5 Black-and-white Photography Tips

By: Clint Pumphrey

Black-and-white portraits make for intriguing images.
Black-and-white portraits make for intriguing images.

In our full-color, digital world, black-and-white photography may seem like a thing of the past. But for many photographers, monochromatic images have the ability to convey the simple, raw emotion of people, landscapes and other subject matter in a way that color can't. Qualities like light and shadow, along with pattern and texture are emphasized in stunning fashion when the emotional attachments of color are eliminated.

Black-and-white photography is a delicate art that requires great attention to equipment, process, composition, lighting and tonality. The following pages will help you choose the proper gear and learn the necessary technique to make striking monochromatic images of your very own.


5: Choose the Right Equipment

If you decide to delve into black-and-white photography, the first thing you should consider is the type of camera and accessories you'll need. Over the last decade, digital cameras have come to dominate the market and are the equipment of choice among many professionals. However, it may surprise you to know that many enthusiasts still choose to shoot with film cameras. There's really no right or wrong choice when it comes to selecting a camera medium; it's more a matter of personal preference. Some hobbyists like to develop their own film and appreciate the unique character that the developing process gives to the image. Still, there are reasons that digital photography has become so popular. Digital picture files can be edited to achieve perfect brightness and contrast and can be enlarged to sizes much bigger than 35 mm film.

Lenses and filters are also important to consider when working with black-and-white photography. Because a good monochromatic image relies so heavily on tonality and sharp contrast, you'll want to get a quality lens that can best capture these properties. Filters are also useful in black-and-white photography, even though their main function is to block certain colors from passing through the lens. For example, a red filter can make a blue sky look almost black, creating a striking contrast with the clouds.


4: Explore Conversion Options

A swing lost in the snow -- it wouldn't be the same in color.
A swing lost in the snow -- it wouldn't be the same in color.

With digital technology, you can shoot black-and-white images using a number of different techniques. Before the days of pixels and memory cards, if you wanted to take monochromatic pictures, you loaded a camera with black-and-white film. With digital cameras, it's a little more complicated: You can either shoot directly in black-and-white or convert your color images later.

Many digital cameras have settings that allow you to preview your images in black-and-white or even see black-and-white through the viewfinder as you're taking pictures. This mode is especially useful for beginners because it allows users to instantly evaluate and revise their images. Furthermore, color is removed from the process, allowing photographers to focus on qualities like light, pattern and texture without unnecessary distraction.


Digital photographers can also convert their color images to black-and-white using their computers' imaging software. This is a popular technique because the user can apply a wide range of filters to the original image, instantly preview changes and easily undo any unwanted editing. The original color image can then be saved for future conversions and adjustments.

3: Forget Color

If you're taking black-and-white pictures with a film camera, or you plan to convert your digital photos later, you'll face a serious distraction -- color. A photograph may be dazzling in color, but when converted to black-and-white it could easily become a dull blur of indistinguishable grays. For this reason, it's important to ignore color when taking black-and-white photographs, no matter how stunning the hues may be.

When composing a black-and-white picture, look for brightness and contrast in your subject matter, instead of color. The most striking monochromatic photographs have both light and dark tones that contrast strongly with one another, so you'll need to be able to identify these qualities when framing your picture. One way to do this is to squint. Squinting reduces detail and makes bright colors less vivid, allowing you to focus more on tonality than color. You will soon find that many patterns and textures that appear distinct in a full-color world can almost disappear when captured in black-and-white.


2: Appreciate Light and Shadow

Textures and patterns make for great black-and-white shots.
Textures and patterns make for great black-and-white shots.

Light and its counterpart, shadow, are essential elements in black-and-white photography. In fact, the proper presentation of these characteristics can mean the difference between a striking monochromatic photograph and a boring one. For example, imagine a grizzled old man sitting on a park bench in full, noonday sun. His features would be washed out by the bright sunlight, making the image unpleasantly bright. Now imagine the same man sitting on a park bench, the side of his face warmed by the late afternoon sun. The shadows highlight each whisker and wrinkle, creating an image that is interesting for both its detail and contrast. Because these qualities are so important, it's essential that you know how to use light properly in your photographs.

As the example above suggests, not all light is created equal. Avoid shooting black-and-white photographs when the sun is high in the sky; this harsh lighting condition can obscure detail and make the images look washed out. Early morning and late afternoon, as well as overcast days, are the best times to photograph. If you're taking pictures in low light, bounce the flash off a ceiling or wall, or try to lessen the intensity of the flash. The effects of a direct flash are similar to those of bright sunlight.


1: Understand Composition

Once you understand the role of tonality, light and shadow in a black-and-white photograph, the subject matter is really up to you. "For it is in the mind's eye that one creates a picture, and the sources of pictures therefore are as boundless as one's own creative imagination," said Ansel Adams, one of America's great black-and-white photographers. Still, there are some basic rules of composition that will help ensure you get the most out of your monochromatic snapshots.

All photography -- black-and-white or color -- can benefit from a few simple tips. First, remember the rule of thirds. Divide your frame into thirds and try to place the central focus of the photo at the intersection of two of the dividing lines instead of right in the middle. Also, look for interesting vantage points. Elements like roads, fences and trees help draw viewers into a picture and direct their eyes to the subject matter. Finally, take a lot of pictures to guarantee that you get the one you want. With digital cameras, making one picture costs the same as snapping 100.


There are also some tips more specific to black-and-white photography. When composing your frame, avoid large areas of black, as well as areas of white; viewers may perceive these as dead spaces that detract from the main subject matter. Black-and-white photography is most effective when interesting patterns and textures dominate the photo.

For more tips on photography, see the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Castleberry, Kim. "Pro Tips: Black and White." Digital Photo Magazine. June 30, 2008. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.dpmag.com/how-to/image-processing/pro-tips-black-and-white.html
  • Hwang, Jackie. "Ansel Adams: A Life's Work." Museum of Photographic Arts Exhibition Resource. 2009. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.mopa.org/education/files/Curricula%202009/Ansel%20Adams/Ansel%20Adams%20Curriculum.pdf
  • Olsenius, Richard. "National Geographic Photography Field Guide: Digital Black and White." Washington: National Geographic, 2005.
  • Perello, Ibarionex, R. "Seeing in Black and White." Digital Photo Magazine. Jan. 30, 2007. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.dpmag.com/how-to/shooting/seeing-in-black-a-white.html
  • Sawalich, William. "Get Great Black and White Shots Every Time." Digital Photo Magazine. Dec. 8, 2008. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.dpmag.com/how-to/tip-of-the-week/get-great-black-a-white-shots-every-time-12-8-08.html
  • Sheppard, Rob. "Secrets of Black and White." Digital Photo Magazine. Dec. 15, 2009. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.dpmag.com/how-to/shooting/secrets-of-black-and-white.html
  • Tal, Guy. "How To: Shooting in Earth Tones." Popular Photography Magazine. March 30, 2009. (Dec. 1, 2010)
  • Willis, Dave. "Classic Black and White." Digital Photo Magazine. March 27, 2009. (Dec. 1, 2010) http://www.dpmag.com/how-to/image-processing/classic-black-a-white.html