Key Ingredients for Black and White Images

Key Ingredients for Black and White Images


Digital Camera Magazine (UK) has a useful feature in their October issue on Black and White photography. It contains a lot of good information – but one of the topics that they cover was on how to ‘see in black and white’.

In it the author shares 4 ‘key ingredients’ of that will help you to visualize whether a scene will work as a black and white image or not. The titles below are from the article – the thoughts are mine (and I’ve added one of my own tips too).

1. Look for Contrast

One of the elements that can give interest to a black and white shot is contrast. Because you can’t use color to distinguish one element of your image from another the tonal variances become all the more important. This doesn’t mean you need to look for stark contrasts in every shot you want to convert to black and white – the subject matter will come into play here – but you should ponder how the contrast will come into play when composing your shot.

2. Wait for the Right Light

Linked to contrast, the lighting in a black and white shot can be very important. For example – h3 or direct lighting will often add to contrast. Side lighting will reveal any texture that a subject might have (and in portraits will accentuate features) and light from any one direction will create shadows. All of these techniques can add interest to a black and white image – however they can also be distracting – so play with light with care.

3. Shapes and Patterns

Patterns or shapes that can sometimes almost go unseen in color (due to the color itself drawing attention) can come alive in a black and white shot. Black and White shots that rely upon pattern can often take on an abstract quality.

4. Capture Texture

I’ve already mentioned this above when talking about side lighting – but revealing the texture of a subject can add a new dimension to an image. The sidelight does this by creating shadows.

A Tip for Black and White Landscapes


One more quick tip of my own for those wanting to try black and white landscape photography:

When shooting black and white landscapes look for ‘active skies’. I was given this advice by a photographer a few months ago who showed me some examples of his own black and white landscape work. The skies in his images were breathtaking with wonderful cloud formations and what often looked like storms about to break. Having skies with so much ‘action’ in them added mood and a really dynamic look and feel to his images. Without this active element the images looked rather empty and dull. I think the same principle could be applied to most types of black and white images that have large parts of them dominated by any one thing. If a large part of your image is all the same tone the image can look quite lifeless (unless of course you’re going for a more minimalist look.

Want to Read more on the topic – check out Do you See in Black and White? and 5 Black and White Photography Tips.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Reyven Biloy September 19, 2013 03:57 am

    Just the tips I've been looking for. I am looking to expand my photography knowledge and have keen interest on B&W shots for any opportunity.
    I had a good read. Thank you!

  • amanda April 1, 2013 05:29 am

    Seems a shame that it is recommended to shoot in colour and the conver to B/W. I have just picked up on my photography passion and find this hard to swallow. Back in the day of film, i always shot in black and white and would have never dream of manipulating my images and never needed to. i think we are losing the desire to take a perfect picture with great composition and 'filling the frame' as now we have the capability of turn, what is essentially an 'ok' image into something spectacular using Photoshop. The interest is now post shoot, and when I look at images my eye gets drawn to all the manipulation that's been done, rather than the actual subject and composition. Suppose I need to get with the times but hell I miss film!!

  • Fxman October 3, 2011 11:32 am

    Thank you for all the information on Black & white photography, very helpful, the info brings with it a whealth of knowledge to help me improve my photographic skills,

  • Pavan February 22, 2011 05:45 am

    I have a photo competition in my college and i love to participate in that moreover the theme is on contrast.. to be frank or honest i'am not really into photography but have the zeal to get into it, can you help me with some the tips which will help me to get into these theme.. Thank you so much in advance

  • angad May 19, 2010 09:43 am

    Interesting article Darren - I did a summary based on a book Black and White conversions for CS4.

    Seeing in Black and White
    Few ways to visualize and clues that will help create more impact in a black and white image.
    1. Texture – textures look good in black and white. Combine a macro lens with good strong texture
    2. Lines – lines help to direct the eye – diagonals, converging, diverging, parallel
    3. Contrast – strong tonal difference in a colored image can be bother busy and confusing, in a monochromatic image, they can pull the eye and define the tone of the shot. Contrast is everything in a stunning black and white shot.
    4. Shapes – Bold shapes, curves, edges and details become almost abstract in black and white images.
    5. Shadows – Deep, black shadows, thin, almost invisible , light shadows,
    6. Patterns – same repetitive patterns can be noise for your eyes in a colored image, in a black and white image can become mesmerizing – repetitive grain, stich, row of hedges, sea of bricks, etc
    7. Silhouettes – striking black outline of a backlight object always appears interesting and in a black and white image.

    take a look at my black and white set -

  • sam April 17, 2010 03:17 am

    that was *why it looks less interesting*....sorry

  • sam April 17, 2010 03:16 am

    i like the tip about active skies, as i was recently shooting a bare tree from the ground, and although it was looking quite interesting in real, but i couldnt understand why it looks interesting in b/w i got u said the large part was a single tone it was looking a bit dull...

  • Mark April 16, 2010 11:32 pm

    great tips, now i have more confidence in taking B & W pictures...

  • nick December 23, 2009 06:04 pm

    But of course once you believe you have your 'eye' trained, the only way to go next is to get an old analogue camera and a roll of B&W film. With a red filter if doing landscapes.

    Not only will the images look better, only having 36 shots will make you concentrate and not simply blast off shots!

  • Gaurav Hirlekar December 1, 2009 04:02 am

    These were very useful tips. The one about the active skies is the one I am looking forward to trying out when I next get the opportunity.
    The accompanying photos were very good too.

  • Joe October 12, 2009 01:03 pm

    Thanks for the tips! It reignited my desire to shoot in BW/RAW.

  • Mark May 10, 2009 06:41 pm

    Thank You. Now I can take photos at less sunny weather days :)

  • Laura October 21, 2008 08:56 am

    i love the photographs, they are really expressive, great work! the tips have also given me some great ideas to play on. nothing is better than black and white photography. try taking the photographs with black and white film compared to the digital, it creates a whole new world when thinking about contrast, lighting, and movement to create the final perfect photograph in the dark room. : )

  • Michael April 30, 2008 07:50 am

    Thanks for the summary of tips for B&W photography. I've been planning to experiment with B&W more, so these tips will certainly help me. It's all about the light.

  • twilson1118 December 19, 2007 08:34 pm

    It's better to do a color photo and convert in photoshop. esp when using the channel mixer in monochrome mode(the greyscale option is good for a newspaper, but bad for "fine art" prints).
    Also if your going to do this a lot, its good to have a constant percent of red, green, and blue #'s so your photography tends to look less digital and more like the older but more respected darkroom shots.

  • courtney December 11, 2007 12:02 am

    I love the landscape photo..I am in photo 2 in school right now and my project is to make the sky move like that in my photo and those were some great tips: )

  • msu October 6, 2007 01:21 am

    I usually take my photos in colour. Them, convert its to B&W. If you take your photos in B&W, you obtain just monocrome tonalities

  • pyko October 5, 2007 02:43 pm

    hmm, I've read somewhere that you should take the photos in colour, and then convert to B&W in photoshop. Something about the camera can't really capture all the details?

    Correct me if I'm wrong please!

  • October 5, 2007 07:22 am

    4 foundations of black & white photography explained.

  • Okami October 5, 2007 01:13 am

    That sky formation was amazing. If only I could do that. :)

  • NWoo October 4, 2007 10:49 pm

    OK, so my question you usually take your B&W photos in B&W or in color and convert later?

  • D Tshering October 4, 2007 10:39 pm

    Just what I was looking for. The tips are extremely useful even for an amateur photographer like myself !! Good work. Keep it up and upper !!

  • ryan de gracia October 4, 2007 12:20 pm

    very well done.. i love taking B&W photos, the mood is different.

  • annonamous October 3, 2007 11:54 pm

    i think that this is a very usefull resourse and i thank you for this and no w i have somethingz to go on for my goal to be digital photographer

  • Klaidas October 3, 2007 02:01 am

    The one about landscapes is really interesting ;)

  • AC October 3, 2007 01:39 am

    Beautiful snaps and some very interesting tips - esp the one about the active skies.