One of the best ways to draw out creativity from an artist is to limit them. Perhaps this is why some of the best photographers like Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, and Platon are known for shooting in black and white. A lack of color creates an emphasis on other visual elements that make black and white photography so compelling. Here’s a list of black and white photography tips and techniques that will spark the creative eye in any photographer.
Black and White Photography Tips
Black and White vs. Monochrome
The first step in learning how to take black and white photos is understanding how black and white photography differs from everything else. Specifically, the term “monochrome” is often mistakenly interchanged with “black and white.”
Monochrome means variances of the same color. Take this image below, for example. At first glance, it might seem black and white. But if you look closely the image is filled with monochromatic variances of the color brown.
Black and white, on the other hand, is defined by an image with solely tones of black and white. Because a black and white image has zero color within them, they are distinctly different from monochromatic images.
This is important because it will help you understand what influences a black and white picture the most. Rather than focusing on color, focus on tonality, light, and shadow within your compositions.
How to Take Black and White Photos
Commit to shooting in black and white
One of the best black and white photography tips you can take away from this article is to commit to shooting specifically for black and white images. When you try to shoot for both black & white and color and then decide in editing which one you will use, your photos will be compromised.
Shooting for black and white requires a different attention and focus than shooting for color. Great black and white photography requires a photographer's eye to be looking for contrast, shadows, and the abstract.
A photo that might work for color might not work for black and white and vice versa. Commiting to black and white will allow you to give all of your focus to the unique visual elements of black and white photography.
How to Make Good Black and White Photos
Choose your camera equipment
First, let's talk about the camera. The main decision you will have to make is whether you will be shooting digital or film. Shooting film is a common choice for many black and white photographers.
Digital is also a viable option for shooting black and white because of the ability to easily review the photos you have just snapped. In the long run digital is also a cheaper option because you do not have to spend money on developing film. Editing digital photography is also much easier than editing film photography.
At the end of the day, it comes down to whether you prioritize the higher quality and film characteristics of shooting on film stock or the convenience and efficiency of shooting digital.
Digital Black and White Photography Tips
Shoot in RAW
If you do decide to shoot digital, it is important to make sure that your camera is shooting in RAW. RAW images contain the raw image data of a photograph. Although black and white images do not retain color, the shades of black, white, and mid-tones in the image are influenced by color.
Shooting in RAW is one of the best black and white tips because it will give you a better foundation for editing your photos. RAW images opposed to JPEG, contain more information and a higher dynamic range. This gives you more control over your black and white photo.
Black and White Film Photography Techniques
Capitalize on contrast
If you take a look at some of your favorite black and white photos you may notice something similar in all of them — contrast. Because black and white images lack color, they bring immediate attention to contrast and tonal changes in an image. Capitalize on this contrast.
Popular black and white photographer Alan Shaller puts it best by saying, “Focus on what makes black and white interesting.” While this tip may seem obvious, it is incredibly important to creating great black and white photography. Check out his full explanation of this tip in the video below.
To recap Shaller, the lack of color in a black and white photo draws more focus to other visual elements such as shapes, textures, and most notably, contrast.
Seek out images that carry a high tonal contrast between subjects and their environment. Developing your eye for the contrast of black and white takes practice. But it’s a matter of being aware of sharp changes in exposure and tones in your environment.
How to black and white photography
Experiment with exposure
Typically in photography, you would want to properly expose an image with the available light. However, black and white photography is a great place to start experimenting not only with what you capture, but how you capture it.
Experimenting with different components of the exposure triangle like aperture, ISO, and shutter speed can yield unique and abstract results. Overexposing images can accentuate the contrast in a photo.
Take this photograph by Morgan Maassen for example. By overexposing the image, he makes the sand of a beach completely white, further bringing out the shapes of the people.
Underexposing a black and white image can also yield unique photos. This is especially true when you are working with very little available light. Don’t try to adjust your aperture, ISO, or shutter speed to properly expose a subject.Rather, lean into the darkness of the scene and capture the contrast. Underexposed black and white photos can even result in a Chiaroscuro effect.
Black and white photography is one of the best ways to start experimenting with different amounts of exposure. Its use of contrast and focus on shapes allows for images to actually benefit from varying levels of exposure.
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How to Make Good Black and White Photos
Play with shadows
Speaking of contrast and experimenting, one of the best ways to make a rather mundane scene interesting is through unique shadows. Shadows can introduce contrast, shapes, and patterns in an image that would otherwise be uninteresting. In this photograph by Kathy Ryan from her series Office Romance, a simple office is made interesting through unique shadow patterns.
Whether you are shooting with natural light or artificial light sources, be mindful of the shadows created. Understanding how shadows become more prominent and important in black and white photography will help you capture more interesting images no matter where you are.
Best Black and White Photography Tips
Look for the abstract
Like we mentioned earlier, the lack of color in black and white photos draws more attention to visual elements like texture and patterns. Black and white photography is one of the best mediums to break away from the typical subject matter and explore the unknown.
Seek the abstract in your black and white photography through unique textures, shapes, and patterns. This video by Jamie Windsor explains how and why black and white photography is great for creating abstract imagery.
People are drawn to patterns. Black and white photography removes the distraction of color allowing the viewer to focus further on the patterns within a photograph. Patterns can be created or found in repetitive shapes or even compositional symmetry.
Finding the abstract also means treating an image as a blank canvas onto which you create shapes and form from the shades of black and white. This means looking deeper and further into your environment to find unique shapes that create an interesting photograph.
The tonal range of black and white accentuates texture in an image. Slight differences in texture are expressed through tonal changes. Capturing unique textures can make for an incredibly interesting, almost tangible photograph.
Patterns, shapes, and textures are only a few ways to create abstract images. Developing your eye to find opportunities for abstract images takes time. Shooting without any pressure often yields the best results for creating abstract images. Trust your instinct by shooting what you find interesting.
Black and White Photography Tips
Use negative space
Negative space is a great technique to use in any form of photography, but especially in black and white photography. Black and white photography is minimalist in nature because of its lack of color. Utilizing negative space to lean into this minimalistic imagery can create compelling photos.
The simplicity of black and white photography benefits greatly from negative space. Using negative space can be as simple as finding solid backdrops like a clear sky or empty wall. The negative space draws further focus onto the few visual elements within the image making for an engaging photograph.
How to Take Black and White Photos
Editing black and white pictures
Editing black and white photography can entail more than simply adjusting contrast, shadows, and highlights. In fact, the reason we advise shooting in RAW is so your image file will retain the color information of your photograph.
Although your black and white image will not have color, color impacts the various tones and shades in your image. This is important when using zones to edit your black and white photos.
Using zones is an editing process made famous by iconic photographer Ansel Adams. It entails using every tone of black and white and everything in between in a photograph. This video by Adorama explains how color adjustments is a step in the process of editing black and white photos.
To recap, editing black and white photos is a step by step process that involves adjusting the following image characteristics in this order: midtones, black and white points, shadows and highlights, and color adjustments.
Black and white photos are a great way for any photographer to develop their eye. The lack of color will push you to be more creative with how your frame, compose, and capture your images.
What is Chiaroscuro?
If the style and aesthetic of black and white photography excites you, then you might want to check out our article on Chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is a term in art that describes the use of contrast through light and dark. Learn more about it and gain some inspiration in the next article.