5 Pro Tips for Better Black and White Photography

5 Pro Tips for Better Black and White Photography

One of the most appealing genres for photographers is black and white. Although we are long past the age of black and white being the only "real" medium of photography, there is still artistic appeal behind such images. In this article, I will share some of my favorite tips for better black and white images.

There are many photographers who simply turn their photos black and white and leave it at that. Some, unfamiliar with color grading, become black-and-white photographers because it is easier to grade such work – simply flip a switch. However, when you change your photo to black and white, a whole new world opens up. So much so that there are steps you need to take all the way from conceptualizing the image to how you export or print it. I often resort to black-and-white techniques when I am dissatisfied with the color harmony of my images. Much of my black-and-white processing is done in post-production. I find the idea of editing black-and-white images more intriguing than working with color. After all, you are working with a grayscale, and your edits need to be more intricate to show the full range of tones and ultimately convey meaning with your photography.

1. Shoot With Black and White in Mind

The joy of black-and-white photography is that you don’t need to think about color; rather, focus on patterns, shapes, and poses. This can be both a blessing and a curse, as you will need to learn to be colorblind on command. You need to see the world in grayscale. The best way to do this is to either use a mirrorless camera set to black-and-white mode or simply look for contrasting colors, differences in exposure, striking patterns, and ways to make the subject stand out. Good black-and-white images have relatively high contrast and use texture to express contrast. Remember, you can have contrast in many forms: light, texture, shape, and meaning. Seek contrasts around you and capture them in black and white. A good black and white image incorporates contrast in one way or another. 

2. Tether if You Can

A great way to enhance your black-and-white photography is by checking the images immediately in editing software. There are several ways to do this. If you are working on set with a team, grab your laptop, open Capture One, plug in your Tether Tools cable, and off you go. I have created some presets for myself and use those by default when I know that the final image will be shot in black and white. As you will see later on, tethering and using my own presets for black-and-white images allow me to craft the lighting in a way that fits the edit. It is almost like working backward. Many of my black-and-white techniques require extensive work in curves and layers, and often I am working with very unconventional lighting in strange places to get the look that I want. I simply use the preset as a starting point for later editing, but also as an indicator for the team on what to expect from a particular image. There are a lot of wild presets that I made. If you are interested, I might be sharing them at some point. 

3. Use Curves and Edit Extensively

Black and white images are great for editing and experimenting with various techniques. Because you are eliminating color, much of the pain of color grading is gone. You are working with grayscale. This calls for action in the curve sliders. Don’t be afraid to drag your curve points beyond what you would normally do. I tend to do most of the heavy work in the curves layer. The top and bottom points may be reversed to create a solarized effect. Then, you can go and work with the midtones and so on. Further, you can play around with the red, blue, and green channels to get more precision with your editing. I find those to be effective tools when converting a very vibrant image to black and white. An extra tip would be to turn the contrast slider all the way down and introduce the necessary contrast in curves and levels.

4. Familiarize Yourself With Photographers Who Used Black and White

There are many great photographers from various time periods who originally used black and white. After all, being original is something we all should strive for. Familiarize yourself with how photographers such as Man Ray started black-and-white photography and how it was developed further. Dadaism is a great movement to explore. The combination of surreal motifs with stunning black and white is hard to replicate and is sure to give you new ideas. Going further in time, explore the works of greats such as Sally Mann and Helmut Newton. I would advise skipping Peter Lindbergh as his style is copied too much in the current landscape. Please, do not copy Lindbergh. A great name to be familiar with from the 90s and 00s is Steven Klein. As for current photographers shooting incredible blacks and whites, try Txema Yeste and Elizaveta Porodina.

5. Dehaze, Tint, and Then Some

To add to my editing tip with curves, I suggest trying sliders such as dehaze and tint. Capture One has a brilliant way of doing dehaze, which is not the same in Lightroom. I find that slider to be a great contrast reducer. Often, my black and white images are dehazed to show more detail in the shadows and turn the highlights down. I add contrast in curves, as has been said previously. Tint is another slider worth trying. Much black-and-white photography follows the same bluish tint, which is natural when simply switching the image to black and white. Tinting your work can be an interesting way to make the photo warmer or add an original look. You can experiment with tinting the shadows or the highlights only.

Closing Thoughts

These are my five quick tips for getting better black-and-white images that will be more original and experimental. A common motif in many of my articles is, indeed, originality. Lastly, as a bonus tip, don't forget to add grain for extra spice.

What are your favorite black-and-white techniques? Anything you like using? Share with us in the comments below!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.
LIGHTING COURSE: https://illyaovchar.com/lighting-course-1

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As someone who grew up on film and shot extensively in B&W, knowing image management (think the zone system) and having the end state in your mind (visualization) is paramount in being successful in shooting B&W. These days I still consider where I place certain luminescence for a particular zone -- albeit an expanded zonal range with moderns sensors.

In post, I make basic adjustments in LRC, black point, white point, shadows and highlights and then export to Nik Silver Efex Pro, where I usually apply a custom curve.

Hi Illya, it all reads very well, but I'm missing the reference to the raw converter used. Not everyone works with Capture One. Lightroom is a bit more laborious with curves for example.

Well, normally writers only talk about LR and its capabilities and workflows, where I'd be missing info about CaptureOne. It's good to get this info from time to time, as not all - although a lot of - photographers use LR. I guess you'll find plenty of 'how to's regarding LR.

At the outset, shoot with a B&W photo in mind, get a good color edit, then convert to B&W. One of the best tools for B&W conversion is DxO's Silver Efex Pro IF you don't just schlep on a preset and call it good. Learn how to use the plethora of tools in the program to your advantage.

Another tip - shoot on b&w film ;)

May I also suggest the work of Mr Edward Weston and his family memebers? They have an amazing way of using tints and "burning" to creat amazing effects in their work.