Creating Better Black and White Photos :: Digital Photo Secrets

Creating Better Black and White Photos

by David Peterson 4 comments

Back in the caveman days, you know, when we took photos on film, a formal education in photography often began with black and white. Black and white photography was a good format for beginning students because the film was easy to process and darkroom techniques were straightforward. Today we bypass that whole film-to-darkroom thing, so a lot of us are passing over the opportunity to learn about shooting in black and white. After all, why would we want to shoot in drab shades of gray? We live in a color world.

If this is your thinking, it's time to re-examine the way you think about photography - and the way you see the world around you. Black and white photos have something that color photos do not: simplicity. When you strip away all the color from a scene, you immediately have something that is simpler than its original.

[ Top image Clouds by Flickr user Jonathan Kos-Read]

  • Canon PowerShot G7
  • 75
  • f/4.0
  • 0.001 sec (1/1000)
  • 7.4 mm

Sky symphony by Flickr user kevin dooley

Taking away that color also takes away the emotions that color conveys - without those warm reds and oranges, we don't feel that excitement and optimism that we often feel when looking at colors on that end of the spectrum. Without those blues and greens, we don't feel that peace and tranquility that cool colors often make us feel. Instead, black and white photographers have to rely on the content of the image to convey emotion. And that's not a bad thing - it's an excellent challenge for anyone who is interested in improving their composition skills in particular and their photography skills in general.

The Flat Factor

(or how to create a great black and white image in the digital era)

So now that I've convinced you that black and white photography is worth pursuing, you may be thinking about those black and white images you've already taken with your camera's "black and white" mode, back in the days when you were experimenting with all the things your camera could do. They seemed flat and lifeless, didn't they? That's because your camera's black and white mode is really not the best way to capture a stunning black and white image. The processor in your camera just isn't very good at taking that color scene and converting it to a range of tones that make for a pleasing black and white image. If you rely on this mode your photos will have that flat factor - a bunch of muddy, ugly grays where there used to be color.

But shooting color JPGs and converting them in post-processing isn't the answer, either. That's because the JPG is by its nature a compressed format, which means that when saving a JPG image your camera throws out information it deems to be unnecessary in the interests of creating a smaller file. We photographers know better, of course. We know that when it comes to a photographic image, there is no such thing as "unnecessary information." You need to have that higher dynamic range in order to get an image with a good range of tones, from black to white and everything in between. So when you're shooting with the intention of converting to black and white, shoot in RAW. That way your post-processing software has everything it needs to produce a great black and white image.

  • Olympus E-M5
  • 200
  • f/3.2
  • 0.001 sec (1/2000)
  • 17 mm

NYC #7 by Flickr user Thomas Leuthard

The conversion: getting the image right

If you've spent enough time in Photoshop or other post-processing software, you may be tempted to just open up your photo and select "convert to greyscale." There, done. Sadly, while this is certainly the easiest method it really isn't any better than using your in-camera black and white mode. But the happy news is that the conversion process really isn't very difficult once you know what to do. Here's how it's done in Photoshop:

Once your file is open and staring back at you in all its colored glory, open up the "Adjustments" window. Now click on the "black and white adjustment" button (it's a square divided into two diagonal portions, one black and one white).

Now use the color sliders (that's right, the color sliders) to adjust the tones. I know your image is now in black and white, but that underlying color data is still there, and that's what you'll use to tweak the image.

Instead of clicking that "black and white adjustment" button, you can click on the "channel mixer" button instead (that's the multi-colored one that looks a little bit like the universal recycling symbol). Now you can click the "monochrome button" and adjust the sliders until the image looks like you want it to.

  • Mamiya 645 Pro TL
  • 400
  • 35 mm

church of zebra #2 by Flickr user mugley

But what exactly do I want it to look like?

If you were one of those old-school photographers learning your trade in the campus darkroom, then you already know what qualities a good black and white print ought to have. If you've only ever taken digital photos in color, then you may need a little primer.

First, take the term "black and white" literally. Your black and white photo should have a black and a white. This means a deep, rich black and a clear white (a blown-out sky doesn't count as your white).

  • Canon 8800F

coney island bird man by Flickr user Barry Yanowitz

Now, in those olden days, a darkroom photographer had to eyeball his print to make sure there was a true black and a true white, and then make adjustments in the darkroom. Today you can do this in post processing, and that's what those sliders are for. Tweaking them can get you closer to that black and closer to the white. You can add or subtract contrast, bring out detail or lose it, depending on your goals. And the only way to really get the hang of what those sliders can accomplish is to practice.

    0750corse-n&b by Flickr user R E M I B R I D O T

    In your pursuit of those perfect blacks and that whites, don't forget about the grays. Your goal is to have a range from the almost-white to the almost-black. Too few grays and your image is going to look muddy and flat.

    As well as getting black and white parts, you can also use these sliders to choose the grays in your image. For more on how to do this, see my other article on the secrets to great black and white photography

    Printing Problems

    Ok I'm doing all that, and my images still don't look good when I print them. Why?

    One thing a lot of computer users don't think about is their monitor. Have you ever wondered why that red t-shirt you ordered from turned out to be more of a maroon when you took it out of the box? That's because your monitor isn't calibrated to show colors the way they appear in real life (though Amazon's photography might have also had something to do with that). Your monitor needs to be calibrated, and not just so it will show you true colors but also so that it will give you an accurate look at your black and white images. This is important because when you decide to print your images you don't want to be surprised (and disappointed) by the results. So don't use a monitor that has been set to high contrast and 100% brightness when editing those black and white photos because your photos aren't going to look like that anywhere else. Use a monitor calibration tool to find your monitor's black point before you start converting all those files.

    Cebra Voyerista / Voyeur Zebra by Flickr user * Cati Kaoe *


    Remember that converting to black and white isn't going to save a bad image, so you still need to follow all those composition and exposure rules you use for your color images. Think of black and white photography as a different way of viewing the world - try to see each potential photograph in terms of line, shape and form before you decide if you want to photograph for black and white. If those qualities in your scene stand out above the color in that scene, you've probably got a potentially good black and white image. Either way, it pays to know how to make that choice.

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    1. Honey Sharp says:

      The B&W in NIK software has done beautifully for me. At times though it feels too "easy". Can I fine tune the converted photo later using adjustments in PS or find a way to in NIK?

    2. Beth says:

      Can this be done in Lightroom 4?

      Being a beginner photographer I'm confused about using a monitor calibration tool to find the monitor's black point. I use Spyder Elite for setting my monitor calibration for color and do not understand setting just the black point. I guess this would be another lesson....... Do you have any suggestions on how to find out more about setting the monitor's black point and working with black and white?

    3. tholumuzi says:

      Interesting stuff, thank you David, I will definitely try this today

    4. Judy says:

      I would love to try this, you always explain things simply, even to an oldie
      like me :-) what can I use if I don't have photoshop?

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