Black and white photography: what every photographer should know
Converting an image to black and white is pretty simple, but if you want truly impressive results it pays to think about how and what you shoot, and learn how to use your editing software’s powerful tools to get the most from your shots. In this black and white photography tutorial, we’ll show you how to choose your subjects, set up your camera and how simple but effective adjustments in Photoshop can make your images stand out.
We’ll also reveal how to get creative with high-contrast graphic compositions and create moody landscapes, and show you how dramatic high- and low-key effects can be used
to transform your still lifes and portraits.
How to see in black and white
When it comes to black-and-white imagery, being able to ‘see’ how your final shot will look is a key skill. It’s important to understand how the colour image you see through your camera’s viewfinder will translate into a monochrome image. To get the best results, you have to look beyond the colours, and instead try to visualise how a shot’s shapes, textures and tones will be recorded.
The success of your black-and-white shots relies on several different factors, but the main thing to look out for is a main subject that will appear in a significantly different shade of grey to the background. Then look out for subtleties of tone and texture that will add depth to your images.
It’s tempting to think that white balance doesn’t matter if you’re going to remove the colour,
but because the success of any conversion relies on successfully translating colours into attractive tones, it’s important to capture an image without any colour casts.
Recognising potential shots when out in the field can take practice, so why not try converting some of your existing images to black and white to get a better feel for what will work (for more, see Black and white landscapes: make a mono masterpiece)?
Good subjects for black and white photography
When you use photo-editing software to remove the colour from an image you instantly lose one element that the viewer relies on to interpret the scene. So other elements become even more important for successful black and white images.
a run-down of the most common elements that you should look for when identifying a suitable subject for the black-and-white treatment. Remember that these elements can be used individually, or even combined
to produce marvellous mono images with clout.
1 Contrast, shape & form
One of the fundamental aspects of black and white photography is that your whole composition relies on contrast (for on composing images, see our 10 rules of photo composition – and why they work). For this reason, look out for subjects that feature simple, strong lines and shapes. It’s often the shadows that define shape and form, so pay attention to areas of darkness, as well as light.
Black and white photos actually include a whole range of greys, which add subtlety to your images. Normally, you look for subjects that will translate into a range of tones from black to white, but you can also get great results where the subject is mostly light (high-key) or dark (low-key).
3 Texture and detail
Fine detail, or strong textures such as weather-beaten stone, foliage or clouds, can help to give your black-and-white shots depth and interest. Strong side lighting is perfect for bringing out the texture in any subject. You
can use strong natural light, or get creative with flash to create sidelighting on the subject.
4 Graphic composition
Black-and-white images need strong compositions to really work. Keep an eye out for strong lines or features in your scene that can be used as leading lines, or positioned diagonally across the frame to create dynamic images.
Bad subjects for black and white photography
There’s no absolute right or wrong when it comes to choosing a subject for black-and-white, but you’ll come across subjects and scenes that rely on colour for their impact, and also lighting conditions that don’t work well in monochrome.
Here are some examples of what to avoid when looking for suitable subjects for black and white photography.
It’s easy to think that because you don’t need bright colours you can shoot black-and-white images in any light or in any weather. It’s certainly true that with some skillful conversion and adjustment in Photoshop post-shoot you can add drama , but the sturdier the building blocks the better your finished image will be (find out How to fix bleached skies in Photoshop). So, unless you’re trying to create a minimalist image it’s worth taking the time to capture maximum detail in the best lighting conditions possible.
2 Safeguarding mood
If the scene you’re shooting relies on colour for mood or impact, chances are you’ll be better off keeping the image in colour, as in our mushroom image above. Sunrise or sunset shots are another good example; you should always ask yourself whether the image loses some impact without the subtle hues.
3 Colour contrasts
Subjects that rely on contrasting colours – such as a purple crocus against a green lawn – generally don’t work well in black and white. This is because the two colours will end up looking similar in tone when converted.
Try graphic compositions
Simple shapes and a strong composition virtually guarantee striking black-and-white images. With their straight lines and dramatic angles, man-made structures are ideal for this type of shot, although for more organic shapes you can also try working with trees, rocks or foliage.
To make the most of graphic shapes, try to make your composition as simple as possible. Keep an eye
out for plain backgrounds, and try shooting with the subject at an angle (find out How to remove background distractions). For the shot above we chose a composition that avoided including as much of the surrounding architecture and street furniture
as possible, with striking results.
High-contrast lighting can really help to enhance graphic shapes, so make the most of strong side lighting from the sun. If you’re using your own lighting, position a single light to one side of the subject. Strong, direct light creates crisp shadows, which make graphic subjects in their own right.
8 secrets for setting up your camera to take black and white photos
1 Check (and balance) exposure
Beware of over-exposure (with mostly dark tones) or under-exposure (mostly light tones). If your scene has many light tones, for instance, high-key subjects commonly appear under-exposed. Using about +1.5EV exposure compensation should help balance such an exposure (find out how to use this feature effective in our guide to exposure compensation, part of our ongoing photography cheat sheet series).
2 Aperture advice
To ensure that the scene on
the opposite page was sharp from front to back, we used an aperture of f/16, focusing on the grass about a third of the way into the scene (download our free f-stop chart for understanding aperture).
3 ISO and grain
The noise generated by some cameras at high ISOs doesn’t have the same aesthetic quality as film grain, so it’s best to shoot at ISO100 or 200 if possible, and
then add a more authentic film grain effect later (learn how to reduce noise at high ISO settings).
4 File format
To ensure the best quality, shoot in raw to capture maximum tonal and detail information. The raw file will include more data than a JPEG, and will give you complete control over sharpening, contrast and white balance adjustments.
5 Mono picture style
This is handy for visualising how your subject will look in mono, but don’t shoot in JPEG format, as this will permanently discard all colour information. Instead, shoot in raw so that you can take control of
how the colours are converted.
6 Banish dark shadows
For high-key images you need to make sure that the background is bright, and also that the lighting on the main subject is quite diffused (see below how we gave this subject a striking high-key effect).
7 Consider composition
This is the building we chose for our graphic composition, as it appeared on the day. As you can see, choosing the right viewpoint, and excluding as many unwanted distractions as possible (such as that annoying street lamp!), is key to producing really graphic images.
8 Ensure detail with filters
It’s always best to capture as much detail as possible in your original image. We used a soft-edged ND grad filter to prevent the sky from becoming over-exposed (for more, see ND grad filters: what every photographer should know).
Traditional coloured filters used for black-and-white film aren’t suitable for digital cameras, but you can still boost the contrast in your graphic black-and-white shots by using a polariser. By rotating the filter you’ll be able to darken blue skies, making lighter objects such as buildings or clouds stand out more clearly.
The polariser will also remove reflections from non-metallic objects such as glass or water, which helps to produce more graphic images.
Shooting low- and high-key black and white photos
Successful black-and-white images don’t always have to contain an even mix of light and dark tones. Look for subjects that have mainly light tones to produce clean-looking ‘high-key’ images.
These images work best when you have a light-coloured background to work with, and also soft, diffused lighting to prevent too many dark shadows spoiling the high-key effect.
Close-ups, still lifes and portraits – where you often have control over the lighting and background – make good subjects for the high-key treatment, but don’t discount the possibility of shooting high-key landscapes when there’s snow or mist, as these conditions are naturally dominated by lighter tones.
Alternatively, try shooting scenes made up of mainly shadows and midtones. The dark tones give a sense of mystery, making it an effective technique for intense portraits.
For successful ‘low-key’ images you need to make sure that little or no light falls onto your background, so only the main subject is lit. This is usually achieved by controlling the lighting using flash or continuous lighting, such as a reading lamp, but you can achieve low-key results using daylight alone; you just need to search out areas of shadows to use.
Black and white conversion tips you need to know
Now that we’ve looked at how to choose suitable subjects for black and white photography, and then set our cameras to shoot them, we inevitably come to photo editing. Using the examples we looked at above, in this section we’ll look at how to fine tune your black and white photos.
Below are key points you should know when converting black and white photos with lots of texture and detail, graphic compositions, high-key and low-key images.
The derelict building is the shot’s main focus, but it’s been thrown into darkness during the black-and-white conversion. To fix this, we used the Dodge tool to reveal hidden detail in the building’s dark slate (see also How to adjust tones using the dodge and burn tool).
Both the sky and the foreground in the photo above lacked contrast in our initial conversion, so we used a Photoshop Curves adjustment layer to selectively increase the contrast in these areas.
In more graphic compositions like this one, you’ll want to maximise contrast, as we’ve done here with this tower block using a Curves adjustment layer to darken the sky and also lighten the main structure of the building.
Lighten the background
Even if your background is illuminated, you may still need to use a Curves adjustment layer in Photoshop to make it lighter. Do this by dragging the right-hand end of the curve upwards.
Sharpen the detail
To really draw attention to the sharpest areas of the subject, add a little extra sharpening using Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask filter. The lack of shadows makes noise much less noticeable.
Make the blacks black
To make the image appear even more low-key, we used a Levels adjustment layer in Photoshop. In the Levels window, we dragged the grey centre slider and the black left-hand slider to the right of the histogram to darken the midtone areas and the shadows. We then selectively masked out this adjustment to bring back detail in the model’s face.
99 common photography problems (and how to solve them)
44 essential digital camera tips and tricks
Famous Photographers: 225 tips to inspire you
101 Photoshop tips you have to know
on Sunday, May 13th, 2012 at 2:00 am under B&W, Photography Tips.
Tags: architecture photography, black and white photography, camera tips, DSLR tip, landscape photography, photo editing, Photoshop effects, portrait photography, retro photography, still life photography