How to Improve Your Photography by Shooting Black and White

How to Improve Your Photography by Shooting Black and White

It is understandable that many beginners new to taking photos often get impatient when learning photography. Learning this craft is a process and involves the gradual addition of techniques that will eventually turn into second nature. We all get “the bug” and want to learn anything and everything as soon as possible, it’s natural. There are all sorts of elements that factor in to a well composed final image. The fact of the matter is, we’re all still learning new things from our experiences that we encounter. 

So what is a great exercise to help better your photography skills? Shoot Black & White! (B&W) About a year ago, I was in Manhattan doing a little street photography for fun. I decided to stick to B&W for the entire trip for my theme. Shooting in B&W really opened my eyes to how light works, bends, and reflects to our surroundings. 

Just one of the many Black and White street shots from Manhattan.

Photography in its simplest form, is capturing shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. The benefit from shooting B&W is that it breaks down photography into a very basic interpretation of light. We are forced to forget about colors all together and focus more how we light our subject. Colors in a way distract you from the tonality of the image; colors interfere with your perception of light. We are able to clearly see how the light shapes our subject and how we can manipulate how the light hits the subject. 

Shooting Black and White allows you to see clearly how highlights and shadows shape your subject.

One trick I do often when shooting B&W or even color is that I change this setting in my menu (Nikon):

Shooting Menu > Set Picture Control from "Standard (SD)" to "Monochrome (MC)"

That way I can review my photos on my LCD screen quickly in Black & White so I can check the light and exposure more effectively. If you're shooting RAW your photos will still be in color once you import them into Lightroom, Capture One, etc.

I learned many nuances from shooting exclusively black and white for a month or two, it really taught me how light works and how to capture it.  If you find yourself in a rut with your photography or lighting, try giving black and white a shot and see how it can help you and your photography skills. It's a great exercise to improve your work. And remember, learning is a process, we all want to be the best we can be, a little patience will help get you there!


Nick Pecori's picture

Nick Pecori is a Florida-based advertising photographer who has shot for clients Acer, Bealls, Shoe Carnival, the Florida Lottery, etc.

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New York was made for B&W

Good advice!

"I can check the light and exposure more effectively"...and how do you do that...? It's not like the viewfinder goes b&w. This is less "shoot in b&w" and more "review your lcd in b&w"

Some camera's do benefit from the viewfinder to be shown in b&w (i.e. Sony) Nevertheless, personally I am able to recognize image clipping accurately by reviewing in b&w. This is not a rule, but more of a suggestion to see if you can benefit from this technique. Although I believe both parts of the article go hand in hand, I appreciate your thoughts on the article.

You wrote a great article, thanks

When shooting film, the viewfinder never went B&W either. You learn to interpret what you see in B&W c.q. how light works. Nowadays you don't need to wait until all the images are developed, it's available to you directly on the LCD so you can study/adjust/learn on the spot. A (if not THE) big plus in shooting digital.

I'd suggest using B&W contrast filters, yellow, orange, and red, change the contrast. In 2012, I used B&W film exclusively. It took about 3 months before I able to visualize a scene in B&W.

If you are shooting digital, I would recommend using colour balance settings in post production rather than filters on your lens. You will gain much more control, less prone to mistakes, easier to view your image through the viewfinder, sharper images, etc.
If you are shooting film, then yes you must use lens filters.

Great advice and photos Nick. It's always good to get reminded of the basics.

Thanks Angela!

Thank you for reminding me how I learned photography in the first place. I seem to forget this and just do a B&W conversion in the computer.