In a very dark or very bright scene it is not always possible to use shadows and highlights in the composition to create more black and white contrast in your monochrome image. In cases like these you should try to use the colours present at the scene to create the contrast.
Congratulations People’s Choice “Love on the Rocks” by Marshal
You can still use physical filters to brighten some colours while darkening others, but I find that it is both easier and much cheaper to just do this in post-processing, using Lightroom or Photoshop.
You can opt to take a test shot and look at the histogram to see if the dark and bright tones are there before deciding to compose and shoot, or you can just check whether you nailed it spot on after you’ve taken the shot you want.
Next, you should make the appropriate corrections to the other basic settings like exposure, contrast and so on. Note that you can use the shadow and highlight sliders to enhance the tonal contrast in the photo.
“Another epically wonderful image. I really want to study the image and look through its layers. This image would look wonderful nice and large and framed on a wall. I love looking at it.” – Kevin Mullins
A wide or high tonal contrast means that the photo contains areas with both black or very dark tones and extreme bright or white tones.
In this photo, the colours really help to separate the flower from the background because orange and green are close to being complementary, even though it is not a perfect complementary set of colours. The tonal difference between the darker snail helps to separate it from the brighter orange flower.
At first, it can be a bit difficult to try to disregard the colours and look for dark and bright tones. However, if you consciously make a habit of spotting where the darkest area and where the brightest area is in the frame you will soon be able to spot whether a scene can make a great black and white photo.
Improve Your Photos by Planning Black and White Contrast in Advance
A quick glance at the histogram once in a while will show you whether you have a photo with low contrast, medium contrast, or high contrast.
Back in the old film days, you would have to use physical colour filters attached to your lens to make a specific colour appear bright in black and white when the film was developed in the dark room and turned into print.
Try to find a complementary colour to the subject in the background and see if you can create a composition where the complementary colour encapsulates the subject, making a better contrast between the subject and the rest of the composition.
For instance, if you attached a yellow filter, you would make blue, and violet colours appear darker than without a filter. This is because blue and violet colours are opposite to yellow on the colour wheel.
If you find that everything within the frame only contains dark tones or only bright tones (making it a low contrast image) try to see if you can frame the shot differently.
Once you have found an interesting subject that you want to capture and make into a black and white photo, you should pay attention to which bright areas and dark areas are at the scene and whether these can help you separate the subject or point of interest from the more unimportant elements.
“I really love this image and want to find out where the child is going. He’s having fun, or rushing somewhere? The exposure is excellent in challenging conditions. It’s a well seen and well executed image. The Black and White conversion is perfect and detail is lost in the shadows but only to enhance the image.” – Kevin Mullins
Take a look at the set of photos below. It shows how different colour filters affect the same photo. The original black and white conversion gave a flat looking photo without impact. The boat became dark grey, and the water also contained a lot of fairly dark grey tones.
If you find it difficult to spot the dark and bright areas that will result in a high black and white contrast, you can use the histogram as a support tool.
By identifying the main complementary colours in your photo and positioning the sliders accordingly, you can achieve a better contrast.
If you keep this in mind when you compose your shot and seek to include colours that convert to both dark and bright grey tones, you will already have a good amount of contrast in your photo as soon as you hit the button to convert it to black and white in post-processing.
“Wedding photographer in Lake Como and Lake District, Italy.” by alessandroavenali
Black and white photos tend to be stronger if they have a good amount of tonal contrast.
Go to the B&W tab in the Colour/HSL/B&W panel to change how colours convert into black and white to use the colours to get more contrast in your photos.
“This is such a well spotted image. It’s a scene that is made for monochrome. Perhaps a slightly wider lens choice if possible.” – Kevin Mullins
More specifically, you should look for contrasting colours, which are also called complementary colours.
However, by just being aware of a few key points, you can easily learn to use contrast to improve your black and white photography.
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Mastering contrast is one important step in improving your black and white photography, so the next step is to try it out for yourself—try to be aware of both tonal values and complementary colours to achieve the best black and white contrast when you capture your shots.
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Change your shooting angle, rearrange the scene, or work with a different composition so that the photo will include a broader tonal range and thereby get more contrast. If your subject is bright, see if you can use a point of view or framing in which you have a dark background.
The areas with black or white tones don’t have to be large, but having them in your photo will make your image much more appealing compared to similar photos that lack either end of the tonal spectrum.
The important thing, however, is to be aware of the colours you include in the photo at the time of capture. If you have no complementary colours in your photo, you will not be able to save it by just adjusting the black and white colour mix in Lightroom.
Look for tonal contrast Look for complementary colours and apply a colour filter either on location or in post-processing Approach #1: Tonal Contrast
It is quite easy and straightforward to change how colours are converted to black and white in Lightroom.
Looking for shadows and highlights and complementary colours from the outset when composing photos will give you a chance to get shots which have a great amount of contrast when you convert them into black and white. This will make your photos stronger and much more interesting.
“This image speaks to me from an emotional point of view. The natural light falling on the face is perfect and the exposure across the whole image is spot on. Even though this might be more of a candid shot than a portrait its beautifully executed and lovely monochromatic finish.” – Kevin Mullins
Applying an orange filter also gave a fairly pleasing result. The filters were applied using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, but you can get similar results by using inbuilt Lightroom controls.
Remember that just having dark and bright tones or having complementary colours in your composition is not enough. Now that you understand how they work, you should also seek to use them actively to separate the important elements in the composition from the unimportant elements or the background.
If you use colour filters, you can actually control which colours will convert as bright tones and which will convert as dark tones.
Next, I would pull the blue slider to the left to darken make the blue colours convert into a darker tone.
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If you want to capture a photo with high black and white contrast, you can use two approaches:
Take a look at this photo above. You will find that the deer almost blends in with the high grass in the photo when it is converted into black and white. This is because the brown colours of the deer and the high grass have similar tonal values.
On the image with the boat, I ended up pulling the yellow slider to +77, but also setting the orange to +49.
Do you wonder why your photos appear flat and uninteresting when you convert them to black and white? If you do, it is probably because your photos lack black and white contrast. A photo lacks contrast when it doesn’t have both dark tones and bright tones, instead having only a limited range of greyscale tones.
When possible, you can change your camera’s point-of-view and try to compose the photo so that a bright subject is completely surrounded by a dark-toned background. This will give you a cleaner composition.
From left to right: Original color, Neutral BW (no filter), Green Filter, Red Filter, Blue Filter, Yellow Filter, Orange Filter. Note how applying a yellow filter results in a greater contrast between the boat and all the other elements within the frame.
The green is almost as dark/bright as the brown fur of the deer, so instead of focusing on the deer, your eyes move to the trees, where there is much greater contrast with the brighter grey tones of the grass.
You’ll get the best results if you start out knowing that that you want your image to ultimately end up as a black and white photo. This way you can plan to have contrast and compose your frames accordingly.
Colours convert to different dark or bright grey tones when you change your image into a black and white photo. Per default, red, violet, and blue will convert to darker tones, while orange, yellow, and green per default will convert into rather bright tones.
How to Apply a Colour Filter to a Black and White Photo in Lightroom
Since your photos might have colours that have both orange and yellow, you might have to adjust several of the sliders in the black and white mix panel in Lightroom to make the black and white photo display more contrast and therefore produce the best impact.
The second technique for capturing photos with impact and contrast when converted into black and white is actually to look for colours.
A histogram like this tells you that you have no bright tones in your image because there are no values or peaks on the right side of the histogram, which represent the highlights.
Seeking to include both dark and bright areas is the easiest way to get more contrast into your black and white photos.
You can do the same when you use colours to create more black and white contrast in your photos. If you have no dark tones in the background, look for colours instead.
Congratulations Runner Up “Old Style Workmanship – Queen Victoria Building, Sydney” by philipjohnson
And even when you don’t achieve it fully in camera, you can still work with optimising the tonal contrast and how colours convert into greyscale in post-processing.
The red filter made the boat look darker making it difficult to clearly see the details on the boat. Because yellow and blue colours are so dominant in this photo, I find that the most beautiful conversion comes from using a yellow filter, giving the boat a bright tone.
Thank you to all the photographers that shared their best high contrast B&W shots in this photo contest with chances to win your prize choice. A special thanks to friend and professional photographer Kevin Mullins for his collaboration as a guest judge. Kevin is a multi-award winning wedding photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Wiltshire, England. He shoots wedding in a “pure” documentary style meaning he doesn’t intervene, or contrive any image throughout the day. As well as shooting weddings, Kevin is a recognized speaker in the field of wedding photography and the business of wedding photography.
As you can see it is very easy to create a contrast in your images, as long as you shoot with colours in mind. By knowing the colour wheel and which colours are complementary, you are on your way to creating more impactful black and white images.
If all the elements in your photos only have bright colours like bright red, bright green, bright yellow, and so on, you will end up with an image with only bright tones of grey. This will make it a low contrast black and white photo, and it will end up looking flat and dull.
To convert a photo to black and white, you first need to go to the Develop module (press ‘D’) and then in the Basic panel you should change the treatment to B&W.
Congratulations Runner Up “black and white” by CliftonTicehurst
In the previous example photo with the yellow boat, I would push the yellow slider in the Black & White Mix to the right to make yellow colours convert into brighter tones.
Almost all digital cameras can display a histogram on the back LCD screen. The histogram shows the spread of tones in the photo, with the dark tones to the left of the histogram and the bright tones on the right side.
Congratulations Amateur Winner “Silky Water” by MarvinEvasco17
This histogram shows you that you captured tonal values both in the shadows and in the highlight because the histograms stretches to both the left and right side of the spectrum.
Note that you will only get good results if you place two sliders opposite each other if they are also complementary colours. If you set the yellow slider opposite to the green slider, for instance, you will get some strange artefacts in your photo.
These settings are the ones used for the photo of the yellow boat on blue water. Note, that it might be necessary to adjust several of the sliders. In the case of the boat photo, the boat was more yellow-orange and the water contained aqua and purple values as well.
To Get Better Colour Contrast, Use Physical Filters or Adjust in Post-processing
A low-contrast scene can result in a photo like this, where it is difficult to separate the subject from the rest of the scene.