The art of black and white photography is surprisingly difficult to master. Getting them right is really challenging, but also super exciting. In this article I explain to you why some black and white photos succeed and others fail – including the seven critical elements of the best black and white work. I also want to teach you how to correctly convert monochrome images in software such as Lightroom or Photoshop.
Introduction to black and white photography
The history of black and white photography is almost as long as the entire history of photography . When the first permanent color photo was taken in 1861 , monochrome photography was already around 35 years old. Although color is the “new kid on the block”, it has by no means replaced black and white art. Color can also distract; bland and lifeless. One of the tasks of a photographer is to simplify the picture and “distill” a scene to its essence. And sometimes this essence is colorless.
Ansel Adams said the following about the differences between the two types of photography:
I get a much better sense of color from a well-planned and executed black-and-white photo than I have ever achieved with a color photo.
Wow. Have you ever looked at it like this?
Of course, the vast majority of photos today are taken in color. Perhaps that means that we have lost some of the beauty and imagination that Ansel Adams wanted to convey through photography. I sincerely hope that the techniques in this article will help you recover.
How to take a black and white photo correctly
A good black and white picture is just a good picture – point. You can’t save a catastrophic picture by slamming a black and white filter on it (which is often tried). There are seven essential elements in high-end black and white photos. You will soon see what they are, but first you have to remember one important thing: You need a reason to shoot in black and white.
Not every motif looks good in black and white. That’s why you always have to ask yourself why you want to remove the color from this particular image. Why is it so important that you photograph it in black and white? Black and white pictures can look great, but they don’t always do so. You need to know in advance why you would rather take a picture in black and white than in color. If you can’t find a good reason, you might want to stick to the color.
Black and white vs. Monochrome
You may have noticed that similar words are used here that do not mean the same thing; black-white (SW) and monochrome. Although these two terms are often used as synonyms, they do not have the same meaning.
The word monochrome means “monochrome”. Monochrome images can therefore have a hue, provided that it is only one color. Check out the photo below. It has a brown color, which should reinforce your own character. However, all other colors have been removed. Although this now counts as monochrome, it is NOT black and white. Real black and white photography has no color at all, it is completely black, gray and white.
Nevertheless, you can use one or the other term without confusing someone. But if you want to be very precise, you’d better use the term “black and white” for pictures without tinting.
Camera equipment for black and white photography
If you want to take black and white photos, you can generally do it with your existing camera. It is just as suitable for this as for color photos. There are a few other aspects to consider when it comes to equipment, however, these are important for black and white photography.
I think it’s important to mention that there are cameras that only take monochrome photos. Most of them are located in the high-end area and cost a lot. A good example of this is the Leica M Monochrome , which costs around 8,000 euros. There are also people who convert their cameras to black and white. However, this process is very expensive and complicated, so you will rarely find it.
But why does someone do such an effort for a camera that only black and white photography is possible? Well, pure monochrome cameras simply deliver sharper and cleaner black and white images than color cameras. So there are advantages. For most, a normal color camera is much more practical and therefore the only logical choice.
Photograph or convert black and white?
Most cameras have a black and white camera mode. There is of course the question of whether you should photograph in color and then convert to SW, or whether you should use black and white right from the start.
The answer is simple. Always make your pictures in color first and then convert them later into black and white pictures. This method has absolutely no disadvantages and you can easily go back to the color version if you change your mind.
This procedure also gives you a lot of flexibility in post-processing. With a color photo you can still adjust the colors, even if you have already converted it to black and white. For example, you could make the blue channel darker to make the sky look darker in your monochrome photo. It doesn’t work with images that were black and white from the start.
JPEG or RAW
In the previous section, we actually had a bit of a dilemma, that is, a problem that is not really one. Or to put it more simply; for most photographers, it is simply not relevant. If you take pictures – I hope – in RAW instead of JPEG, all the color information in the picture will be preserved.
If the RAW vs. JPEG debate says nothing, you can take a few minutes and read our article. In short, RAW files offer more image information and image quality, whereas JPEG files are smaller and contain less data. High quality photographers tend to go RAW (for obvious reasons).
Even in RAW mode, you can switch the camera to monochrome and take photos as normal. The pictures then look black and white on the display, but when you open them with image processing software, they suddenly become colored again! The RAW file does not throw away any image information at all. You can use this to your advantage as follows:
Suppose you are outside, taking pictures and intending to convert most RAW images to black and white later. If you have black and white mode on the camera, the preview on the display will also be black and white. This will help you visualize your picture better right from the start. And the best thing is that these photos are actually all in color – RAW files. So you don’t lose your flexibility and you can still choose the variant with color later.
Filters for black and white photography
If you are dealing with the equipment for black and white photography, you will probably come across the topic of filters. With black and white film or purely monochrome cameras, it is important that you have a filter on the lens . This gives you more control over the contrast and hue of your images.
Take a look at the comparison below to get a feel for how different filters can affect an image. These photos were taken with blue, green and red filters screwed onto the lens.
As you can see, choosing the filter can make a big difference. The blue filter blocks red light, which makes everything a little darker. A green filter brightens everything that is green, for example leaves on a tree. And finally, the red filter darkens the sky and other blue elements, while everything red becomes brighter.
Despite the striking differences, digital photographers today hardly use color filters for black and white photography . The reason for this is their strong influence on color photos, which may become unusable through a filter. You can also mimic many of the post-filter effects by adjusting certain color channels.
Purists still use the filters, however, because the effects cannot be mimicked perfectly using software . But this practice is becoming increasingly rare, so you will most likely not have to invest any money in a filter system for black and white photography.
The 7 elements of the best black and white photos
In black-and-white photography, you make one on Ansel Adams and convey the essence of your motif together with its colors and characteristics, if only by the shadow between light and dark alone. The best black and white photos do just that by perfecting the seven elements below.
The first thing to keep in mind when b / w photography is that shadows have a huge impact. They are no longer just dark spots in the photo, but important elements of composition and sometimes even the motif itself.
How you approach shadows in black and white photography also affects all other aspects of the photo. Are the shadows black and poor in detail? This gives a feeling of intensity and emptiness. But if the shadows are subtle and detailed, it can add complexity in general.
Note: In black and white photography, there is no need for completely black or white areas for the photo to look good. It is a myth that it takes the full range from deep black shadows to crisp highlights to get an optimal picture. Instead, just do what you like. Nevertheless, pay attention to the shadows, which often have an even more attractive effect in black and white than in color. You have to adjust your composition accordingly.
Many people think that contrast is just the difference between the lightest and darkest parts of a photo. By definition, this gradient has an extreme contrast because it contains both white and black:
Contrast also includes the component of closeness. The difference in brightness between two objects is clearly exaggerated when they are right next to each other. In the photo below, the light drop stands against a dark background. This image has a lot more contrast than the gradient above.
Contrast plays a big role in black and white photography, especially because of the message it sends. A high contrast photo (like the one above) gives a feeling of dynamic intensity – often because of the dark shadows. For this reason, photographers like to add some contrast to monochrome images. That makes the pictures stand out more.
Low contrast photographs don’t attract as much attention, but their softer, subdued quality can work just as well. Some of my favorite black and white pictures have only a few silver midtones and it is precisely this sophistication that makes them so good.
The level of contrast must match your subject, that’s an important point. You can adjust this to a certain extent in post-processing, but it may be wrong to take photos on a calm spring day with strong contrast that distracts from the mood. With expressive landscapes, on the other hand, a high contrast is a must for the motif to stand out.
- Tones (dark and light)
Not all photographers use the word “sound” the same way. In this case, you might understand the basic brightness, darkness, and grays that appear in a black and white photography image.
Tones are the cornerstone of every black and white photo. If you have ever heard the terms “ high-key ” or “ low-key ”, you have probably seen examples where the sounds are pushed to the limit. Most photos are neither particularly bright nor particularly dark, but rather somewhere in the middle. But you still have to pay attention to the tones. Why? Because hues like contrast send a strong message and reveal more about the mood of the picture.
It’s actually just a picture, but in two different versions – dark and light. The darker picture is mysterious and promising. The lighter, however, is somehow heavenly and joyful.
The differences above are extreme, but even tiny adjustments to the color tones can change the emotions of a picture significantly. I personally like dark, dark photos, both in black and white and in color. How well the respective tones work depends on the scene. For the two photos above, for example, I now like the brighter one more.
The most important thing is that the tones of your picture harmonize with the character of the motif itself – whether light or dark. Use them deliberately to tell your story.
Every photo is a collection of simple or complex shapes. And if there is no color, these shapes become an important part of the story you want to tell.
Look at the picture below. It shows a waterfall with trees and rocks. But on a more abstract level, you see a series of shapes that have been placed together on a canvas.
People are automatically drawn to shapes. If the color is missing, the shape is the only way to recognize a particular object. Imagine a monochrome photo of a lamp, of which you can only see the silhouette. The only colors in the picture are black and white. There are no shadows or textures that would reveal what the photo shows. Still, you see a lamp, right?
Shapes make a photo easier. Some famous viewpoints are photographed by thousands of people each year simply because you can see a mountain or river with a pleasant shape from them.
In the photo below, the photographer must have waited a few minutes so that the fog clears and the view of the mountain is clear. If parts of this triangle were covered, the photo wouldn’t look half as good.
What I don’t really have to mention are the forms of people. They are immediately recognizable and deeply emotional. In black and white photography, there is no color that makes a picture more familiar (or more abstract if that’s your goal).
While forms represent the big picture, the structures fill the rest. And like all elements of black and white photography that we have looked at so far, the structures have the power, the mood and the emotions of the photo to change.
From fine pebbles to coarse grass and from smooth aluminum to matt rust – the structure is the basis of the personality of the picture. It is difficult to take a clear, razor-sharp, contoured photo from a gentle stream. Mainly because of the soft texture of the water. But assuming you’d want that, you’d have to bring in more contrast and capture the shadows to compensate for the soft water. So you make the whole photo much more intense.
Take a look at the structures of the two images below. Think about how they will affect the mood of the pictures:
The chaotic waves in the first picture intensify the intense, auspicious mood. In comparison, the second picture has soft, repeating structures that lead to harmony and balance in the picture . If you can’t rely on color as the emotional backbone of your image, structure is all the more important. It has a huge impact on how your black and white photos feel.
The best photos usually have a deeper meaning – an indication that the photographer intentionally captured the scene in this way. The picture has structure and order. It’s not just a snapshot! In other words; it has a strong composition .
The elements in your picture change when you photograph them in black and white. For example, if you take black and white portraits, the lively eyes of your subject will change your composition considerably. The same applies to landscape photography . In this case, a golden sky can pull up the whole picture. In both cases, you have to construct your picture completely differently if you take pictures in black and white. There are countless other examples of this.
Sometimes you can use the fantasy-driven nature of black and white photography to your advantage. In the example below, the close composition eliminates the context of the scene. The lack of colors reinforces this feeling and the viewer has to spend more time looking at the picture to understand what is going on. You can achieve this type of effect more easily with black and white than with color.
Of course, you always have to pay attention to your composition, regardless of whether you are shooting in color or monochrome. It does not change when you convert the photo. When photographing in black and white, it still helps if you view your motif as monochrome right from the start. If you do that, you will rethink your composition more often and maybe turn a beautiful photo into a masterpiece.
Emotion is actually the most important thing in photography. Perfect to complete this list. All of the elements mentioned so far are primarily important because they are all tools of emotion. They help you to anchor a mood or a message in your black and white photos.
Take a look at the two examples below that show two completely different scenes. The first picture shows the architecture of Kathmandu and on the second you see mountains in France. The motives are fundamentally different, but the emotions are very similar:
Why is that? Hopefully the answer is clear: both are overcrowded high-contrast photos with rugged structures and dark shadows. Both compositions contain a similar mix of shapes and tones. Who cares that the motives are different? The feel of each picture is inevitably similar because the basic elements are too.
The picture below is the opposite in many ways. As you would expect, the emotion in this barren composition, which is free from any distractions, is completely different – namely isolation and loneliness.
Emotion is not a single variable that you need for good black and white photography. It is much more the combination of all the tools that we have talked about so far. When applied well, the other six elements of black and white photography let you form your own emotional message that appeals to the viewer and shows them something that is worth seeing.
Post-processing of black and white photography
Let’s see how you can post -process black and white images with Lightroom, Photoshop or other software.
Take a black and white picture with Lightroom
There are several ways to convert photos to black and white in Lightroom.
- The easiest way is to simply switch to «black and white» in the basic panel above. Alternatively, you can press «V» on your keyboard.
- Another option is to reduce the saturation to -100 or change the profile (under camera calibration) to monochrome.
However, these methods are not optimal because their use in the HSL tab eliminates some options that you need for setting the individual colors in the black and white mix. The HSL tab is very important for fine-tuning SW photos. But keep in mind that too much adjustment can lead to image noise . This in turn can be prevented in the window for noise reduction. However, it is better to keep the changes to a minimum from the start.
Take a black and white picture with Photoshop
With Photoshop you have even more flexibility when converting black and white photos than in Lightroom, whereby again everyone has their own method. I myself like the Camera RAW filter in Photoshop CC, which offers you the same editing options as Lightroom, just as a filter.
Of course, there are also a number of other options here. For example, it’s popular to create a channel mixer layer that gives you control over the red, blue, and green channels of your black and white photo. You could also create a black and white regulatory layer, zero the saturation, or open and convert the photo in a software plugin. In short, there are many ways to convert your image to black and white using Photoshop. It’s best to just try them all, then you can decide for yourself what suits you best.
Edit black and white photography with other software
Nowadays, it is very popular to use special third-party software to convert a photo to black and white. The most popular in this area is Nik Silver Efex Pro . Many photographers already own this program because it was available free of charge for a few years. It now costs $ 70 and has been part of the Nik Bundle since DxO bought it from Google. The software works independently or as a plugin for Lightroom and Photoshop.
I personally do not use Silver Efex Pro or other third-party software because saving the black-and-white photo eliminates all color information and therefore there is no longer a chance to convert the photo back into color (although of course you can still use the original RAW file can always take a color photo). But I have to admit that Silver Efex does a much better job when it comes to noise. Even with extreme adjustments, the noise remains very low. It should also be clear that plugins like this offer much more flexibility than Lightroom’s built-in tools.
Inspiration and ideas
If you want to take stunning black and white pictures, go out and do it! A lot of practice is the fastest way to improve your skills – both outdoors and in front of the screen. You will soon see the world in monochrome and every scene and motif will look black and white. Here are a few ideas to get you started. Oh and before I forget, of course, black and white is also popular in nude photography or even more boudoir . In these two articles you will find inspiration for these two categories. Here we stay with landscapes.
Black and white photography
Because portrait photography is very easy to handle, it’s one of the best ways to start taking black and white photos. With monochrome portraits, pay particular attention to the interplay of light and shadow. With careful lighting, you can model the shape of the face of your subject or draw attention to certain features, such as the look in the eyes or the structure of the hands. If implemented well, the results will speak volumes.
You can also use black and white as a means to distill the other person’s emotions. For example, when you take color portraits , clothing in the photo can get more attention than it should, which in turn affects your message. Monochrome helps you focus on things like facial expressions and gestures.
Black and white photography for landscapes
Monochrome landscape pictures convey a feeling of rawness. This helps them get attention. They rely on the basic characteristics of the scene – light and terrain – to tell a story. In addition, it is normal for landscapes with many colors to be conspicuous and distract from the message you want to convey. Black and white is often the best solution.
There will be moments when the colors of a landscape are perfect, but the picture just looks better in black and white. As a photographer, you often try to capture the essence of a scene. Sometimes this essence is more about shadows, texture, shape and contrast than certain tones.
Street photography in black and white
Street photography comes last . This is perhaps the only genre of photography in which people take photos in monochrome rather than in color. But why is it like that?
In a way, it’s because of the history of street photography . People like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivian Maier recorded street life exclusively in black and white and thus influenced many people who take pictures today.
But at a deeper level, color can distract from street scenes, as is less common in other genres. If you want viewers to focus on an interaction or a subtle visual play on words, you should certainly not use paint sprays to distract attention from the action (especially in cities where the position of the colors in the picture is often random). This is not to say that all good street photographs have to be black and white. It should come as no surprise that there is so much of it.
Black and white photography is not entirely without. Although you don’t have so many variables to juggle when you work without colors, you are creating a new challenge instead: taking expressive photos without having a specific tool at your disposal! If you regularly snap in color, you can rely on living clouds at sunset to take an impressive picture. Or for portrait photography, you can make your subject more lifelike by displaying the color of the eyes, hair and skin with a greater sense of realism.
None of this is possible with black and white photography. Instead, you have to work with light, shadow and the elements of the composition to tell a story and capture the emotions you have in mind. Although this requires practice, it is well worth the effort. Some messages are simply meant to be conveyed in monochrome.