Black and White Photography

Tips & Tricks

Many camera lovers adore black and white photography, and it is often thought of an upper-class style of imagery. It is, after all, the very root of modern photography and can make an image look classical and sophisticated.

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What Makes a Good Black and White Photograph?

Capturing a strong, effective black and white image can be extremely satisfying. Great black and white photography rely heavily on a good understanding of tone, texture and contrast. Far from being boring, black and white images can be dramatic and emotive – if you know what you are doing!

Before you start on a B&W adventure, you really need to appreciate and understand how tones in B&W work, compared to coloured images. This is because when you take a picture and convert all the colours into shades of grey, suddenly the lighting, tone, contrast, shape, and texture become the major striking elements. Of course, there are some subjects that work better in black and white than others, such as portraits and architecture.


Why these subjects though?

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Firstly, for portraits, black and white enhances emotion and feeling, the distracting colour is all stripped away, and it allows the audience to connect with the subject’s eyes, body and expression.

With architectural photography, buildings demonstrate their best shape and form in black and white. Therefore, it can help us to see their strong structural lines in clear definition away from the background, providing you’ve positioned the camera correctly!

Subjects such as flowers, food, close-ups and abstract photography don’t always work as well. There is a necessary level of colour needed in those areas to help an audience understand the story and content of the shot.


Black and White Filters

If you’re the technical type of photographer who loves an accessory or gadgets, then you may find B&W lens filters really helpful to your shooting.

Here are a few examples;

Yellow filters are a staple diet amongst black and white photographers. Blue skies are darkened, which helps to increase the separation with the clouds. Other colours like green, red, orange and yellow will appear brighter.

Red filters will turn white and green foliage to appear very dark. If you want red flowers to pop then use this filter, but be aware that light green turns darker, so surrounding grass can blend in. Red filters work best on close up or macro shots.

Blue filters are not the most popular, yet the warm colours will be darkened and red turned into black, which can help to separate elements in a colourful photo. It also increases mist in landscapes to create an atmosphere.

What is High Key Black and White Photography?

In black and white photography, we use the terms High Key and Low Key when discussing lighting. These terms refer to the level of contrast between light and dark in a photo.

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High Key is where the image consists of mostly black and white (or light and dark), with few or no middle grey tones.  It is used to focus the viewer on the subject. The background should be bright, but the lighting on the main subject diffused – this then produces light, clean looking high key images.

The final image should look clean cut and neat. However, the outline of your subject needs to be well defined and impactful to achieve that high key look. Keep an eye out for subjects that have strong shapes to them such as buildings, trees and mountains.

Small apertures such as f11-f22 are ideal for high key photographs as they reduce the transition between white and black tones, making the image look more contrasted. Wait for strong sunshine high in the sky if you don’t have bright lights.

What is Low Key Black and White Photography?

Low Key is a low-contrast image, where the tones of the highlights and shadows are all very similar (mostly very dark tones). It is a particularly useful technique for creating intense photographs with added mood or emotion. This is why dramatic black and white portraits tend to be shot in a low key style.

Try to ensure that no light falls onto your background, keep it very dark (even black if possible). The only thing that should be lit is your main subject. Remember, the further away your subject is from the background, the darker it will appear.

Soft lighting is more suited for low key black and white photos. Specifically, cloudy days or normal household lighting should suffice as you’re simply looking for an even spread of light that you can place your subject in the path of.

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Wide apertures around f4-f5.6 will help the camera ingest more light making the transition from shadows to highlights longer, creating a low contrasted image. With this in mind, keep to one light source and block out others if necessary.

A black and white low key photograph will look dark and intriguing. The lure of the shadows draws a viewers attention in further looking for more detail. These enticing images look great if you are trying to create mood and atmosphere which we’ll come on to shortly.

You can read more about low key photography in this dedicated article.

Top Tip – Remember High Key is high amounts of white/light. Whereas Low Key is the low amounts of light.

Should I Shoot in Black and White?

Should you use the black and white presets on your camera to get the best black and white photograph?

Well, only you can truly answer that question, but let us help you inform on how to make the decision. There are 3 ways you can approach shooting black and white photographs with a digital camera these days;

Shooting in JPEG Colour

If you like to save space on your memory card and shoot in JPEG that’s fine, but you’ll need to spend time editing your favourite pictures into B&W afterwards. The benefit of this is that you can select which ones to convert as opposed to all of them being B&W, and you’ll still have the colour version if you make a copy.

Shooting in JPEG B&W

It’s a brave decision to shoot everything in black and white as you’ll never be able to change it back to colour or do creative colour splash techniques. It’s fine if you’re just playing about for the first time and you’re just focusing on getting the shapes and angles right. Every camera brand converts images to black and white differently. Similarly, B&W lens filters affect your images differently. By shooting in JPEG B&W, you’ll never be able to change the filtration style afterwards.

Shooting in RAW

Despite the size of raw files reducing your memory card space, this is probably the best option for taking B&W images. Simply because the camera will still allow you to use a black and white preview on your LCD screen. Therefore you can measure up the angle, composition and tone of the shot appropriately but your final photograph will be in colour. This will allow you to edit the raw file into B&W using different filtration modes and contrast levels – and if you don’t like it, you’ve still got the colour version to fall back on.

Wouldn’t it be easier to shoot RAW + JPEG then?

That would just take up more space than a RAW file alone. As long as you have software such as Photoshop, Lightroom or GIMP then you’ll create the JPEG once you’ve edited it. At least the JPEG will look exactly how you want it then!

black and white camera close up vintage aperture ring digital dslr lens glass photography

Converting Colour to Black and White

When you want to convert a colour photo to black and white, never just convert it to grayscale. Thus reducing all colour channels (RGB) to an identical, unsaturated level. As a result, your image will then need a lot of work, and it will also usually produce a very dull, flat image.

Instead, using Photoshop for example, what you need to do is simple:

  • De-saturate the image (while keeping the RGB channels intact).
  • Fine-tune the image’s contrast levels using the curves tool.
  • Adjust the shadows and highlights in certain areas using the Dodge and Burn tools.

If you want to get more creative with your black and white editing, then try making a dramatic colour splash on your image. See how to do it here.

Top Tip – If you use Lightroom the process is the same, but the tools are laid out differently.

How to Create Emotions and Atmosphere

One of the wonderful things about black and white photography is its ability to draw in on the audience’s emotions and tell a story. If you want to create a feeling of loneliness, emptiness, sadness – black and white images work perfectly. Think along the lines of stormy skies, eerie forests, broken windows or a misty path.

The colour black holds (and portrays) power, fear, intimidation, grief and mystery. You can use these to connect with your audience and manipulate their emotions. It is possible to provide additional depth and perspective, whilst also creating elegant and modern images.

During the iPhotography Course you have learnt about composition, contrast, lighting, special effects and shutter speeds. As a result, your black and white photographs will become very powerful, dramatic, impressive and striking pieces of modern art.

In particular, look for bright or illuminated objects in dark surroundings. Alternatively, use friends and family to pose for you in a dark room.

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Hopefully, these tips and tricks will help you understand how to take better black and white photographs. If you’re a member of our iPhotography community, we’d love to see your black and white results in the student gallery. If you aren’t already a member then get on board with this amazing special offer!


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