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Getting Started in Black and White Photography

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Read Time: 6 min

For the youngsters amongst us, it may come as a surprise to hear that photography wasn't always a technicolour experience. Black and white isn't just an edit option in Photoshop, it's where photography began and it remains an essential means of expression for many photographers.

Step 1 - Why Use Black and White?

I've heard some traditionalists say that a shot should be black and white unless the photographer feels it benefits from colour. This notion doesn't rule out colour shots, it's merely saying that a photo's default state should be black and white. For the older generations this was an inescapable inevitability as colour wasn't an option.

You may or may not agree with this notion, but what it implies for me is that I should take strong consideration over each of my shots, and decide whether it benefits from colour or whether it is best suited for black and white.

Photo by Fleischer Steve

Step 2 - RAW, ISO and Shot Settings

From a purely practical sense, there are a few settings rules that will help you in your quest for great black and white shots. Don't make the mistake of shooting in black and white, you may feel it helps on location as you can see the results in your LCD. But if you shoot in black and white you don't have the option to convert to colour, where as if you shoot in colour, you can keep it as colour or convert it to black and white.

With this in mind, if you have the option, shoot in RAW. This will give you far more editing capabilities when it comes to converting your shots to black and white. Also, keep an eye on your ISO. As always, it is best to keep it as low as possible to avoid excessive noise, which is sometimes more of an issue when using black and white.

Photo by sibbiblue

Step 3 - Seeing in Black and White

Now it's time to start thinking in black and white. Obviously we see the world in glorious colour, but in order to get great black and white shots we need to approach our photography with black and white in mind. This isn't to say that colours should be disregarded.

It's important to think in tones (how light or dark an object is), as different colours produce different tones, for example, in colour, a red flower with green grass below it may look stunning, but in black and white, the tones may be very similar and the photo may look quite flat. We'll talk more about contrast later, but be sure to consider the tones of your black and white shots, a greater contrast of tones will make for a more engaging shot.

Photo by Nisa Yeh

Step 4 - Light (and Shadow)

Light is the main element of photography, so it is essential that we utilise it effectively and to our best advantage. Without the distraction of colour, light and shadow play a pivotal role in black and white photography, drawing the eye to highlighted parts of the shot whilst other parts are left in the shade.

When using natural light, it's important to establish the quality of light that you desire before you head out for your shoot. If you want a soft and sombre light, it's best to head out in the early morning or late evening when the sun is low, but if you want bright light, dark shadows and a more contrasty shot, then head out in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky and offering strong light.

Photo by Vitor Sá - Virgu

Step 5 - Contrast

I've mentioned contrast already, but in the absence of colour, it's important to ensure that your black and white shots have a variety of tones and strong contrasts in order to maintain interest throughout the shot. It is important to try to avoid overwhelming you shots with gray. Instead use the light to ensure you have some brighter white elements to draw in the eye and some parts of the shot with darker shaded areas to ensure good contrast.

Strong contrast is easy to obtain on bright sunny days, but be careful not to over exposure your shots with too much light. Maybe knock it down a stop or two to make sure you're not letting too much light in.

Photo by Thad Westhusing

Step 6 - Detail and Texture

Often the eye is drawn to the variety and shades of colour within a shot and attention is withdrawn from the actual detail within a shot. Try using black and white when shooting subjects with particularly interesting detail or texture. The lack of colour will really highlight the subject matter and enhance the shot.

Aim to fill the frame with the detail and don't get distracted by the real life colour, as I mentioned earlier, think in black and white, consider the tones and contrast and try to enhance the subtleties in the frame.

Photo by frankenschulz

Step 7 - Portraits

I'm sure you have seen many iconic black and white portraits before. A portraiture technique that seems to have lasted the mainstreams inclination to use mainly colour, black and white portraits maintain a more timeless quality. These portraits are used to tell the story of the person in one shot, capturing the details of the face and the expression of the subject.

They utilise light, shadow and contrast effectively. Try finding a willing subject to practise on, find a well lit location and see if you can create your own timeless black and white portrait.

Photo by fulzio rossi

Step 8 - Landscapes

Landscape shots rely on strong composition, often with foreground interest, and this isn't any different when shooting black and white. Without the distraction of colour, the lines within the shot will be highlighted. The gradients and differences in tone will become more apparent and the shapes will be more prominent.

Try taking advantage of gloomy storm clouds, which often come out very well in black and white. You can also experiment with urban landscape and architecture shots, which will again highlight strong form and shape.

Photo by stewartbaird

Step 9 - Shape and Silhouettes

Within all the previous contexts that I've mentioned, portraits, landscapes, detail shots, etc, there are many important elements to remember, such as tone, contrast, light and shadow. There are also a couple of popular choices for subject matter that it's important to keep an eye out for.

Distinctive shapes, horizontal lines, vertical lines and leading lines will all make for interesting compositional shots. Remember to utilise the option of creating silhouettes, especially when there is particularly strong light. As you practice using black and white, you'll become more tuned in to what subject matter works well and what doesn't.

Photo by ion markel

Step 10 - Experiment & Get Creative

So now it's time to get out there and give black and white photography a go for yourself. As you've read, there aren't any restrictions on subject matter, so you can head out and try shooting all your favourite subjects in black and white and see the difference it makes to your work.

Try editing a few of your colour shots to black and white, firstly, to give yourself some understanding of the editing process. This will allow you to see how it can benefit or change a shot. You may be surprised at how a few simple clicks can transform your images.

Share your favorite black and white image with us by posting a link in the comments. And please post any images you've made in black and white!

Photo by Martin Gommel
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