Black and White Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Black and White Photography

by David Peterson 3 comments

Digital photography has done a lot of great things for us. It's made film unnecessary, which means that individual shots no longer cost anything and you are now free to take as many pictures as you want without fear of wasted film. A related benefit is that you no longer need to choose a specific film to put in your camera--if you want to shoot at a higher ISO there's no need to go out and purchase that high ISO film--instead, you just select the correct ISO in your camera's settings. And the same is true for black and white vs. color. If your camera allows it, you can switch back and forth between black and white on the fly, or you can do as many conversions as you like in post-processing. But there are still some things you need to remember to ensure that your digital black and white images are as beautiful as the black and white film photos taken decades ago.

Why shoot black and white?

In the very early days of photography, of course, everyone shot in black and white--because that was the only film technology available. Today you have a choice, so why limit yourself to one or the other? Black and white photos are often seen as "timeless," and many photographers and viewers tend to think of them more artistic than their more popular color counterparts. A black and white image has a surreal and almost dreamlike quality, too; it looks cleaner and has greater depth than a color image. At the very least, black and white is worth experimenting with, since it can give even the most devout color photographer a better eye for lines, patterns, contrast and texture.

Shoot your black and white photos in RAW

Not all cameras give you the ability to shoot in RAW, which is an uncompressed format that includes the complete range of data your camera has obtained from its image sensor. If your camera has a RAW setting, try using this format whenever you shoot in black and white. RAW is not an image format that you can view with just any piece of software - it will need to be processed and then saved in a standard image format such as JPG. RAW images are also huge (if your camera shoots at 12 megapixels, each one of your RAW images will be 12MB in size). But the advantage is that your RAW images will contain all the available information your camera can capture from a scene, which means you can fix too-bright highlights and recover detail in the shadows. And RAW data files also contain all the color information from a scene, so if you change your mind later you can go back and turn your black and white shot back into a color one.

Convert your images to black and white in post-processing

Many cameras give you the ability to shoot in black and white, but it's generally not a good idea to use this setting. You have more control over your final image if you do the processing after-the-fact, rather than allowing your camera to do it for you. And again, if you change your mind you still have a color image you can go back to later. Plus, as I'll discuss later, you can convert a color photo into hundreds of slightly different B&W photos - so you can choose the one that looks best.

Shoot at the lowest possible ISO

High ISO film makes grainy pictures, and a higher ISO on a digital camera produces noise, the digital equivalent of grain. Noise is really obvious in a black and white picture, so shooting at a low ISO will keep your photos looking clean and noise-free. And in case you do love grain, you can go back and add that in post-production if you decide you want it. But be aware that your shutter speed will drop as your ISO does, so you can bend this rule as necessary whenever your subject is fast-moving or if you left your tripod at home.

Choose the light for your needs

An overcast day is perfect for black and white photography, because the light is soft and you don't need to worry about blown out highlights or black shadows. If you're a person who prefers to shoot in color you already know that flat, overcast days aren't desirable for color photography because they make colors look dull. On those days, experiment with black and white instead. That way you'll never have to be held back by the quality of the light.

Equally, a sunny day also provides a wonderful opportunity for black and white photography. The harsh shadows created by the bright sunlight creates contrast to emphasise textures in your subjects. And I'll talk about that next.

When is black and white better than color?

Some subjects just lend themselves to black and white, while others demand color. How can you tell the difference? First, look for shapes, lines, texture and shadows. The classic "bowl of fruit" shot may be perfect for black and white because of its smooth, varying shapes, soft shadows and subtly different textures. A shadow that is lost in a color photo can bring definition to a black and white one.

Look for patterns, too. Patterns look more compelling in black and white because color can distract the eye from the pattern. These don't just have to be geometric patterns--a row of trees in an orchard or worn cobblestones on an old street can make for interesting black and white compositions.

Portraits may also look better in black and white, because black and white hides imperfections in the skin such as blemishes and uneven skin tones.

Blacker blacks and whiter whites

More than color photographers, black and white photographers need to pay attention to contrast. Every good black and white image contains a true black and a true white (and blown-out skies and highlights don't count as white). Pay attention to your scene when shooting and try to find the black and the white. Including both in your shot will guarantee a beautifully toned image. Use a polarizing filter to help cut back on reflections and false highlights.

Try a long exposure

A long exposure can make your black and white image look surreal, especially if you are photographing water or stationary object on an overcast day with a lot of moving clouds.

See in black and white

In order to take great black and white photos, you must learn to see in black and white. Look for subjects that will stand out in a black and white image, such as a light colored object against a dark background. Think about how the contrast in the scene will bring out the patterns and lines in a black and white image, even though they may be subtle in the color version. Pay attention to texture--it's not as obvious in color but it can really become the focal point of a black and white image. And as in all photography, pay special attention to light and how it will create highlights and shadows in your finished image.

Create Different Black and White From The Same shot

Sometimes there is more of one color than another in an image (more blue sky, less red) so it can be better to accentuate the parts of the image with that color, or the color difference between two colors. You can do this when converting your image to black and white and I describe how in my Secrets to Great Black and White Photos article

Follow these tips and keep experimenting, and you'll soon have a beautiful portfolio of black and white images you can display alongside your color ones.

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  1. andi says:

    Well David after years of reading your great tips I finally have to disagree with you. "individual shots no longer cost anything " maybe not in monetary terms but in time they cost a mint. Before I had my shots developped and stuck them in an album. Now I am addicted to good photos and yopu have made my task even more difficult. I take take 1000 times more photos. Edit them carefully name the file them admire them discard them admire them, discaard more of them and refer to them more often. Yes now digital photograhy costs me a mint in time. Worth every minute. Take care and be happy.

  2. Ravindra Kathale says:

    Dear Peter,
    Excellent article. Some very top suggestions. Thanks. My camera, when set to taking pictures in RAW, does not display the scene in b&w. Further, your method requires converting the RAW to b&w,which is a bit tedious. My camera (Sony Nex 3N) offers two settings for b&w shooting - high contrast b&w and rich b&w. I keep experimenting with them, and enjoy. Thanks.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.