The time of associating black and white photography simply with old photographs has passed. Many digital photographers choose to work in monochrome, often to great effect, but why?
There are many reasons to photograph in black and white, or to post-process it that way afterwards, but it’s also something that can be easily misused or not done to full effect. Here we’ll look at some effective ways to use black and white as well as some great examples to inspire you.
What You Need
In respect of the kit you need to take a digital black and white image, it’s the same as if you were taking anything else. There’s nothing special you need to take a good black and white photograph, but there are a few small things that can help.
Neutral Density Filters
Neutral density filters go over your lens to block out the light. The extent to which they do this depends on the ‘stop’ of the glass. A 10 stop ND filter, for example, is the equivalent of blocking 10 stops of light, or reducing the light by 1000x. This allows you to have the shutter open for longer (with tripod) to create more dramatic skies or water.
These filters also come in graduated versions, meaning you can choose to block the light from a particular part of your image; just the sky for instance.
- How To Create a DIY Low-Cost Neutral Density FilterAndrew Childress04 Feb 2013
- A Neutral Density Filter PrimerPeter West Carey15 Aug 2011
A polarising filter reduces a particular wavelength, or family of wavelengths, from your image. These can cut reflections and make certain colours appear more saturated. Polarising filters are particularly useful for black and white photography as you can create a greater contrast without losing detail in the highlights.
A Good Subject
As with anything in photography, you need a good subject as the focus of your image. Not everything looks great in monochrome but the brilliant thing about shooting in digital is that you get the chance to make that decision later. Still, it pays to think about what you’re shooting in advance.
When you're thinking about the subject you also need to think about the background. An abandoned building may look great against a plain sky or field for example, but not so good in the midst of a city and its clutter.
Black and white really brings out texture and shape, so something may have more appeal once you lose the colour, than it did before.
I’m so taken by all the vibrant colours of a city at night that I never even
give thought to the fact that it could look amazing in monochrome. The muted
tones in this image make it so sleek and simple, it’s incredibly effective.
Abstracts and architectural elements often look great in black and white, allowing you to focus
more on texture, shape and symmetry.
Flat light isn’t always a bad thing. As in cases like the picture above, flat light can actually enhance your image. Softer highlights and midtones help to dramatize the shadows, creating interesting lines from the trees.
The soft greyscale
here really compliments this subject. The subtle centre spotlight keeps our
attention on her rather than the city but the buildings provide a great frame
and don’t distract due to their lack of colour.
Although I’m convinced this would have worked in colour too, there’s no
doubting that the drama in this image has been enhanced by choosing to display
it in black and white. As it’s clearly stormy (we see rain, grey skies and the
flags blowing) then the choice of colour (or lack thereof in this case) really
hammers home how we’re supposed to interpret this image.
We can’t talk about monochrome without also talking about colour. The temperature of an image, what people are wearing and the background colours can all be an integral part of how we see the picture. Take away the colour, take away distractions.
This will shift your focus to other points; do all of the elements now work together? Is there enough definition between foreground and background?
- Seeing in Colour: How Our Eyes Sense and Cameras RecordDawn Oosterhoff24 Sep 2015
- Bold Colours: How to Apply Colour Theory in Your Photo CompositionsMarie Gardiner08 Apr 2015
If you want to make great black and white imagery then there’s probably a reason. So, what is it? What do you want to communicate to your audience?
Softer tones in black and white, or greyscale photographs can convey love, mystery, romanticism! Think of old black and white movies: just the term ‘old black and white’ movies conjures up a sense of nostalgia and it can be the same with your photographs.
When we think black and white, we can tend to think drama, lots of contrast and deep tones. It’s almost the opposite of what we think of in a colour photograph. When was the last time you tried to make a colour landscape have as much contest as possible?
Our eyes are drawn to contrast; the differences between the light and dark parts of your image. Increasing the difference gives it more and decreasing it, less.
An image doesn’t always need this ‘pop’ though, it depends entirely on what you’re trying to convey. A landscape might have more drama and ‘ooh’ factor with dark shadows and bright highlights, but what about a portrait? Images don’t always have to have punch to them. The look of a picture and its interpretation can often come down to the light. You don’t need fat white clouds or bright sunshine to get a great black and white photograph. Think of a dull, misty day with flat light, like one of our examples had above. Would that have worked quite as well with full drama?
- How to Retouch Portrait Photos Using Dodge and BurnMarie Gardiner22 Oct 2021
- How to Make Local Contrast Adjustments With Curves in Adobe PhotoshopMarie Gardiner18 May 2016
Negative space becomes easier to showcase when you take away colour. Think of a boring, empty sky in colour. It may be blue, it may be dull grey but there still won’t be much of interest for a viewer. Now consider that same sky in black and white: suddenly it’s great ‘negative’ space and can help make your subject really stand out in comparison.
Leading lines and textures also work well when you ditch the complication of colour. Something that is ‘ugly’ to see in colour, can become an interesting study in shape or texture when in black and white. Think of black mold on a white tiled wall, or dirty puddles on a light pavement.
- Composition and Design Fundamentals for PhotographersShruti Shekar11 Jan 2016
- How to See and Compose Photographs at NightAnthony James23 Dec 2021
Capture in RAW
RAW files give you much more scope when it comes to post-processing. They retain all of the data from your sensor without compressing or losing any information. You need a parametric image editor like Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom to make sense of this data, but it means you can make far more intricate changes without losing quality, than you could shooting JPEG.
- More Courses on RAW Photo ProcessingAndrew Blackman17 Sep 2015
- Adobe Camera Raw in 60 SecondsMarie Gardiner10 Nov 2015
I’ve already mentioned shooting in RAW and making some edits there, but there are alternatives when processing. A favourite of mine, is Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2, part of the Nik Collection, formerly paid for software which is now free to use.
This software has a range of black and white adjustments that are incredibly quick and easy to use. You can choose pre-sets and leave them ‘as is’, or you can fine tune each one to get a really bespoke look.
Grain, or noise shows up much more in black and white images. This is not necessarily a problem though! Some monochrome images look great with a bit of texture and it can in fact improve their appearance and enhance the mood you’re trying to convey.
Over-editing can be a problem too. Too many adjustments can leave an image looking overdone, so knowing when to stop is a real skill. Working on non-destructive layers and saving your progress as an editable file like a PSD in Photoshop means that if you make a mistake or you have your image printed and it doesn’t look great, you can go back and work on your picture without starting from scratch.
- Unlikely Friends: Grain, Noise, and SharpeningHarry Guinness15 Jun 2016
- Big Beautiful Grain Adds Atmosphere to ImagesSimon Plant29 Sep 2014
Top Tips to Getting Monochrome Shots
- Try filters to add drama to skies and water, or to reduce reflections.
- Don’t rely on post-processing to make a great image: have in mind what you want to achieve from the start.
- Shoot in RAW to capture as much image data as possible.
- Think about key elements like light, contrast and negative space.
- Try a free resource like Silver Efex Pro to really give your pictures a punch.
- How to Use Colour Balance for Advanced Black and White Conversion in Adobe Lightroom: Adjusting an the white balance of a digital image is an incredibly powerful way to control how Adobe Photoshop Lightroom interprets the colours in your image when you convert to black and white
- Black and White Fun with Macphun's Tonality: Learn how to create a fun and expressive black and white post-processing workflow with some seriously good pre-sets.
- Solarized Like Zayn: The Digital Sabattier Effect for Surreal Black and White Portraits: Try the solarization effect that used in Pillowtalk, the latest music video from Zayn.
I think most of us enjoy nice monochrome images. We see the world in colour and having it presented to us in a different and more abstracted way can create real intrigue.
Whether it’s high contrast and drama, or something more subtle in soft grey tones, there’s no denying that black and white, when used well, can have great impact and effect. Remember to try and picture what it is you want, as you’re shooting. Even though we have the benefit of digital, it still helps other aspects of your image, like composition, to have a goal in mind before you get to the processing stage.
If you’re unsure as to whether something would look right in black and white then try and look at the scene objectively. Is the scene ‘busy’? Are there a lot of colours and do those colours clash horribly or work well? If the colours are a distraction or there’s too much going on then chances are it might work better in monochrome.
Try photographic filters to help reduce reflections and to allow longer shutter speeds, which in turn can create drama in movement. Shoot in RAW to be able to go further with your adjustments and when post-processing, try not to go ‘too far’. Keep in mind your original idea for the image and save your work as an editable file to give you the chance to change your mind later without having to start over.
using software to make your life easier. Free to use programs can give you as much or little control as you want and can yield some truly