Graduated neutral density (AKA ND grad) and polarizing filters are just as useful in monochrome photography as they are in colour. In fact, because they manipulate image contrast they are arguably more useful.
An ND grad is helpful when you want to retain detail in a bright sky while a polarizing filter can be used to reduce reflections and boost contrast. Alternatively, consider taking two or more shots with different exposures to create a high dynamic range (HDR) composite.
Along with our best black and white photography tips, we’ll reveal how to get creative with high-contrast graphic compositions and create moody landscapes, and show you how dramatic high- and low-key effects can be used to transform your still life photography and portrait photography.
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Just as importantly, working in black and white can help you become a better photographer. How? It’s all to do with composition.
One of the fundamental aspects of black and white photography is that your whole composition relies on contrast (for on composing images, see our 10 rules of photo composition – and why they work). For this reason, look out for subjects that feature simple, strong lines and shapes. It’s often the shadows that define shape and form, so pay attention to areas of darkness, as well as light.
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When you use photo-editing software to remove the color from an image you instantly lose one element that the viewer relies on to interpret the scene. So other elements become even more important for successful black and white images.
This can be achieved by the light or by the brightness (or tone) of the objects in the scene as well as the exposure settings that you use. The brightness of the bark of a silver birch tree for example, could inject some contrast (and interest) in to a woodland scene.
My ebook Mastering Lightroom: Book Three – Black & White goes into the topic of black and white in depth. It explains everything you need to know to make dramatic and beautiful monochrome conversions in Lightroom, including how to use the most popular black and white plug-ins. Click the link to visit my website and learn more.
Look beyond colors, and try to visualise how shapes, textures and tones will be recorded
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Setting the exposure for these brighter areas also makes the shadows darker, so the highlights stand out even more. Look for shapes, patterns and textures in a scene and move around to find the best composition.
The best monochrome conversions are made by editing raw files which have the full colour information, but if you shoot raw and JPEG files simultaneously and set the camera to its monochrome Picture Style/Picture Control/Film Simulation mode you get an indication of how the image will look in black and white.
Fine detail, or strong textures such as weather-beaten stone, foliage or clouds, can help to give your black-and-white shots depth and interest. Strong side lighting is perfect for bringing out the texture in any subject. You can use strong natural light, or get creative with flash to create side-lighting on the subject.
And adjusting the brightness of a red or pink shirt with the red sliding control, for instance, will have an impact on the model’s skin, especially the lips.
The complimentary and opposing colours that bring a colour image to life are all reduced to black and white or shades of grey in a monochrome image and you have to look for tonal contrast to make a shot stand out.
Cropping to the square format emphasizes the shapes of the three pots.
The model was standing in the shade when I took this photo. The light lacks contrast, and the black and white photo is flat.
The answer is no, definitely not. In the photography world, black and white is considered an art form. Some would even say only the best photographers work in monochrome. It’s a medium with a rich history, (look at the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston or Henri Cartier-Bresson for examples) and a bright future.
Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn tools allow a level of control that film photographers could only dream of because you can target the highlights, shadows or mid-tones with both.
Usually at this point I advise you to use the Raw format. In the long run it’s easier than using JPEG, and gives you better image quality. But I appreciate that if you’re new to photography you may still be working exclusively in JPEG. The rest of this article works on this basis.
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The Levels and Curves controls can also be used to manipulate tonal range and contrast, but the HSL/Grayscale controls allow you to create separation between objects of the same brightness but with different colours.
It’s tempting to think that white balance doesn’t matter if you’re going to remove the color, but because the success of any conversion relies on successfully translating colors into attractive tones, it’s important to capture an image without any colour casts.
Many cameras are also capable of producing decent in-camera monochrome images these days and it’s worth experimenting with image parameters (usually contrast, sharpness, filter effects and toning) to find a look that you like.
They work by darkening objects of their opposite colour while lightening objects of their own. An orange filter, for example, will darken the blue of the sky while a green one will lighten foliage.
If you’ve never tried black and white photography before, you may be wondering what the appeal is. After all, isn’t it a little like black and white television or silent movies – an anachronism in our modern, high-tech age?
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It’s a great way of giving a sense of greater sharpness and enhancing texture.
However, it’s important to keep an eye on the whole image when adjusting a particular colour as subtle gradations can become unnatural looking.
If the scene you’re shooting relies on color for mood or impact, chances are you’ll be better off keeping the image in color, as in our mushroom image above. Sunrise or sunset shots are another good example; you should always ask yourself whether the image loses some impact without the subtle hues.
During the exposure the highlights of the water, for example, are recorded across a wider area than they would with a short exposure and this can help enhance tonal contrast.
As many photographers struggle to visualise a scene in black and white, these monochrome modes are an invaluable tool that will help with composition and scene assessment.
Until a few years ago Photoshop’s Channel Mixer was the preferred means of turning colour images monochrome, but now Adobe Camera Raw has more powerful tools (in the HSL/Grayscale tab) that allow you to adjust the brightness of eight individual colours that make up the image.
Once in monochrome mode you will see some extra options. They help you set your camera up to produce the best results. Again, check your manual if you are not sure where to find them.
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This means that you can use the Burn tool to darken highlights when they are too bright, or the Dodge tool to brighten them to increase local contrast.
Naturally, when exposures extend beyond about 1/60 sec a tripod is required to keep the camera still and avoid blurring. It’s also advisable to use a remote release and mirror lock-up to minimise vibration and produce super-sharp images.
If you take a photo in flat light (for example, a portrait of somebody standing in the shade) the photo may look flat (two dimensional). So, you need to compensate by increasing the contrast. You can either do this in Photoshop or Lightroom after the photo has been taken, or you can do it in-camera with the contrast setting.
In our expert guide, we’ll show you how to see in mono, choose your subjects, set up your camera and then explore how simple but effective adjustments in Photoshop or Lightroom can make your images really stand out.
It’s easy to think that because you don’t need bright colors you can shoot black and white photography in any light or in any weather.
DSLR users can also do this if they activate their camera’s live view system, but the usually slower responses mean that many will find it preferable or check the image on the screen post-capture.
The blurring of the movement also adds textural contrast with any solid objects in the frame. If necessary, use a neutral density filter such as Lee Filters’ Big Stopper or Little Stopper to reduce exposure and extend shutter speed (by 10 and 4 stops respectively).
This scene works quite well in black and white, but it’s not nearly as dramatic as it could be.
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Long exposure shots can work really well in monochrome photography, especially where there’s moving water or clouds.
It’s certainly true that with some skilful conversion and adjustment in Photoshop post-shoot you can add drama , but the sturdier the building blocks the better your finished image will be.
Black and white emphasizes the textures of the rocks and sea in this landscape photo.
The colour filter settings are left over from the days of film photography. Photographers would buy coloured filters, and use them to alter the tones in black and white photos. For example, if your scene includes a blue sky, then using a yellow filter will make the sky a little darker, an orange filter makes it even darker, and a red filter darker still.
Plus, because you can set the opacity of the tools, you can build up their effect gradually so the impact is subtle and there are no hard edges.
In colour photography, for example, your eye would immediately be drawn to a red object on a green background, but in monochrome photography these two areas are likely to have the same brightness, so the image looks flat and dull straight from the camera.
Coloured filters, which are an essential tool for monochrome film photographers, can also be useful for manipulating contrast in digital images.
There is also a place for green filters, which can bring out more detail in green subjects like leafy forests. Those four coloured filters (red, orange, yellow and green) have made their way onto most digital cameras as black and white settings.
So, unless you’re trying to create a minimalist image it’s worth taking the time to capture maximum detail in the best lighting conditions possible.
While it’s now simpler than ever to convert your images to black and white, especially now with the host of smartphone apps like Instagram that offer an array of filters, for truly impressive results it pays to think about how and what you shoot, and then know how to use your photo editing software’s powerful tools to get the most from your shots.
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Cameras with electronic viewfinders automatically display the image in black and white, helping you see how the image will look, before you press the shutter. If you have a digital SLR you will get the same effect in Live View. This may be useful if you are working with your camera on a tripod (for instance, taking a landscape photo).
There’s no absolute right or wrong when it comes to choosing a subject for black and white photography, but you’ll come across subjects and scenes that rely on colour for their impact, and also lighting conditions that don’t work well in monochrome.
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Recognising potential shots when out in the field can take practice, so why not try converting some of your existing images to black and white to get a better feel for what will work.
About the author: Jeff Meyer is the editor of PhotoVenture, a photography blog for everything post-capture — improving photos, image management, sharing and more. This article originally appeared here.
Black and white is a beautiful medium to work in, one which you will appreciate the more you practice. In the meantime – have fun and enjoy yourself. You are following a path trodden by some of the most famous names in photography. And of course, if you have any questions about working in black and white, please let us know in the comments.
Here are some examples of what to avoid when looking for suitable subjects for black and white photography.
Black and white images need strong compositions to really work. Keep an eye out for strong lines or features in your scene that can be used as leading lines, or positioned diagonally across the frame to create dynamic images.
Because compact system cameras and compact cameras show the scene seen by the sensor with camera settings applied, users of these cameras are able to preview the monochrome image in the electronic viewfinder or on rear screen before taking the shot.
Naturally, there are certain subjects that tend to work better than others in black and white; two in particular are landscapes and portraits. If this is your first time shooting in black and white, then these are great subjects to try out.
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When it comes to black-and-white imagery, being able to ‘see’ how your final shot will look is a key skill. It’s important to understand how the color image you see through your camera’s viewfinder or on the rear screen will translate into a striking monochrome image. To get the best results, you have to look beyond the colours, and instead try to visualise how a shot’s shapes, textures and tones will be recorded.
There are always exceptions, but as a general rule look for scenes that contain some strong blacks and whites.
Black and white photos actually include a whole range of greys, which add subtlety to your images. Normally, you look for subjects that will translate into a range of tones from black to white, but you can also get great results where the subject is mostly light (high-key) or dark (low-key).
Black and white portraits emphasize expression and quality of light.
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It’s possible to adjust one of these colours to make it anything from white to black with the sliding control.
Finally, you may have the option to tone your images. To be honest, unless your camera lets you apply toning affects subtly, I wouldn’t bother with these, as the effect is usually too strong.
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Thanks to digital technology, monochrome photography is easier today than ever before. Check out these six black and white photography tips for getting great results.
Although coloured filters can still be used to manipulate contrast when shooting digital black and white images, it’s more common to save this work until the processing stage.
Subjects that rely on contrasting colors – such as a purple crocus against a green lawn – generally don’t work well in black and white. This is because the two colors will end up looking similar in tone when converted.
Here’s a run-down of the most common elements that you should look for when identifying a suitable subject for the black-and-white treatment. Remember that these elements can be used individually, or even combined to produce marvellous mono images with clout.
Dodging and burning is a technique that comes from the traditional darkroom and is usually used to burn in or darken highlights and hold back (brighten) shadows.
Fortunately, it’s possible to work adjust the brightness of these two colours separately to introduce some contrast. However, a good starting point is to look for scenes with tonal contrast.
The timeless quality of black and white photography makes it a must-try subject for any photographer to try.
Before digital photography the only way to work in black and white was to use black and white film. Thankfully, now it’s much easier to work in black and white, just by switching your camera to Monochrome Mode (check your camera’s manual if you are unsure how to do so, look for Picture Styles settings).
The success of your black-and-white shots relies on several different factors, but the main thing to look out for is a main subject that will appear in a significantly different shade of grey to the background. Then look out for subtleties of tone and texture that will add depth to your images.
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Colour is very powerful, and tends to dominate the photo so much that it’s difficult to see other elements like tonal contrast, texture, shape, form and quality of light. Experienced photographers instinctively see these things, regardless of whether they work predominantly in colour or black and white. But if you’re just starting out, you may need some assistance to do so, and working in black and white photography will help you.
Don’t be afraid to use a ND grad with a standard neural density filter if the sky is brighter than the foreground in a long exposure shot.
Applying the Red filter setting makes the blue sky go much darker, creating a much more dramatic version of the same scene.
Most modern cameras let you change the aspect ratio. The reasons why you might want to do that are a little complex, but the main one is that it lets you shoot in the square format, something you may already be used to if you use an app like Instagram on your smartphone. If your camera has an electronic viewfinder, it will display a square image for you, making composition much easier.