What makes a good black + white image? The interest that color brings is gone, so things like light, shadows, lines, patterns, movement, and textures become even more important in keeping that interest in your photographs. Black + white photography is something I am so passionate about; it is a huge part of my work. I love the simplicity, the emotion that shines through, and the calming feeling it gives me. I find myself visualizing things in black + white even when I am not shooting. Certain scenes just stand out to me as being good candidates for a black + white photo. I’m hoping that the tips I offer here will help you to see the world in monochrome too, which will help you in creating black + white images you love.
*Texture in her dress and movement in her dancing definitely add interest to this black + white photo.
Shoot in Monochrome
A simple way to immediately see your image and the world around you in monochrome, is to shoot in monochrome. Adjusting the settings to do this will vary by camera, so I couldn’t possibly include that much info here, but if you’re unsure of how to do so on your camera, a quick google search is your friend. ;) I love shooting this way because it allows you to really focus on the scene in black + white rather than in color. It forces you to take a closer look at your composition, the light, and other elements such as leading lines and texture. In order to bring out the best in those things in a black + white photograph, you may need to expose the photo differently than if you were shooting for a color photograph. If you find it hard to visualize a scene in black + white, seeing the images you’ve taken in monochrome on your LCD screen immediately after will help you with that. You’ll learn to see shades of grey rather than color. Something to keep in mind for those of you who shoot in RAW is, the images will go back to color when you load them to your computer. If you want them to remain black + white permanently, you’ll need to shoot in JPEG. Shooting them in RAW, though, is nice because you’ll have them both in color and black + white.
Wait what? I thought we were talking about black + white, not color! Well, color is a natural part of our world, so obviously it plays a part in the making of a black + white photograph. Every color produces a different shade of grey, from black to white. Learning to see those grey tones in the colors around you, will help you to know what will make a good black + white photograph. Think about the color wheel and colors that offer high contrast when paired together, such as yellow and blue. Now think about colors that don’t offer much contrast when paired together, such as red and orange. When converted, red and orange together are going to look almost the same and won’t offer much contrast; whereas yellow and blue will. I thought it it would be fun to show a side by side of this photo of a rainbow umbrella so you can see in a photo how several colors transfer to grey tones. You’ll notice how some of the colors sort of blend together while others stand part from each other very vividly. You can also see that yellow and white appear almost identical once converted. Watching for contrasting colors in scenery and clothing is a great way to spot a good black + white opportunity.
Black + White imagery is the perfect candidate for applying a minimalist aspect to your work. Really stripping down the content, simplifying even more than simply converting to black + white already does. If you live somewhere that gets foggy certain times of the year, fog is an excellent way to achieve this look. Some of my most favorite photos were taken while it was foggy. I love the simplicity and the quiet it brings to the photo. Fog isn’t the only way to achieve a minimalistic look in your work, though. Any scene with pared-down elements will work and really lends itself to black + white imagery
Mood + Emotion
Black + white photography is known for it’s ability to show emotion, and convey a particular mood, in a way that color cannot. Eliminating the distraction of color, allows you to not just see the photo, but really feel it. The textures, patterns, light, it all creates a mood that is so much stronger in monochrome. Many times, a simple portrait will transfer a much stronger connection to the viewer when converted to black and white. In the photo below of my son, I captured a look that he often gave me that just melts my heart. Shooting this image in black + white made that feeling and look much stronger.
Light + Shadows
Light, light, light. I could talk it about it all day. When it comes to black + white photographs, I love using low, moody light. More than that, I love taking advantage of shadows. Doing so adds so much more interest and mood to a black + white image. When I say shadows, this can be interpreted in so many ways. Shadows are everywhere, some are more pronounced than others, but they are always present as long as there is light. In the early morning and late afternoon/evening, when the shadows are long, that is often the best time to incorporate shadows into your work. Look to light + shadows to bring out features in your subject that you want to highlight.
This is the part everyone wants to learn about – how to convert to black + white. It is important to be able to do so well, but I want to stress the importance of truly seeing the world in monochrome and getting a strong image in camera before stressing over how to edit. Know your vision before you shoot. Many photographers (in the digital era) start out feeling like Photoshop is the answer to getting great photographs whether they are in color or black + white. Well, that is simply not the case. Once you’re able to shoot confidently and get a great image in camera, editing will become a breeze. Now, having said that, processing a black + white photo in a way that is pleasing to the viewer is important, so I will touch on this part of the process. I use Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) + Photoshop to edit so that is what will be discussed here. In ACR, I really don’t do a whole lot to the photo. I will typically bump the contrast a smidge and lighten the shadows and am careful not to add too much brightness to the photo just yet. That is just my particular process though, and may not work for everyone. In Photoshop, there are obviously so many ways to add depth and contrast to your image. A simple gradient layer conversion is not enough to create a strong black + white image. There is the obvious “Brightness + Contrast” layer, but there are other ways to bring out the contrast. My personal preference is levels. (Levels and curves do basically all of the same things – just two different tools.) Levels can do so many different things – use it to increase the blacks and brighten the whites. You may need to use a layer mask to increase blacks, for example, to only certain parts of your photograph. Say you have a distracting background, and simply converting doesn’t eliminate that distractions enough. You can darken that area to bring the viewers eyes back to the subject. Masking is such a valuable tool in keeping certain parts of the photograph from getting too bright or too dark when trying to change just one part of the photo. Learning to use Photoshop well is important and there is a lot more that I can’t possibly cover here, but hopefully these little tips will help.
*The left area of this photograph was darkened and cloned to remove distractions. I was careful to keep some of the wall behind her lit up to keep depth in the photo.
*The strong shadows in this photo pair well with the intense look on his face, but I wanted his left eye (camera right) to be just a tad more visible. Using levels and a layer mask made that possible without making the rest of the photo too bright.
*The dim light entering the room at dusk was creating a subtle, natural spotlight where he was playing. The background was still just barely visible so darkening that out really helped put the emphasis on him.
My biggest advice, is to observe light and various elements around you; discover what works well in a black + white image. Once you learn to see the world in grey tones, once you can block out the noise of color, that’s when you create stunning black + white images. Knowing when to convert is important, I find it’s sort of an instinct. When you are truely passionate about the work you’re shooting, you’ll know when the mood and emotions are right for a black + white image. Find natural contrast in light and shadows to set the mood, use texture and patterns to add details when color is gone, and appreciate simplicity.