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What are the Best Tips for Black and White Photography?

Dana Hinders
Updated: Jan 28, 2024

Black and white photography has the ability to make even an ordinary image seem like a beautiful work of art. Since we are accustomed to viewing color photos on a daily basis, black and white images often come across as much more sophisticated and elegant. This makes them very popular for portrait shots, as well as wedding photography and landscape photography.

Before you can begin taking black and white photos, you'll need to decide what method you plan to use to capture your images. If you are using a film camera, you can use black and white film. If you are using a digital camera, many models allow you to shoot images in grayscale. If not, you can use image editing software to convert your color photos into black and white.

Contrast is a key element in successful black and white photography. The best photos have strong contrast between the foreground and the surrounding environment. Since it takes practice to learn to block the distraction of colors and see how contrast and tone will affect the final image, the best way to master this type of photography is to simply take as many shots as possible.

Since you can't rely on different colors to add interest to your shot, look for textures that will photograph well. Satin fabric can be a lovely backdrop for a photo of a newborn baby and his mother. The side of a weathered barn sets the scene for a masculine portrait of a father and his sons. Don't ask your photo subject to wear patterned clothing, however. Busy prints are often distracting in black and white portraits.

Lighting is an important component of successful photography regardless of whether your pictures will be in color or black and white. However, when you remove the color in an image, the viewer's eyes become very sensitive to the intensity of light within the photo. To reduce harsh shadows, it's best to shoot outdoors in natural light either late in the evening or early in the morning. Overcast days also work well for black and white photography, even though taking color pictures under the same conditions will usually result in substandard images.

Although black and white photography is beautiful on its own, adding spot color can lend an interesting look to your images. Spot color can be added using Adobe Photoshop® or other image editing software. You can also hand color black and white prints using special markers found at your local craft store.

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Dana Hinders
By Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to her work as a freelance writer. After discovering her passion for freelance writing following the birth of her son, Dana has been a vital part of the WiseGeek team. She also showcases her versatility by creating sales copy and content for e-courses and blogs.
Discussion Comments
By jeancastle00 — On Oct 08, 2010

My favorite way to take black and white photography is from my cell phone. I know this sounds simple but it is the best option for me as an amateur and I absolutely love the results. I wonder if our smart phones and mobile devices that we use now will ever become as complicated as having the ability to mix channels like NightChef mentions about Photoshop.

Either way I will continue to take and love my framed black and white photography.

By NightChef — On Oct 08, 2010

If we want to get into the very fine details of black and white image conversion we would have to discuss the use of color channels to fine tune the output gray tones from the transformation.

What this means is that in the digital image editing software that professional photographers are using to convert black and white images there exist many settings and some of these are channel mixers that allow for certain amounts of the color values to be used and hence effect the output black and white tone.

Popular software like Adobe Photoshop, one of the markets leading application choices, allows for the instant previewing of channel mixed black and white conversions. The software is even advanced enough that you can save an adjustment layer on top of the original photograph so you can later adjust the color conversion from where you left off or in case you decide that a change is needed.

By dkarnowski — On Oct 08, 2010

Black and white digital photography and prints are truly a specialty market now days. I mean, think about it. We have the ability now to capture captivating, bright and vivid colors in our modern cameras yet people still desire to see a black and white image.

I think that it might be the incredible effect that removing color from an image can have. In my years as a photographer I have most certainly come across photographs that actually looked much better then the same image in full color. Sometimes objects of a stand-out color can be distracting when looking at an image and the removal of the color will allow the subject to view the image without the bias that the single object has created.

In a way it is like sensory deprivation in an attempt to heighten other senses of qualities of those senses. Our eyes tend to look at things like contrast and texture as opposed to what kind of shades of red are in the image or other eye popping colors.

It's just amazing to me in this day and age that an archaic technology that has been overcome still has such a large and popular following.

By fitness234 — On Oct 08, 2010

I understand that many professional photographers want a huge degree of control when converting black and white photographs but for me as a casual picture taker am quite satisfied with the in-camera options that my small point-and-shoot camera has.

By CoffeeJim — On Oct 08, 2010

Another major disadvantage and example of how a digital camera lacks the artistic eye to convert a color photograph to black and white is the white balance issues that can occur with modern day cameras.

Normally when shooting a color photograph the ability to see what the white balance appears to be is just as obvious as looking at the image on the back of the screen. Unfortunately you will never know if you white balance is correct in a shooting situation unless you shoot a test color image.

The reason that white balance will impact the final delivery of an in-camera black and white converted photograph is that if the white balance is off then the preset color conversion factors will affect the resulting gray tone. For instance, if the white balance of an image is slightly to warm and give a white wall a yellowish tinge then that yellow value will be interpreted as a color tone and hence will show up darker in a black and white conversion. If the white balance was set correctly then the white wall would simply return a white and similar to original tone after conversion.

People seriously underestimate the complications involved with producing an accurate or appealing black and white photograph.

By GraniteChief — On Oct 08, 2010

@IceCarver, you are right, I do have to disagree with your analysis of what makes a good way to shoot black and white photography. Most professionals have long since moved on from the film versus digital debate that raged during the late 90's and early 2000's.

The quality of digital sensors has now overcome any advantages that film might have still been clinging onto. Because of this the option for using black and white film is fairly obsolete unless you are specifically trying to use a film effect.

I have to agree with FrogFriend that converting digital color photographs in software on a computer is a much more detailed and specific process.

As far as shooting digitally and having the camera concert the digital file directly to black and white, I would have to warn against it.

This automatic conversion means that the software built into the camera will decide which tones are important to any give image. Unfortunately because computers lack the ability to see beauty they are not the best decision makers in black and white image conversion and will rely on automatic settings put in place by the manufacturers programmers.

By IceCarver — On Oct 08, 2010

@FrogFriend, the way that you describe shooting black and white photography sounds like a personal preference and I can tell you that many photographers prefer to shoot directly in black and white either on film or in a digital single lens reflex camera.

The difference being that it is much more challenging and requiring of skill to shoot directly to black and white. Much more forethought and calculation about how textures will appear and what kind of light is available in a scene will have to be undertaken by the photographer.

Personally, I think that this technique should be the only acceptable way to photograph black and white images but then again I am sure that many professional photographers will disagree with me.

By FrogFriend — On Oct 08, 2010

I think one of the most effective way to shoot black and white photography is to actually shoot in color on a digital single lens reflex camera. By doing so you will allow for the conversion of color to black and white to be highly-customizable on a computer with digital image editing software.

Many applications can change images from color to black and white but only some can do so with an amount of precision and delicacy that is desired by most professional or serious-hobby style black and white photographers.

This post-shutter conversion process will allow the photographer to extract exactly which tones from which color channels that they desire. There is not doubt that this is a much more complicated process then say, sticking a roll of black and white film into your camera.

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders
With a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, Dana Hinders brings a strong foundation to...
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