Black and White Photography 101

The other day someone asked what made a good black and white photograph.  He went on to say that he only uses black and white processing when he’s trying to achieve an old photo look, but noticed when someone converted one of his color images to black and white it looked better because the distracting color of an object was eliminated.  While both might be good reasons for sometimes converting to monochrome, I find the approach puzzling.  Why use monochrome to “save” a picture only?  Or to fake a vintage look?  Then I thought about it a little more and wondered if this kind of thing happens because people new to photography have never shot film.  My initial conclusion was borne out in a limited way by conversations I had with two photography buddies.  One has a good eye and often produces excellent images, but only has digital camera experience where every image starts in color.  My other friend on the other hand shot a lot of Tri-X in the past and we agreed that if you do this enough, you can get a feel for the gray value of color.

But it’s not the grays that make a monochrome image sing – it’s the blacks and whites.  You’ve got to have both extremes to make it work.  Even if you clip a little in the highs and lows, it’s better than having a dull, lifeless image swimming in gray.  Depending on the mood you want to strike, lots of contrast can work to make an image sing as well.  Don’t get carried away, but don’t be afraid to play with those sliders.

You can’t do all your work in post processing though.  You’ve got to put the camera to your eye and envision things in black and white.  Because there will be no color to catch or lead the eye, you must be especially careful about compositional elements and the forms and structures you’re photographing.  A black and white image has to be even stronger in composition and framing than a color photograph.  If it’s weak in color, it will be doubly so in monochrome.  Remember that the eye instinctively looks towards white and light shades first.  We also react very well to strong shapes defined by dark and light areas.

One exercise that may help you is to set your camera to record black and white jpegs.  You can have it give you raw files, too, if you want color renditions.  But if you really want to figure out what works and what doesn’t in black and white, set your camera to monochrome (most DSLRs and many high-end compacts have this mode, you just need to find it).  You will still see in color through the viewfinder, but live view will be in black and white.  Look at the differences.  How differently does your eye follow through the image in color versus B&W?  Are your forms strong enough?  Can your subject be recognized (identified) without color?  Are the gray values of the colors too close and without definition?   Are you working with strong leading lines?  Do you see pure white and black?  It shouldn’t take you long to get the hang of it.

Once you’ve got your images on your computer, process them in the normal way, adding contrast, sharpness and cropping if needed.  You can further enhance your images with white balance, color sliders in B&W mode and curves.  If you can add grain, play with it.  Tri-X film had some beautiful grain back before they changed it to T-Max and we loved using that as part of the mood of our images.

Oh and one more thing – don’t be afraid to take chances with black and white.  Go for the unconventional.  Do a black and white rainbow picture.  Try a sunset in black and white.  How about a flower?  The beach?  If your subject is strong in terms of form and you’ve nailed the composition, there’s almost no reason a B&W image can’t be as strong as a color image.  Identify what’s interesting your subject – is it shape?  Texture?  Light and shadow?  Framing?  Mood?  Use black and white to enhance those things that might be overwhelmed by color.

Compare the images in this collage and see how different the mood is from color to B&W.

Here are a few more images that I think work particularly well in B&W.  All were shot in color since I work from raw files, but each was done with a final B&W image in mind.  Some were done this way because there was little color in the scene, some because the forms, lines, shapes or shadows made me go hey – I don’t need color for this one.  They are all from my Black and White Gallery.

Symptom of the Universe
Winter Sunrise
The Promise

So to recap –

1.   Set your camera to monochrome jpeg mode

2.   Use live view to ‘see’ in black and white

3.   Check for strong compositions and recognizable subjects

4.   Make sure you have pure white and black in your picture

5.   Take chances and have fun


Check out Black and White Photography 201

98 thoughts on “Black and White Photography 101

Add yours

  1. I have always had a soft spot for black and white photographs. Maybe its because in jr high we learned to develop our film and photos in the dark room and all that was available was black and white. (Oh how I miss dark rooms!) Then later in life I got a job preparing graphics for scientific and medical journals … all those bones and teeth and rocks etc needed contrast and they were in black and white.
    You are so right that you have to be able to see the ‘tones’ of the colors. I never really realized that my background, if you will, has trained my eye to see these tones without really thinking about it.
    My favorite shot is The Promise. It makes me think that its mother nature’s promise that even though the earth is covered in cold cold snow that soon the branches will be covered in leaves again…
    Great post! You have nice images and made a lot of good points!

  2. Nice post – having a film background certainly helps your eye – digital doesn’t really cover the nuances (and Photoshop desaturate sure doesn’t help matters!)

    I do take issue with one of your suggestions – #1, to set the jpeg to monochrome. While this is a great idea to help people “see” – it discards information. Better to take the image in color and then convert – or better yet, go raw instead of jpeg.

    Lovely images as well!

    1. thanks for commenting you two.
      linzfrentrop I can understand how your past employment aids in ‘seeing’ in black and white for digital photography. And yeah, I miss the darkroom, too. chemically bliss.

      mpaul – Thanks for stopping by and dropping a comment. I agree that jpeg loses some information in the process, but I wasn’t advocating using this forever, but as a tool to help a newbie adjust her vision so to speak. That’s also why I suggested doing a raw capture as well as jpeg, so that if one wants to tweak it further, one has the 1s and 0s.

  3. Excellent tutorial. I have a strong film background, and perhaps because of this, I still prefer B&W images. Yes, I capture in RAW and convert, but I strongly believe in shooting monochrome jpg until you get a “feel” for B&W exposures. Nail your dynamics and tonal range in jpg, and the “lost” information is almost a moot point. You can check your contrast and exposures, in monochrome, on the scene, and make sure you go home with what you want, rather than getting there and hoping for the best. And most DSLR cameras allow you to capture RAW, but still preview in monochrome, even if you do not save the jpg file(which is what I still do).

    Anyhow…very nice tutorial. One which will hopefully increase the level of appreciation folks have for B&W imaging, and how much more difficult, and ultimately more rewarding, it can be to do “properly”. Well done!

  4. hey, thanks for this post! I always felt b/w pictures brings out interesting shapes and patterns that people would normally miss if it’s in colour. And not to forget the different mood that they send out!

  5. The waterfall was breathtaking!
    It’s an interesting concept, working in B/W, which i think might just extend beyond photography.
    Looking beyond the surface to gain insight to the depth of things is a root philosophical practice, and it’s basest form is here in this post. After you learn to observe the previously unobservable, the world looks different, and everything you had been doing before you’d noticed will now, and forever thereafter be enhanced.

  6. I am a digital photographer. I do have film experience, but that was looong ago. I generally shoot in color, because my subjects tend to be colorful (flowers, butterflies, etc.). I also don’t tend to convert photos to black and white or sepia or whatever unless I am asked to. (A lot of people think black and white and sepia are more “arty.”) When I do shoot in black and white, I find I almost have to THINK in black and white. Or maybe the word is “see.” I’m looking for textures or for mid-tones that will work in black and white and trying to ignore colors.
    Anyhow, thanks for making me think. (I may have to write on the subject on my blog.) And congrats on the feature.

  7. The sharp contrasts the different textures of the water and the ground in the “senter falls” image seems to beautifully summarise this great tutorial.

  8. I enjoyed the pictures, especially those that contrasted color to black and white. It really depends on the subject as to whether or not the black and white setting has a greater depth to it. As a former movie reviewer, I would notice this in films that were purposefully shot in black and white. Congrats on being freshly pressed.

  9. I don’t think I’ve taken a picture before with the intent of it being B&W. But now I think I have an idea of what to look for. This is great stuff for a novice like myself. Thanks!

  10. That is really good advice! I started with film and have switched over to digital for awhile and what you say definitely rings true! I’m currently trying to apply what I learned with film to my digital camera so I don’t stay in the point and shoot mindframe. I must try your suggestions =) Thanks! and congrats on fp!

  11. I love the photos! I have always had a great appreciation for black and white photos. They tell such a story, and leave you wondering what beauty it truly did behold, however the beauty in black and white is a magnificent beauty all itself! Nice job!

  12. Black and white photography? Two words: Ansel Adams.

    Also check out the Zone System and consider real film.

  13. Nice!!!I am known to take out my camera at a moment’s notice. Your shots are nice!!
    I adore maiglöcken…sorry, the English word doesn’t come to me just now(recuperating from the flu in this -2 weather)…I enjoy searching for maiglöcken in May as much as gathering walnuts in September.
    Thanks for the info.
    My fav pic of this spread is the first black and white of maiglöcken. Kudos!

  14. Well thought out post. I think part of my respect for BW comes from starting out with a Pentax film camera, and then a point and shoot which I often had in BW mode anyhow. I just discovered I could do that on my DSLR and have been throwing the idea around in my head about limiting myself to BW for a while. One difficulty with this is that one of my main subjects is my Hungarian Vizsla. She is red/rust in color and when shot against the green grass often produces flat images. I have a serious challenge on my hands when I try to shoot BW shots of her overall. That is one Small downside to owning such a pretty colored dog. Anyhow, well written and I enjoyed your images too. Especially the flower ones, granted it helps again when the flowers themselves are already close to white. Typical pinks and reds do not lend themselves as well to BW.

    Anywho, great things to ponder.
    Take care

  15. Thanks for the tips. I’ll do black and white sometimes, but it’s because I’m playing with the picture, and that’s what I end up liking. So thanks! And I love the water picture. 🙂 Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  16. An amazing post indeed. Although those of us unable to afford a DSLR or high-end compact (therefore, point-and-shoot users) will have a hard time figuring out the difference between B&W and color mode when shooting photo as there are no viewfinders, I think we have to think and use our brains to illustrate on our mind canvas how a B&W will look like. On the other hand, if there is a shortcut button to switch between Monochrome and Color, that’d be exceptionally useful.

    One question, what’s the difference between Black and White and Monochrome?

  17. I’ve never been able to get sunrises/sunsets to look quite right in Black/White but your Winter Sunrise looks beautiful! It has a real daunting look to it. Really enjoying Symptom of the Universe as well – Very interesting usage of shadows!

  18. It’s interesting how very differently the same image reads in B & W or color (or sepia.) Often, the information that color adds is too distracting, and one can really better see the textures or light without it.

    I’ve recently been watching — and loving — French films from the 1960s in black and white (Breathless, for example) and find them very beautiful in this respect.

  19. beautiful photos. I like the point you make about black and white photos being about just that – black and white, not all the gray tones. Since there’s no color to draw your eye, and you gave great hints about how this should affect how you might want to composition the photo. Great post.

  20. First of all, congratulations on getting Freshly Pressed. It’s great to see blogs like this featured on the front page.

    Secondly, I love black and white. I would love to shoot black and white more, actually. I find the hardest part of shooting B+W is the fact that you have to rely on composition, texture, and contrast to get a meaningful photo. But that’s also what I love about B+W. The colour isn’t there to distract you from admiring the photograph itself.

  21. I absolutely love black and white photos. They are amazing and wonderful and have sort of a vintage feel and look to them. Great post. I really enjoyed reading this.

  22. I think that black & white photos are extra glamorous. I don’t know why, but I think that they’re gorgeous.

  23. Looks to be great photographs and the comments certainly verify that. but I find many of them are larger than my screen which makes them pretty much impossible to enjoy properly, just sayin…

  24. Wow! stunning images, you have a very good eye! I really enjoyed reading this.
    Is there any differance in the actual image if you shoot with B&W or change it after? The reason I ask this is because personally that would be too much of a risk to shoot in b&w lol Did you take the first photo with color too? It would be interesting to see them side by side.
    Anyway, Thanks for an exellent post.

  25. Thanks for the tips. Sometimes I find it very hard to find the right light when taking b&W. Thanks.

  26. Hi! The photos are stunning. You have a knack for creating a deep sense of appreciation for the beauty around you. I loved “Orbit” and “Walk on By.” So glad I stopped by!

  27. I love the ability to shoot in color and then change to black/white later for a different (sometimes better)look. So, I shoot everything in color, even though I am aware of the opportunity to shoot in b/w with my digital camera. But I do think I can see the potential for b/w better than some might be able to because of my background in drawing.

    I have been teaching my son how to draw things in charcoal and how to look at color in terms of darks and lights so that he can see how to convert color into shades of gray and b/w. It was a challenge at first for him, but now he is doing quite well.

    I was, however, not aware that you could view your image in live view as a b/w, too. This will make it much easier for me to determine ahead of time what might make a good conversion to b/w. That, I like! Thanks for the info. And I love photos in b/w that are done well — like yours. I have seen a lot who use this to try and help a poorly taken image when I worked in a photo lab. Yours are obviously done in b/w because you know what you are doing. Nice!

    P.S. I do like the Lilly of the Valley better in color, but only because these are my FAVORITE flower and I can smell them just looking at your pics in color, they are so wonderful!

  28. Beautiful photography. I’ve been thinking about doing a post in black and white photography just for something different. It really is an artform. Working with black and white in the darkroom is great, but right now I’d probably shoot digital, just because of cost.

  29. The story is quite productive, especially for those who never had the opportunity to produce photographs and film mechanical camera, let alone the chance to experience the chemical development of black and white.
    And yes, indeed, can work perfectly in black and white with digital SLR cameras, especially if you set the camera for shooting in RAW and if you learn to work with the correct measurement of light, with support of the application of the histogram .
    Knowing the technical work areas used by Ansel Adams also helps.

  30. Great post and very informative. I am only an amateur but have been shooting for 29 years…and I shot a lot of film in my days. I really enjoyed how you discuss “seeing” in black and white. This is a very important point for pro or amateur. I am an architect so composition, form, contrast are very important in my work. You’ve said many things I have said over the years, but you’ve said them so much better.

  31. wow just pure wow love how you took those photos i am simply amazed….black and white photos are more meaningful than those colored ones you can tell a lot of stories about ’em..thanks for sharing…. great post 🙂

  32. Hi,
    I am a professional photographer who has had no formal training whatsoever. I picked up the camera and i learned as i shot. In the early days, i would be bogged down by the jargon that was being thrown at me. While i was reading your post, i realised how much i could have used a post like this back when i was getting a hang of my camera.

    Lovely photographs, lovely site.


  33. I love those pictures 🙂 They remind me of my hometown in Croatia. I should really go visit it one day but traveling is oh so expensice 😦 It would be great if you would visit my blog. Oh well, it’s in German but maybe you understand something 🙂
    love rosi

  34. I think the subject of the photo has a big impact on whether it will turn out well in monochrome. I usually find solitary subjects more receptive to being framed in black and white than busy scenes.

  35. Great photos. I photograph everything in colour, but in post-process I always try one or two basic B&W conversions and compare to the colour version. If preferable, I start working on the B&W version instead.

  36. Like most people, I’m more accustomed to shooting in color with a digital camera. But I’ve played with the black and white setting on it, never really gotten many great shots. Some were great, and I’m proud of those. When I compare those shots to what they would look like in color, I agree with you. Something about the way they look in black and white just feels right.
    I don’t know why, but black and white images also seem peaceful to me. It’s just that there are no loud colors screaming out at you in B&W, it’s just the blacks, whites, and greys.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
    Ashley, aka TheEverydayMuser

  37. Hey there!

    This is great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    I was wondering, do you, by any chance, have a blog post about ‘the basics’ of photography.

    “How to make a good picture”? That would be great!
    Thanks a lot!



  38. .An experienced black white photographer can see the world without color. Theyve trained their mind to pick up contrast and tone while blocking the distraction of colors. The human eye is built to pick up two things light intensity and color.

  39. I always shoot in RAW..but having read your post, I see what you getting at.
    Very good work !
    Shall be following you blog with interest.

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