Black and white photography is one of the most popular forms of photography. It’s especially popular for street and documentary photography but it’s also good for many other genres including fine art. This simple guide is designed to help anyone getting started with black and white photography.
Getting started with black and white photography: Visualise the end result
With film you have to decide whether you want to shoot black and white or colour images at the outset but with digital photography you can convert a colour image to monochrome. While this gives you flexibility it also means that people often shoot first and think later about image colour. It’s far better to decide whether you want a colour or a black and white image before you take the shot. For example, you’ll know to look for brightness differences between image elements rather than colour differences.
Getting started with black and white photography: Shoot in Black and white mode
I recommend that you set your camera to its black and white or monochrome mode to allow you to see the scene in black and white before you shoot it. You need to look in the Picture Style, Picture Control or Film Simulation modes to find the option your looking for.
If you’re using a compact system camera you’ll see a black and white image in the viewfinder but with a DSLR you’ll have to switch to live view mode to preview in monochrome. Even if you want to shoot using the viewfinder of a DSLR it’s worth switching to monochrome mode because you’ll see a black and white image in the screen once you’ve taken the shot so you can see whether you’re getting the image you want.
Getting started with black and white photography: Perfect the black and mode mode
Many cameras have more than one black and white mode and most let you adjust the look of the image by applying a filter effect or adjusting contrast. If you spend a little time investigating the impact of these in-camera controls you’ll learn more about what you like in a monochrome image and create the images that you want.
Getting started with black and white photography: Shoot raw and jpeg simultaneously
The beauty of shooting raw and jpeg files simultaneously in black and white mode is that you’ll have a monochrome jpeg and a raw file with the full colour information. You may get the perfect black and white image as a jpeg direct from the camera, but for those occasions when you don’t, you’ll have a file with all the data you need to make a bespoke conversion. As a rule bespoke conversions are better because you can refine the image, taking control of brightness and contrast at a local level.
It also means that if something happens suddenly and you want a colour image, you don’t need to worry about switching Picture Style.
Getting started with black and white photography: Convert raw files
Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop have excellent controls for making monochrome images from full-colour raw files. They have sliding controls that allow you to adjust the brightness of specific parts of the image by working on the colours in the original file. It’s just a case of adjusting the image to create something that you like the look of.
There are also software packages such as Silver Efex Pro, now available for free as part of Google’s Nik Collection and Topaz B&W Effects and MacPhun Tonality Pro (Mac only) that are specifically designed for converting colour images to black and white.
Getting started with black and white photography: Subject selection
Taking the colour out of an image can make it easier to convey a message or meaning because there’s less to distract the viewer. That’s good news for documentary and reportage photography.
Monochrome photography is also a good choice for landscapes in overcast or stormy conditions when colours lack any pop. You can really up the drama levels by boosting contrast or darkening the sky. Of course that doesn’t mean that you should completely rule out shooting landscapes in black and white on sunny days.
Black and white photography works very well with subjects that have strong or interesting shapes and/or textures. It’s also a great choice on high contrast days in cities where the mixture bold architectural shapes and deep shadows can produce images with impact.