The Little Trick That Can Greatly Improve Your Black and White Photography

The Little Trick That Can Greatly Improve Your Black and White Photography

Black and white photography has a timeless quality, but shooting memorable colorless images is more difficult that it first seems. This little trick can help.

Where once black and white photography was so by mere necessity, now it's a creative decision in the same way it has been for artists for centuries. I remember first trying black and white and was a little baffled at why it looked so poor. Eventually, I got it right, but not because I finally had cracked it, but rather because I got lucky with the correct ingredients.

I've written on the important components for a good black and white photograph before, so I won't retread old ground, but what I generally look for when deciding whether to shoot color or monochromatic is useful contrast and texture. I say "useful" contrast because not every scene with contrast lends itself to a strong black and white image. Rather, I look for contrast that supports or aids in the composition in one way or another, whether it be by drawing the eye, creating patterns, or framing the subject. Texture's value is more straightforward in that it adds interest and an extra dimension to an image that has had one fundamental element removed — color.

The problem was, you had to imagine how every scene would look in black and white. It's not particularly difficult once you're familiar with your criteria for the right shot, but sometimes you would still miss shots that look unappealing in color. I, like many others, have always said that if you want black and white photographs, you ought to shoot for black and white and not just desaturate images in post-production to see if they work. This simplest of tricks now allows me to do that far more effectively and potentially see shots I might have otherwise missed.

Harnessing the EVF

It wasn't long ago that I claimed that the EVF (Electronic Viewfinder) is the best thing to happen to cameras in a long time. For me, the quality of life changes it brought were substantial and it took some of the weight off my shoulders with everything from portraits by zooming in to check that the eyes are sharp, to macro stacking where I can see exactly what is in and out of focus per frame. Well, recently I discovered another string to the EVF bow and one I can't believe eluded me for as long as it did: turning your EVF to black and white.

My brief research of other cameras with EVFs shows that this is possible with almost all (if not all) of them, but here's how you do it on a Sony a7 III:

Press Menu and navigate to Camera 1, page 12/14 Color/WB/Img. Processing, and change Creative Style to Black & White.

This will change every photograph you take to be black and white in camera, but it won't automatically change the EVF. So now navigate to Camera 2, page 6/9 Display/Auto Review1, and change Live View Display's Setting Effect to "ON".

This will apply whatever Creative Style you selected in step 1 — in this case automatic black and white — to your EVF when you look through it.

You can then of course assign these settings to function keys to make it much quicker if you want to flick between color and black and white. This simple change can have a dramatic effect on your black and white photography, not only allowing you to spot opportunities for monochromatic images you might have otherwise missed, but also to better evaluate images you intended to shoot in black and white before you started. I would strongly recommend that you only use this technique if you shoot raw rather than JPEG as with raw, this setting is non-destructive and when you import the file into Lightroom you will still be able to see the image in color. If you shoot in JPEG, as far as I can tell, no color information will be saved.

What is your process for shooting black and white? Do you have any tips on how to spot a great image? Share your thoughts and advice in the comment section below.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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Another thing I’m still learning but recently took a mono seascape due to flat light, it’s come out pretty well. The beach I shot used to be blackened with coal waste from local mines so perhaps having just blacks and greys in the shot was mildly symbolic too.

Let's see it!

Haha sorry i should have posted, it was late last night and i wasnt on my laptop at the time. This is a link to it on 500px Robert:)

Definitely lends itself well to black and white! Hard to believe that's the UK as well, looks more like Iceland.

Yeah its quite barren isnt it. The whole coast from pretty much Hull to Scotland is amazing, the difference in landscape as you head further North is quite something. I dare say the Iceland similarity here is more man made than natural though sadly.

A bit of trivia, the opening sequence to Alien 3 was filmed on one of the beaches and also the closing sequence of Get Carter, i believe in both cases they wanted to it to look bleak. Glad to say its been cleaned up a lot since those films were made but still has an otherworldly charm.

A few photographers I know live near the coast in Scotland and it blows my mind that it's the UK. Great bit of trivia there!

Oh yeah i can 2nd that, there is so much more i want to explore up in Scotland... the fact there is awesome seafood on tap is a nice little bonus too:)

Did not know that my Sony did this. Ta. 😁

One thing I do, particularly if shooting black and white film, if I like a scene but am not sure it will work in black and white, is to squint until my eyes are barely open. As you mentioned, contrast is very important in black and white photography, and squinting in this way greatly reduces the number of colors and the amount of contrast you can see. If the scene looks very flat or too busy when squinting in this way, then a black and white photo will likely be flat or too busy, as well.

I do the same thing. Solid tip.

Instead of squinting, you can also stop down then press the DOF preview button if using a DSLR

I was really hoping the answer was going to be "use colour"

There was a time when shooting in colour wasn't considered break photography.

I will use my phone with a black and white filter to scout for compositions.

I thought this was generally known 😅. I've been shooting b&w in camera for a few years now, it's especially good if your deliberately underexposing for light and shadows (I do street photography).
Fuji has the monochrome and acros simulations (along with yellow/red/green filter) that you see in camera (I've the X100F).
I have the Sony A7III with memory slot 1 as colour and memory slot 2 as b&w.
Another tip is in capture one, it will import the Raw with the b&w
Intact for both Sony and Fuji (infact it will retain any simulation with Fuji, including 'film recipes'), I don't use Lightroom so I don't know if that behaves the same. Hope this helps anyone else!.