Some of the most iconic images in all of photography are black and white photographs. The very first photograph ever made was in black & white. For many years of film photography, almost all pictures were monochrome. However black & white photography has taken a back seat to color photography, especially now in this age of digital imaging.
Needless to say, much of the skills of black & white digital photography are the same skills for color digital photography. But, certain processes and procedures are specific to either color or black & white. Some of the most useful black & white photography tips are surprisingly easy to incorporate into our photo skills set.
The most useful black & white photography tips are available to photographers of all skill levels. Whether an intermediate or advanced photographer, or even a beginner, the skills and tips or tricks of monochrome imaging can improve your own images. Learning how to make good black & images will also enable you to make excellent color photographs.
17 Awesome Black & White Photography Tips [Beginners + Advanced]
1. Look at Your Older Photographs
If you have been in photography for a long time, you likely started out in film. Many intermediate and advanced film photographers tried their hand at black & white at some point. Some of you may even have experience in darkroom, developing your own film, printing your own pictures.
Regardless of how involved you may have been (or not, even) in film or B&W in the past, an examination of your older images can help out now in a lot of ways. One thing this review does is remind you of the photographic process you were using at the time. Besides the image itself, and whatever exposure data you may remember or have available, you were probably thinking about how you wanted the finished result to look.
What this does, and why this step is the first of the useful black & white photography tips listed, is it reminds you that you are a photographer. You’re not merely capturing some digital snapshot, you’re crafting a work of art. The tools are secondary to this process. Film, full-frame digital, iPhone, all are valid media. Let your art shine through.
As a side note, not a tip, there’s nothing wrong with snapshots. I take them all the time. But if you’re reading an article about black and white photography, you are thinking of more than snapshots right now, aren’t you?
Now, we’re in the moment. We’ve reviewed our past art, we’re taking photographs now. Many very successful photographers utilize the method of previsualization. You probably find yourself doing this all the time without realizing it.
To previsualize means to consider what your final result will look like. If you are trying to create a somber feel, you will frame your subject and adjust your exposure options accordingly. Is a light, airy, or high key effect what you’re attempting? Then you adjust your initial thoughts with that in mind.
Ansel Adams pioneered and championed use of the Zone System. The Zone System is one of the methods that can be employed for the photographer to be in complete control of the entire photographic process, and the basic principles still apply with modern digital imaging.
If you have the time, it’s a good read to research the Zone System, even if you never have or never will shoot film.
3. Shoot In RAW
RAW files have more information in them than JPEG files. So, having a camera capable of shooting in RAW is a huge advantage for black & white. Having all the color information and exposure values from the sensor allows you to really work those differences between colors in B&W.
Similar to black and white, the different colors record and react to processing differently. Though black and white, the color red will behave differently than blue, or yellow, or green. In RAW, those differences can be processed for different contrast and brightness, even saturation.
You can process a JPEG to black & white, but the file will be limited in how far you could take it in any direction.
4. Stick to One Editing Program
At first, anyways. Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, ACDSee, DXO Photo Lab, Corel Paintshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements can all be used to process a file into a black and white image. Staying with one program to begin with will allow you to see what different things can be done with your files, and also allow you to get used to seeing the changes.
Then, you can get better at previsualizing, because you will have gotten used to what the tools do for the files. After you get it down, then branch out to other programs to experience the differences. You may still find yourself preferring one program over another, and that’s fine.
5. Use Plug Ins
Especially for the Adobe programs, lots of photographers and graphic artists have found that plug ins are a great way to get the programs to give you a desired effect. Whether free downloads or purchased, the right B&W plug in can get you in the ballpark for what you want to do with that image file.
Whenever using a plug in, take a look at just what tools are being utilized and by how much. A slider’s value, what direction to change, which things enhance other tools and which things cancel out other changes, these are all things that taking a good look at what is being done can teach you.
Many plug ins can be customized by individual photographers for their own specific needs, and then saved as a version of the plug in. The more you do this, the more you will be previsualizing as you shoot, knowing what can be changed and by how much.
6. Shoot Specifically for B&W
Sometimes, you may be able to save a weak color image by converting to black and white, but beginning with a weak image is never a guarantee of success. Far better to begin with an image that is strong, especially if you have good previsualizing skills.
Since you’ve been utilizing a good image processing program, you have learned how that program works with certain colors, contrasts, and exposure values. So, you will set an ISO value, meter off of one part of the scene or another, and over or under expose as needed.
That’s part of the old Zone System method, too, simply applied to digital files now.
7. Look at Contrast
While a color image can have contrasting colors, a B&W image may need to rely more on tonal values. In color, red contrasts vividly with yellow, but processing into black and white has the capability to make them look almost the same.
Targeting the colors in the program is one way of adjusting contrast, playing around with the light levels in the original photograph while shooting is another. Both ways are valid, but it helps to know how they are different and what similarities they have.
8. Control the Light
Sometimes this means moving around for a different composition. Sometimes it means using light modifiers such as reflectors or scrims. Sometimes it means exposing for either a highlight or a shadow. Or it could mean a little bit of all of that.
Controlling light and contrast is how early photographer made amazing and iconic images in black and white. You can do that now with your DSLR or mirrorless cameras.
9. Pay Attention to Textures
Controlling light and contrast can either enhance or minimize textures in you subject. If you’re shooting an interesting looking tree, you may want to enhance the texture. If you’re shooting a glamorous style portrait, you could be intending to soften or minimize texture.
Those aren’t hard and fast rules. A face can become an interesting study of texture. Likewise, a craggily view of tree bark or stone can be changed into something completely different by minimizing the texture. Sometimes this can be done by controlling the light direction or intensity, it can also be adjusted by different camera settings.
10. Use Filters
When discussing advanced photographic techniques, filters are something that attach to the front of a lens, not a gimmicky social media effect.
A polarizer is one of the most useful filters for B&W. It really has an affect on contrast when used for that effect. By using a polarizer, and adjusting exposure, a photographer can create an almost black sky with stark white clouds. Play around with it, film is cheap.
Polarizers aren’t the only filters useful for B&W, neutral density filters are as well. A graduated ND filter is actually somewhat easier to use in B&W, in some photographer’s opinions anyways.
Then there are the color filters designed for contrast effects with B&W film. These are still useful, but not as vital for digital imaging because of the extreme processing power in even the most basic of editing programs. Experiment with them, have fun.
11. Dodge and Burn
The terms are a holdover from the days of silver halide processes and printing with an enlarger, but the effect is the same with the editing programs that offer this feature. These tools let you selectively add or subtract exposure intensity to a specific part of your image.
Tool adjustments include the size and shape of the area, as well as how much change occurs. Very useful for bringing out a subtle detail or calming a blown out spot.
12. Learn to Read the Histogram
On digital cameras, the histogram is one of the most valuable displays you can view. What is shows is the actual light values of your exposures. In some cameras, this can even be separated by individual colors.
Much like the printed data sheets that came with film and showed the gamma curve of the film with different processing methods, the histogram is daunting to look at. At first, anyways. Once you get used to what the histogram is telling you, it can be your best friend, telling you almost exactly what is happening concerning exposure.
13. Master the HSL Tool
In several Adobe programs, there is a tool that enables you to adjust the Hue, Saturation, and Luminance of specific colors. Several other non Adobe programs have a similar tool, just labeled a little differently. In ACDSee, it’s called Color EQ.
This is why digital B&W imagery doesn’t really need the color filters designed for B&W film. If you are using RAW files, then there is a lot of information to change one way or the other. Target a specific color to change how bright it looks, or how saturated it appears. This will enhance your black and white final results. The amount of variation available is staggering.
Besides the histogram, this is one of the more intimidating tools for beginners. Once mastered, though, you will wonder how you ever got along without it. It’s one of the more useful black and white photography tips.
14. Look for Patterns
While shooting, train yourself to notice patterns. Some patterns are obvious, others are more subtle. In black and white, a pattern can become the subject all by itself. Light can create or accentuate the pattern, so can texture and contrast.
15. High Key, Low Key
This works in color, too, but in B&W, exposing and processing for either of these effects can drastically change the feel of the image. High key is exposed and processed to emphasize the lighter, brighter side of things, low key is the opposite. It doesn’t have to mean blown out highlights or pitch dark shadows, a full range of exposure values can exist within the image with either effect.
High dynamic range is a wonderful method to get outstanding B&W images. HDR blends highlights and shadow areas to extend the range of brightness levels within the image. Usually accomplished by combining multiple exposures with a program, some cameras can do it in camera.
As with all of the tools available to photographers, this can be utilized subtly or with great effect. Lots of information is available on how to best utilize HDR in your digital imaging.
17. Fully Commit to Shooting B&W
Instead of browsing through your old images to see what you can convert to black and white, commit some photoshoots to black and white. In other words, go out there with the intent on making B&W pictures. Not saying to give up on color. Simply, spend a day in a black and white frame of mind.
There’s nothing wrong with playing with older files, but if you fully commit to a day of black and white photography, and make use of one or more of these useful black and white photography tips, you will open a new area of creativity for your art.
Shooting for B&W will also improve your color imaging, as you become more in tune with photography at its most basic level. Besides, it’s a ton of fun! To learn more about shooting black and white, check out this guide and hopefully this article on black and white tips help! Happy shooting!