If you’ve never tried black and white photography before, you may feel a bit intimidated. After all, how do you get started? Should you be shooting black and white on your camera, or should you be converting color images to black and white? And how can you create stunning black and white images, anyway?
In this article, I aim to answer all those questions. I’ll explain the value of black and white, how to do it, plus I’ll share some tips along the way!
Why is black and white photography important?
In the photographic world, black and white is an art form of its own. Some would even say 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 some truly stunning examples.
Just as importantly, working in black and white can help you become a better photographer.
It’s all about seeing.
Color is very powerful. It tends to dominate photos – to the point that beginners struggle to see other key elements like contrast, texture, shape, form, and quality of light.
Experienced photographers instinctively see these things, regardless of whether they work in color or black and white. But if you’re just starting out, you may need some assistance. Black and white strips away color, allowing you to focus on the other elements that matter.
Naturally, there are certain subjects that tend to work better than others in black and white. In particular, black and white lends itself to landscapes and portraits.
So if this is your first time shooting in black and white, then those are great starter subjects!
How to shoot in black and white
Before digital photography, the only way to work in black and white was to use black and white film.
But these days, you have two options:
- You can shoot in color and convert your photos to black and white in Lightroom, Photoshop, or some other post-processing program.
- You can switch your camera to its Monochrome mode.
I highly recommend you choose the second option, and here’s why:
By shooting in black and white from the beginning, you’ll get black and white previews on your camera’s LCD. You’ll also be able to see in black and white via your camera’s Live View mode. And if you use a mirrorless camera, you can look through a black and white viewfinder – so you know exactly how the different colors will convert before you press the shutter button.
(If you’re not sure how to switch your camera to black and white, check your camera’s manual. Don’t worry; it’s not difficult!)
One last piece of advice here:
Shoot in RAW, not JPEG (or shoot in RAW+JPEG, which will give you a file in each format every time you press the shutter button).
RAW essentially offers you insurance. If you decide you don’t like your shot in black and white, your RAW files can be reverted back to color with the click of a mouse. And if you decide to extensively edit your photos in post-processing, RAW gives you a lot of flexibility.
However, if you’re new to photography, I recognize that you may want to work exclusively in JPEG, and that’s okay. Just know that you’ll probably want to switch to RAW eventually (it’ll deliver better image quality in the long run).
Working in Monochrome mode
As explained above, I highly recommend you set your camera to Monochrome mode. And to get basic black and white shots, that’s all you need to do.
However, once you’re in Monochrome mode, you may have color filter options. And through careful application of these filters, you can capture even better black and white shots.
The color filter settings come from the days of film photography. Photographers would use color filters to alter the tones in black and white photos. These days, digital photographers rarely work with physical color filters – instead, they use camera software or post-processing to mimic filter effects.
Your camera likely includes a few color filter options. For instance, you might use a yellow or orange filter to darken a blue sky or a red filter to turn it nearly black.
Here’s a shot before adding a color filter:
And here’s the shot after applying a red filter:
There is also a place for green filters, which can bring out more detail in green subjects like leafy forests.
Those four colored filters (red, orange, yellow, and green) have made their way onto most digital cameras as black and white settings.
Quick tip: Don’t forget about contrast!
If you take a photo in dull light – in shade, for instance, or under a cloudy sky – the photo may look flat (i.e., two-dimensional), especially in black and white.
So what do you do?
You compensate by increasing the contrast. A contrast boost will deepen the shadows, brighten the highlights, and make your main subject pop!
Here’s a portrait without a contrast adjustment:
And here’s the same portrait, but with a contrast boost:
To my eye, the final (adjusted) result is much more powerful.
You can increase the contrast after the photo has been taken (in Photoshop or Lightroom), or you can do it in-camera by adjusting the contrast setting (see your manual if you’re not sure how to do this!).
Composing in black and white
Remember how I said black and white forces you to think about other key elements, such as shape and form?
It’s true. And it’s the reason why composition becomes so important when shooting in black and white.
Unfortunately, there’s not really a quick solution to capturing good compositions; a lot of it just depends on your ability to see shapes, lines, and textures (which you can develop through practice or study or simply by looking at great photography).
However, there is one item that can improve your black and white compositions:
The aspect ratio.
You see, certain aspect ratios (such as the 1:1, or square format) make composition easier. Whereas other aspect ratios (such as most cameras’ native 3:2 ratio) make composition tricky.
So after you’ve set your camera to Monochrome mode, I recommend heading into the settings and changing the aspect ratio to Square. It’ll improve the way you frame scenes (and if your camera has an electronic viewfinder, it’ll let you see the new aspect ratio in real-time!).
Toning in black and white
Toning is the process of adding color to your images, but only after they’ve been converted to black and white.
This can give very cool effects – for instance, it can turn your shots yellow or purple or red.
Now, your camera may allow you to tone your photos when you take them. But the effect is usually very heavy-handed, which is why I recommend you avoid in-camera toning.
Instead, test out toning in post-processing. You can have lots of fun applying a single tone to your images (such as a nice sepia). And if you want to get really creative, you can add multiple tones, an effect called split toning.
Black and white photography: final words
Black and white is a beautiful medium to work in, one that you will appreciate even more as your skills grow.
In the meantime, have fun and enjoy yourself. You are following a path trodden by some of the most famous names in photography!
Now over to you:
Have you tried shooting in black and white before? How did it go? Do you have any favorite black and white subjects? Share your thoughts in the comments below!