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10 Top Tips for Black and White Photography

There’s so much more to black and white than the simple removal of color. We must understand both color and tone, plus their relationship with the world of monochrome. Here are 10 tips to help you become a better black and white photographer.

1. Discover the Histogram

One of the most important and underused tools in a camera is the histogram. It is a simple graph plotting the number of pixels there at different brightnesses (luminances) in the picture. Many are daunted by histograms at first look, but they are easy to learn and use. If you want to discover more about them, then click here for an introduction.

In black and white, we are often looking for tonal separations in an image, where areas of different luminance contrast with each other. So, look for histograms with big peaks. L-, M-, N-, U-, and W-shaped histograms are typical of images that have the potential to make good black and white conversions.

This low-key, abstract photograph was a part of a study of light and shadows. It has an L-shaped histogram with a lot of deep shadows and then a gradual increase in tones to the highlights.

2. Learn from Caravaggio and The Third Man

The great Baroque artist, Caravaggio, used chiaroscuro techniques in his work. This is where there is a strong contrast between dark and light, which he took to extremes in a style sometimes known as Tenebrism. These strong contrasts work particularly well in black and white photography, especially with low-key images where blacks and shadows dominate.

This technique was powerfully used in Carol Reed's movie adaption of Graeme Green’s “The Third Man.” Robert Krasker’s cinematography emphasized the contrasting shadows and highlights. The famous scene where Orson Welles’ character, Harry Lime, is first revealed, lit in a doorway from an overhead window, plus the climax where Lime is pursued by the police in the Viennese sewers, are great examples.

Try applying similar techniques in your black and white photography. For example, look for shafts of sunlight illuminating a leaf in a forest or shining between buildings onto a person. Then, reduce the exposure so the subject and the light move into the mid-tones and the surroundings become dark or even black.

Combining chiaroscuro technique with abstract shapes brought into context by a moving figure. Handheld Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II, 35mm, ISO 1,000, f/3.7, 0.4 seconds (-1.7 EV).

Alternatively, try lighting just your subject with a flash. Set the shutter to the camera’s flash sync speed, usually 1/200th or 1/250th second. Reduce the aperture until the entire picture is black. Then, switch on and fire the flash at the subject. You may have to change the power of the flash to avoid overexposure or use flags to stop the light from spilling onto other objects in the frame.

3. Black and White and High-Key

The reverse is possible too. If you have a predominantly bright background, by increasing the exposure, one can make dark subjects move into the mid-tones, and the bright background becomes white. This is a favorite technique of mine for shooting on a beach where the sand and the sea are bright and people are dressed in darker clothes. It would work equally well on a sun-drenched street. Add two to three stops of extra exposure to the image and the landscape becomes white. Then, in post-processing, reduce the shadows and blacks to make the subject stand out. If necessary, increase the exposure, whites, and highlights. It may need additional contrast too.

Over exposing by two stops turned the sand and the sea nearly white, so the horizon was lost. An increase in contrast and a decrease in shadows and blacks darkened the people and the horses.

4. Switch Your Camera to Black and White

If you use a mirrorless camera, by switching over to black and white, one can preview through the viewfinder how the images will appear. With a DSLR, one would have to look at the image after shooting. This is a great way of learning to see in black and white, finding out what works and what doesn't.

If you shoot raw, all the color detail will still be stored and accessible by the development software. However, if you are a JPEG shooter, then you will only have the black and white version of the image. If you haven’t already, now might be a good time to switch your camera over to shooting raw or raw plus JPEG and learn the skills of post-processing.

Although it is subjective, different cameras produce different black and white JPEG results, and some are better than others. Some I find meh, but I particularly like the monochrome JPEGs produced by Olympus and Fujifilm cameras.

5. Buy Some Cheap Colored Filters

To understand how colored filters work, we must know a bit about complementary colors. If you remember mixing paints at school, then you'll recall there are three primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. Mixing any two of those colors, we get the secondary colors. The complementary color of the secondary color is that which is not part of its composition, i.e.:

Red + Yellow = Orange: The complementary color is blue, as it is not part of the orange.
Yellow + Blue = Green: The complementary color is red, as it is not part of the green.
Blue + Red = Purple: The complementary color is yellow, as it is not part of purple.

That is a very simplified explanation, but it's a good place to start.

In photography, a colored filter will brighten the same color and darken the complementary. So, an orange filter will darken a blue sky and water and brighten an orange lifebelt. Red filters darken green foliage and lighten poppies, stop signs, etc.

Black and white works well with abstract photography. This was shot handheld with an Olympus OM-D E-M1, ISO 64, 50mm, f/22, 1/10th second. Applying an orange filter in post-processing darkened the water.

Although common for film photography, not everyone uses colored filters now. That’s because filters to change the luminosity of the original colors are now available in digital developing software. However, if you use these, adjust them gently. Large differences in the luminosity of adjacent colors can cause unwanted artifacts in your final image.

Online shops stock cheap, plastic filters. Although I wouldn't recommend these for your best shots, they are a great way of discovering how colors work in black and white. They can be fun for creating lo-fi images too. Nevertheless, you may ultimately want to invest in some better-quality glass ones, as they will give you results otherwise unavailable to other black and white photographers.

6. Compose with Tones

The basic guidelines for composition are the same as in color photography. However, in color photography, we choose to place bright and dark colors in the frame to draw the viewer into the picture. With monochrome we do the same, but with bright and dark tones. For example, we might choose a dark foreground with mid-tone leading lines to a subject that's contrasted against a bright horizon. Alternatively, we could divide our frame into areas of different tones that help us to concentrate on the main subject. See also part 10 below.

The bright reflected light leads our eye to the base of the waterfall. The sloping mid-toned rock formations, the lighter over-hanging branch, and the falling water all do the same. 30 x 0.5-second exposures, blended in the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II's Live Composite mode. ISO 200, 7mm, f/13.

7. Embrace Abstract

Abstract photography lends itself well to black and white. Look for shapes not only of objects but those formed by shadows or projected light. Get up close, tilt your camera, show the world in ways you would not usually see it. Practicing abstract photography helps us to tune our eye to using abstraction as part of other photographic genres.

Another image from my light and shadows project. Abstract photographs, for me, work best if the subject isn't immediately obvious, but becomes more apparent after studying the image.

8. Be Minimalist and Clear Out Clutter

The human eye likes simplicity. Black and white photography does too. The big advantages of getting up close are the removal of extraneous clutter from the frame, hiding unwanted elements with the restricted frame, and the shallow depth of field that proximity brings. What we exclude from the frame is as important that what we include.

Getting close removes clutter from the photograph. It then leaves the intelligent viewer asking questions about the meaning of the photo.

9. Find the Software That Gives the Results You Like

This is subjective: I don't like the black and white results in Lightroom or Affinity. If you like them, I won't argue with that, but I make no apologies for not finding the results appealing. I do have a particular fondness for three programs for my black and white work.

Firstly is my camera’s own software. When I upload black and white raw files to Lightroom, although it automatically applies the “Camera Natural B&W” profile, it doesn’t hold a candle to what I saw in the camera. However, using my camera brand’s software, I can exactly replicate what the camera produced. I then tweak that. I can already hear the purists shouting at me that the camera’s JPEG results are not what we should be striving to achieve, but I like the results that the clever technician programmed into my Olympus OM-D E-M1s, so why shouldn’t I enjoy them? My customers do.

Secondly, On1 Photo Raw. The combination of its adjustable presets with the various adjustment layers, especially dynamic contrast, gives splendid results that are superior to Lightroom and Affinity's. Again, this is my opinion, and it's okay if you disagree with me.

Thirdly, is, of course, Nik Silver Efex Pro. This is my usual go-to software for most of my black and white work and well worth the investment in money and learning time.

10. Learn the Adams-Archer System

You can learn a lot from studying black and white photographs of the masters. I find myself dwelling over the monochrome images far longer than I do color.

To my mind, the king of black and white landscape photography is still Ansel Adams. He and his friend, Fred Archer, devised a system of determining the optimal exposure for both shooting film and developing it.

Their system involved arranging the scene according to how the photographer visualized the final image. Adams would split a landscape into 11 zones of differing brightness, with 0 equaling black and X (they used the Roman numerals, so X is 10) being white. He would then expose the shot so that the brightness of the image's different components would correspond with the correct zone.

This is a modified list of each of the zones, giving an approximation of their brightnesses. Each zone is one stop, or double the brightness, of the previous zone.

0. Pure Black. No other tones or texture can be seen.
I. Near black. There is slight tonality, but no texture is visible.
II. Textured black. This is the darkest part of the image in which very slight detail is recorded.
III. Darker shadows. Cloths and similar materials. Texture is visible.
IV. Shadows. Black African skin. Foliage, dark stone, or landscape shadows. A good, detailed texture is visible.
V. Mid gray. Clear skies looking away from the sun towards the poles, dark Mediterranean skin, weathered wood, gray pavement.
VI. Light. Caucasian skin, light stone, strong shadows on the snow in sunlit landscapes.
VII. Very light. Palest skin, weaker shadows on the snow.
VIII. Lightest tone with texture still visible. Snow should be exposed to this level to still show its textures.
IX. Slight tone without texture, such as glaringly bright snow. No texture is visible.
X. Pure white. Light sources and specular reflections.

They then chose the brightness of different areas to draw one’s eye into the heart of the image, initially by composing the shot, and then in the development stage.

Let's See Your Black and White Images

Are you a fan of monochrome? If so, let's see some of your results in the comments. If you are an experienced black and white photographer, what other hints would you give to others?

This was a very brief introduction to the world of black and white, and there are volumes written about it. If you have any questions, please do ask.

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33 Comments

brokenlandphotography's picture

5. Buy Some Cheap Colored Filters

Hardly good or bad advices when these filters don't function correctly with your camera. We purchased a dozen of these cheap and expensive filters and none of these worked with our Canon EOS M6 camera. So we've developed our own "Fixed" (35%) Polarization filter. Checking my profile will prove we've been doing very well with our experimental filter which will hit the marketplace very soon.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Good luck with that product development. I look forward to hearing how it goes.

Jan Holler's picture

Great! This is one of those very few articles that I bookmark because I know I'll want to read it again sometime later. I like it when authors reference great artists. Thirty years ago, I visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where a room is dedicated to Caravaggio. I visited Florence three more times after that, but never made it back to the Uffizi. (You have to wait for hours just to enter them because of the crowds waiting and then it's crowded.) But I did find this:
https://www.virtualuffizi.com/discovering-the-uffizi%3A-room-90%2C-carav...
From this article I particularly take away: 3. Black and white and high key. I've always liked this, but never managed to dive into it.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Jan, for the nice comment. It's very much appreciated. The high key technique works really well on the beach, in the snow, and brightly lit streets. It can work in colour too, but sometimes it can look washed out if the subjects' colours are not saturated.

I've visited a lot of places in Europe but haven't managed Florence yet. I must get there.

Jan Holler's picture

Ivor, if you like to visit Florence, I strongly recommend to avoid the touristic season. There are so many (very loud and young, but not only) Americans in shorts, so many loud touristic guides constantly shouting and waving flags that it is almost impossible to enjoy it. Winter, early spring or late autumn is a good time to visit Florence.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks, I'll save it for then.

James Cowman's picture

This was a great article with a lot of useful information. Growing up in the traditional darkroom and studying Ansel Adams zone system still applies 4 decades later. This was was of the best articles Ive seen on this website.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, James. That's very kind.

Carl Viktor's picture

This was a good article. Thanks for sharing. I've been shooting black and white ever since I got my first film camera. Now I shoot black and white digitally. The histogram is one of the most important tools to get good photos. I also use off-camera flashes to illuminate and create contrasts in the camera. In front of the computer, I do not want to spend more time than 5 min/pic. For editing, I use DxO PL + Silver Efex Pro 3.
Kind regards from me here in Finland

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Carl,

I am grateful for that kind comment. Kiitos! (My in-laws in Finland, If my wife agreed, I would move over to Finland like a shot, but I don't think she wants to move back.)

I like to limit my editing time too and absolutley agree with you about getting the contrast right in-camera.

Silver Efex Pro is a superb piece of software. I keep getting tempted by DXO PhotoLab, but it would mean a complete change in Workflow for me.

Carl Viktor's picture

Hi Ivor. It was nice to read that we are almost related to each other :-)
Today I edited a new photo to my Fstoppers portfolio with double exposure and in black and white. With this method it is possible to get interesting patterns, especially with simple subjects. It is possible to do this in the camera but the image becomes too compressed for my taste. The church clock is converted to black and white with Silver Efex Pro 3 and finished with Analog Efex Pro 2 app.

sid aswal's picture

i'm a wildlife photographer, so most of my images are of birds.....i prefer underexposed images to hi-key shots...just personal taste. I shoot with the nikon d5600 and the 70-300 kit lens, which i make do with in most situations, such as this spot billed pelican.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Beautiful image, Sid. Perfect tonal control, and the abstract nature of the highlighted lines are stunning.

Thanks for sharing it, I hope others can learn from it.

chris bryant's picture

I like to dabble in Mono. One digital and one film.

Ivor Rackham's picture

These are smashing! What film camera are you using?

chris bryant's picture

Thanks Ivor, the film camera used is an Olympus Trip 35 (currently loaded with Pan F).

Ivor Rackham's picture

The Olympus Trip - what a fantastic camera! I never had one, but I did take a Mju II backpacking around the world back in 1999. My SLR was just too much to carry.

Hugh Wolfe's picture

Great article Ivor thank you for sharing your knowledge. I don't specifically shoot for B&W, however I will edit to B&W if the mood strikes. The one piece of advice I could offer is to get closer to eliminate extraneous items. This was shot several years ago while living in Dallas TX. A rainy day not suitable for going out so I ventured down to the parking garage to see if I could find any good reflections.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Absolutely right. I think it was Robert Capa who said that if your photos weren't good enough, you weren't close enough. Super image too, thanks for sharing it, and thank you for the kind comment on my article.

James Cochran's picture

Very nice article -full of useful information. I have been using Luminar AI to convert some of my previous shots to b&w and use the Dodge and Burn tool allot to make some area edits. Here is one of Cathedral Rock near Sedona, AZ.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a spot on black and white landscape. I've not used Luminar and will have to give it a try.. Arizona looks amazing. Thanks for the nice comment.

Stuart C's picture

Something I definitely don’t do near enough of. Great advice Ivor.

This is one of the very few BW shots I’ve ever taken, from a location you’re no doubt very familiar with:)

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you Stuart. I am familiar with that weather too! Super photo.

Stuart C's picture

Haha yes, especially this last week.

Kenneth James's picture

I always love Black and white photography. Recently i decided to challenge myself with using my mobile phone more for street photography than my camera. creating only black and white. Check out my instagram if interested @kenneth_bnw till i get all my photos up on my profile here 😅

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Kenneth. I'll take a look at your IG, and look forward to seeing your updated portfolio here.

Pete Coco's picture

Another great article, Ivor. Thank you! Here is one of my daughter taken with my Fuji XPro-1. I really love the in-camera black and white setting. It does an excellent job getting a "base" image and then I tweak it in Affinity Photo.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a truly fabulous image, Pete. Great composition and monochrome conversion, as well as telly a superb story.
Thank you for the kind comment about my article.

Pete Coco's picture

Thanks Ivor! I am really enjoying your articles.

Doug Blake's picture

One small clarification about tenebrism. Technically speaking, it is about more than high contrast images. It requires a single light source from outside of the picture frame (perimeter limits).

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for that, Doug. It's not a restriction I've come across, but it does pretty much describe the effect. Thanks.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you everyone who has shared their black and white images here. There are some cracking shots.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I would be very happy to see more!