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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

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 13 years.