Black and white photography is a challenge… Or perhaps taking a great black and white photograph is the challenge. Getting a black and white photograph to stand out in a sea of color is just plain impressive. Often, the black and white photograph you see on Flickr is a byproduct of poor white balance control (if you botch your white balance settings in camera you can switch the photograph to B&W to save it). Here are some tips to help you take and process impressive and deliberate black and white images.
Shooting B&W Photographs
Below are some tips and tricks to get the most out of your black and white photography. Some of them seem like common sense and others just make sense. Enjoy.
Switch to RAW
To pull the appropriate amount of contrast, detail and tonal range out of your photograph for a black and white image conversion* you should shoot in RAW format. When you shoot directly to B&W in your camera it is converting the image to JPEG format and compressing/losing data. Want to see the difference in the amount of detail a RAW image retains compared to a JPEG? Check out this article.
*You’ll want to take the initial photograph in color and then convert it to black and white in post processing. This way you will retain as much detail as possible. Who knows, you may like the photograph as a color image better than B&W. Everyone likes options.
First thing is first, Contrast. Images that have lots of contrast in them make striking B&W photographs. I mean that in its simplest form, the difference between lights and darks within the scene. Taking it a step further, not just focusing on the difference between light and dark, you can use contrasting subjects to enhance your B&W photography. Think big and small objects next to each other, something new and something old in the same frame, the list goes on.
Contrast is what makes photography interesting.
Understand Tonal Contrast
Tonal contrast is created when light and dark tones are found alongside each other in an image. For example, the photograph below shows a light-colored subject with a dark-colored background. This works well for black and white images as you have more control of said tonal contrast and therefore the strength of the composition. The opposite of this would be if you had two similar tones (magenta and red for instance) next to each other… this would not make a great B&W conversion.
The black and white conversion really stands out due to the subdued color hues and tonal contrast.
Without the ability to rely on bright colors catching the viewer’s attention you’ll rely more heavily on the composition of your B&W images to capture and retain viewers interest. You’ll want to incorporate things like lead in lines, the rule of thirds, reflections, etc… For a number of great composition tips you can peruse the plethora of composition tips right here on PhotolisticLife by clicking here.
Images with rich texture make great B&W photographs (even portraits – think grandmas wrinkly face).
Slow down there Yoga Dan, I don’t mean visualize the shots you want to take the next day while folding your legs up like a pretzel on your 1/4″ yoga mat that cost you $90 and has just enough padding to bruise your tail bone slightly less than the hard floor beneath it. Trying to visualize the exact shot you want to take a day in advance can give you tunnel vision, causing you to miss other great shots, if you’re not careful. There are two great ways to use visualization when photographing in B&W.
First, the simplest form is just using your imagination as your peering through your viewfinder, visualize what the final image will look like when you’ve processed it. Is there enough contrast? How is the composition? Remember that colors like red and blue will look very similar once converted to black and white, therefore they should not be used when trying to increase tonal contrast.
Finally, most cameras will allow you to shoot in RAW format but view the scene in B&W on the LCD screen in preview mode. I recommend this.
Exercise Your Minds Eye
Go back through the generous amount of images you keep on your hard-drive and search out the ones with strong tonal contrast (light subject with a dark background or vice versa). Work on converting a few of them to B&W to see how they come out and get familiar with what colors work well together when converting and which ones don’t. You’ll find that converting an image to B&W does not make it any better, if the content is so-so it will actually make the image worse. You need photographs with strong composition if you want them to make interesting B&W images.
The more images you convert to B&W the more you’ll train your mind to see good black and white photographs before you even take them with your camera.
Photographers who are used to shooting in black and white swear by the use of color filters. Color filters can lighten and darken parts of your scene, depending on the color, by absorbing some colors while transmitting others. Lucky for you, you don’t have to run out and buy new lens filters because most processing programs have hue adjustments which allow you to add the same effect after you’ve converted your color photograph to B&W.
The image on the left is a snapshot taken in Lightroom and shows the particular settings used to enhance the photograph below. The first photograph will show what the image looked like before it was converted to B&W. The second image is just after the conversion before the color hues were adjusted. Finally the last image you’ll see is after the colors have been adjusted (as if you were to use a color filter on the lens of your camera).
Yellow – Enhances the contrast between the sky and clouds, slightly darkens the sky. Slightly reduces haze.
Red – Creates dramatic skies, darkens dark areas. Also reduces haze.
Green – Creates pleasing skin tones in portraits.
There are certainly more colored filters than this but have the fun of converting images to black and white is experimenting with the color sliders and judging the effects for yourself. You can and should (when applicable) use a neutral density filter, graduated neutral density filter, and a circular polarizer filter for dynamic shots.
Here is a color photograph before it’s been converted to black and white
Here is the same photograph converted to B&W but without the color filter simulated effects using the sliders in Lightroom.
Now the finished photograph after adjusting the blue and yellow sliders.
You’ll notice that the difference is substantial, the sky looks more dramatic and the foliage stands out more. You’ll also notice the photograph was taken in Autumn and the leaves were changing color which helps to increase the contrast and make the photograph more dynamic (seems like a crime to convert those beautiful colors into B&W though).
There are thousands of tips that help enhance black and white photography, what are your favorites? Feel free to leave a comment below with the tip that has helped you the most. Also, if you enjoyed reading this then share it with others using the social sharing buttons below. Enjoy.