12 Black and White Photography Tips

A long time ago photographers didn’t have the choice of using colour, so they were forced to take all their photos in black and white. Now that colour photography is here, some have started migrating back to black and white, perhaps unimpressed by the realistic, down-to-earth feeling colour photos give. However, even black and white photography enthusiasts still take some of their photos in colour, because it is better suited for some subjects.

Tip 1: Visualize In Black And White

Visualizing how a scene would look in B&W is key to being successful at black and white photography. First try visualizing how the contrasting textures and tones will translate into black and white. Contrasting colours won’t necessarily equal contrasting shades of grey though, some contrasting colours are very similar shades in black and white, but with a bit of practice you’ll be taking eye catching photos in no time. You don’t need to take every photo in black and white, eventually you’ll learn what works better in black and white and what works better in colour. To get some practice you could try converting all your old colour photos into black and white in Photoshop and you’ll soon work out what works and what doesn’t.

Tip 2: Choosing A Subject

Certain subjects are more suited for black and white, while others are more dramatic left in colour. Scenes with very strong, contrasting colours, like autumn foliage or a sunset make a much better image leaving the colours in, and converting to black and white can create a dull image with very little contrast. Some good subjects that work well in black and white are portraits of people, because this better emphasizes the shapes and lines of the subjects face, older people are especially good for this. Older, vintage items work well in black and white also, and often create a vintage looking photo that looks like it was taken decades ago. Also, snowy winter landscapes have lots of contrasting tones and textures which work very well in black and white.

Tip 3: Composing The Shot

All the same composition rules that apply to colour photography such as lead in lines and the rule of thirds also apply to black and white. But there’s a few differences in what you need to look for in the scene. For a colour photo you will usually be looking for strong, contrasting colours but for black and white you should focus more on textures and how the different colour tones will look in black and white. Some things to look out for are simple, strong shapes and very high and low key areas such as sunlight through clouds and dark shadows.

Tip 4: Contrast, Shape And Texture

For black and white photography you’re relying on a range of shades of grey, and so the larger the range, the more contrast and eye catching your image will turn out. A good image would usually have a large range of shades of grey, but a mostly high key or low key (light or dark) shot works well also. Also take note that strong contrasting colours doesn’t always translate to contrasting blacks and whites, for example reds and greens when converted tend to come out similar shades of grey. Also look out for simple shapes, which are often defined by the contrast between dark, shadowy areas and lighter areas of the photo. Texture is also an important part of black and white photography, some good subjects to include are clouds or waves breaking on a beach. Texture is best emphasized by side or backlighting (facing towards the light source), but if you use frontlighting (the light source behind you), you can often lose a lot of the texture.

Tip 5: Keep It Simple

Don’t clutter your photo with lots of unnecessary, distracting objects. Using black and white is all about removing the endless range of colours which can be distracting, and instead focusing on the simple shapes and form of your subject. This is a good tip when taking portraits, try removing any objects in the background, and blur it using a small F number then focus on the subjects face.

Tip 6: Use Colour

Always take your photos in colour, because image editing software like Photoshop can convert your photos much better than your camera. Also you have more options when editing them to adjust settings like black and white mix, which you can’t do if the camera takes them in black and white, because all the colour information is discarded. If you want to take the photo in black and white, a way around this is to set the image mode to JPEG and Raw which will give you a JPEG in black and white and a Raw file with all the original colour information.

Tip 7: Filters

To get the most out of your black and white photos it’s useful to learn when and what filters to use. When shooting in colour, a polarizer is useful for bringing out colour contrast such as clouds against a blue sky. Also very useful is an ND graduated filter, which is usually used to stop the sky from overexposing and the details being washed out. Single colour filters are a good option for bringing out more contrast, especially in the sky. They come in a range of colours such as red, orange and yellow. The red filter will give you the strongest effect by turning blue skies very dark and outputting very dramatic photos, although this can be too much for some people. The yellow filter is the weakest and doesn’t always give enough of an effect, but the orange filter should be a good choice for most scenes. If you don’t want to carry colour filters around, an alternative is to use colour filter modes, which is an option most DSLR’s give of replicating the effect of the filters in-camera.

Tip 8: Lighting

The positioning of your light source is very important because this determines if shadows are in the scene on your photo or not. Shooting towards the sun when it’s low in the sky will emphasize the long shadows your subject creates, and can act as lead in lines which is a bonus. For portrait photography generally you want back or sidelighting, because although frontlighting will fully light up the subject, you lose some of the texture and often create a more uninteresting photo. If you choose to use backlighting for your subject, depending on the position of the sun they will probably end up hidden in shadow, but a way to remedy this is to use some fill in flash although this will remove the shadows you wanted to create in the first place.

Tip 9: Flat Light

Flat light is every photographers nightmare, and for some subjects in these conditions you might not be able to get a decent shot, but if you look for light and dark contrasting areas you can still make it work. For example, mist and snow works well to create lighter areas, and rocks, footpaths and roads make a good contrast with these.

Tip 10: HDR

Black and white relies heavily on the range of tones in the image, so to make the most of this, taking a few images at different exposures and combining them will give you many more tones to work with, and this often creates a more dramatic photo. You can do this by using an in-camera setting if yours has one for taking multiple exposures, or by combining multiple exposures in Photoshop using layer blending modes.

Tip 11: ISO

In black and white there’s no right setting concerning ISO. Depending how high or low you set your ISO, you will get a more or less grainy image, with higher ISO settings giving more grain. On newer, higher end cameras this is dealt with a lot better and you would need a much higher ISO to notice any grain than on a cheaper camera. But grain can add an old, vintage look to your photo which is sometimes desirable, but once you’ve made the choice there’s no undoing it, so grain is probably best added in post production.

Tip 12: Post Production

Rarely will you achieve an acceptable image just by converting it to black and white, almost all images need at least some adjusting in editing software. Probably the most popular applications used for image editing are Photoshop and Lightroom.

Here’s a few black and white photography tips for editing your photos in Lightroom

  • Try increasing the clarity, this should bring out the details better, giving your photos a more sharp, contrasty, realistic look.
  • The black and white sliders are useful for increasing or decreasing the brightness of the blacks and whites, which is useful for getting those dark blacks and bright whites,
  • If you capture your photo in colour or RAW format, with the black and white mix you can change the tones of the blacks and whites for each colour, for example moving the red slider changes the black or white intensity of all the reds from the original colour photo.

Here’s a few black and white photography tips for editing your photos in Photoshop

  • The black and white adjustment tool is great for adjusting the brightness of each colour. This tool gives you 6 colour sliders, which you can move to make the corresponding colour lighter or darker in black and white.
  • The levels adjustment tool is useful for changing the brightness of the shadows, midtones and highlights individually, and so you can use this to make a more dramatic photo by making the shadows dark blacks and the highlights bright whites.
  • If you don’t have a newer version of Photoshop, you can use the channel mixer tool instead of the black and white adjustment tool. This tool gives you the ability to change the brightness of 3 colours- red, blue and green, but if you have a newer version the black and white adjustment tool is a better option with 6 colour sliders.
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