A Guide to Black and White Photography

Understanding when and how to use black and white photography is a crucial skill for any photographer seeking to elevate their work. While color photography often takes center stage, black and white offers a unique way to interpret and present the world, emphasizing form, light, and shadow in ways that color simply cannot replicate. 

Coming to you from e6 | Craig Roberts, this insightful video explores the power and nuances of black and white photography. Roberts, a seasoned photographer with a passion for the monochrome, emphasizes the importance of intentional black and white shooting. He argues against using black and white as a fallback option for failed color images, highlighting the need to envision the final result in monochrome from the moment you press the shutter. This shift in perspective allows you to focus on the essential elements of composition, contrast, and tonal range that define successful black and white imagery.

Training your eye to see in black and white is an ongoing process. Practice by actively looking for scenes with strong contrasts, interesting textures, and compelling shapes. Pay attention to how light and shadow interact with your subjects, and consider how these elements will translate into grayscale. Compositional techniques like leading lines, negative space, and the rule of thirds become even more critical in black and white photography, guiding the viewer's eye through the image.

Roberts delves into the technical aspects of black and white conversion, discussing the use of raw processing software and the role of color channels in shaping the final grayscale tones. He shares his personal workflow, utilizing Adobe Camera Raw to achieve his signature high-contrast style. The video also explores the impact of different lighting conditions on black and white photography, demonstrating how bright sunlight can create dramatic contrasts while overcast days offer a softer, more subtle aesthetic. Ultimately, Roberts encourages viewers to experiment and develop their own eye for black and white, learning to see the world in shades of gray and appreciate the unique beauty this medium offers. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Roberts.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I'm one of those people who learn something new through accidents. I was never interested in black and white until a few of my color images turned out to be huge disappointments, which upon just an inexplicable click of button, turned into beautiful black and white images. I don't even remember what possessed me to try converting some of them. Probably because I'm one of those prolific button-pushers in Photoshop. "Oh, let's see what this does." Okay, that's sort of simplistic, as black and white processing is more than a one-click desaturating of a color image. It's an art form that requires quite a bit of skill to consistently produce good results. But my point is that we often don't realize we like or need something until something bad pushes us into a new way of seeing.

So while the idea that "black and white should never be an afterthought... a second choice," that's exactly how I learned to see in black and white. And, honestly, I still use that approach periodically. At this point, I'm mostly able to see it from the original click of the shutter, but it takes years of experience.... which you don't have when starting down that path.

So true; one has to walk before one can run. It does help somewhat that mirrorless systems can have the option of a B&W viewfinder.

Some great photos there, too, Edward!

I prefer black and white, having never really been able to get on with colour, especially whilst walking around cities with lots of grey and brown tones from the streets and buildings. My fated edit attempts always just look like a bad Instagram filter anyway, I just love using black and white and working with contrasting tones as opposed to using colour for contrast. I’ve attempted a few colour photos from time to time but they always end up looking better in black and white. I don’t use a black and white picture profile on my camera in my viewfinder or rear screen like some people do as I find it can get a bit hard to see details in the shadows and it looks darker than seeing in colour anyway. Easy enough for me to see what might work in black and white in this colourful world we live in. I always just edit by eye and know instinctively what works for me. That’s just my approach and the way it works for me though.

In 2011, I shot a roll of B&W film because I was shooting an outside event in the pre-dawn hours. Finishing the roll, I rediscovered the classic look of B&W. I resolved to photograph the year 2012 exclusively using B&W film, and also learn to use the contrast filters of yellow, orange, and red. It took about three months before I could visualize in B&W.

I wonder how the Leica monochrome camera handles the B&W contrast filters.