker. It is the same for every other color slider; orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple and magenta.

3 Simple Steps to Craft Better Black and White Photos

But here’s a cool thing, you can operate directly on the image. See that weird little circle on the top left? If you click it, then when you hover over any part of the image, click and drag up, down, left or right, it will automatically pick up that color and allow you to edit the black and white mix from there. You’ll see the corresponding sliders move, and all similar colors (tones) in your image will be adjusted.

3 Simple Steps to Craft Better Black and White Photos

The image on the left is a straight black and from the RAW file. On the right all I did was darken the blue tones using the blue slider.

Once you are done with the black and white mix, bump up the clarity and contrast sliders. Again, these do not magically make the image from thin air, but if you composed well, you’ll probably get great results. Here’s the final image:

3 Simple Steps to Craft Better Black and White Photos

Conclusion

As you can see, just like every other image, great black and white photos are based on the basics of what makes a good image. But for the rest, that specifically “black and white” aspect, it’s really about knowing how color translates to monochrome. A good exercise is to pass your color images and play around with the conversions until you have a gut understanding of it. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.

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Olivier Duong

is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese graphic designer turned photographer, he is the co-creator of Inspired Eye Photography Magazine. This ex-gear head now teaches photographers how to develop their eye, heart and mind. Join his photography newsletter to keep in touch. You’ll receive weekly inspiration, a free beginner’s course, tutorials and more.

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  • tomherren

    B&W conversion in LR as described is a good thing to start with. However, Nik Silver Efex 2 from the free Google Nik Collection is a far more powerful B&W converter than the B&W panel in LR. Of course, Silver Efex or similar converters need a well composed image based on “thinking in B&W.”

  • I understand, I used to swear by Nik, but you lose all of your history. I have some of my images they are like fossils, I wouldn’t know how to reprocess them to get the same look.
    And I also was able to make killer BWs in LR, so I gave up the extra step ^^

  • tomherren

    Indeed, Silver Efex is an additional step, and your pictures look great. I schould try more in LR. With Silver Efex I particilarely like the options to slightly colorize (paper toning / silver toning)

  • Thanks! Scroll down in the “Split toning” under the develop module. Play with the highlights and shadows and you will get some great results ^^

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