The Key to Successful Black and White Photography

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Thanks for reading! Andrew.

 Black and white portrait

In last week’s article comparing Canon’s 40mm and 85mm lenses for portrait photography I presented all the images in colour. This week I’m going to show you what I really wanted from the shoot – some beautiful black and white portraits.

There are two ways to approach black and white photography:

  • Set out from the start to create a black and white image and do everything you can at the point you take it to make it as strong as possible.
  • Recognise after a photo has been taken that it will make a good black and white photo and process it accordingly.

The key to successful black and white photography is to take the first approach. To do this you need to learn to recognise some of the elements that work well in monochrome. The skill is in being able to look past the colour and visualise how the scene will look in black and white.

Using the monochrome Picture Style

One way to do this is to set your camera’s Picture Style* to monochrome. If the light is flat, you can increase the contrast setting to compensate and give a better preview. Now you can play back your photos to see how they look in black and white. It helps get you into the right mindset.

As long as you are shooting in Raw (which you always should be for black and white photography as the image quality is much better) you will have a full colour image to work with in post.

* Picture Style is Canon’s term, look for these menu settings with other cameras: Nikon, Picture Control; Sony, Creative Style; Pentax, Custom Image; Olympus, Picture Mode; Sigma, Colour Mode; Fujifilm, Film Simulation.

The key elements of a successful black and white image

This is a colour portrait, with minimal post-processing to give you an idea of how it looked at the time:

Black and white portrait

Ignoring the colour, what are the elements that might make this a strong black and white portrait?

Tonal contrast: The portrait is stronger if the model’s face is the lightest tone in the image. In real life, her face is a similar colour and tone to the rocks. That means that the tonal contrast needs to be emphasised in post-processing. Easily done, as long as the background contains no distracting highlights.

Texture: The woman’s coat and the rocks add some beautiful texture. The narrow depth-of-field creates an interesting effect where the concrete wall on the right goes from out-of-focus to sharp.

Light: The soft evening light is ideal for creating flattering portraits. It also gives you plenty of scope to boost contrast in post-processing.

Here’s the final black and white image:

Black and white portrait

Let’s look at another portrait. Here’s the original, again with minimal processing:

Black and white portrait

Can you visualise how this photo would look if I processed it in a similar way to the previous one? The idea is to imagine how it will look after it has been processed. This is the art of visualisation – the skill of being able to see the finished result after the photo has been processed, at the time you actually take the photo. The better you are at this, the more work you can do at the point you take the photo to obtain the result you want.

Here’s the result:

Black and white portrait

The black and white version has a dark, moody feel. One of the things I did to achieve this was make the red tone of the dress darker than it was in reality. Here, it is nearly as dark as the woman’s coat, to emphasise the tonal contrast between the model’s skin and the background.

Just for fun, let’s see how it looks without the adjustment to the red coat:

Black and white portrait

Colour as an extra layer

There has been a shift in my thinking about colour in photography. More and more I’m seeing images in black and white, and thinking of colour as a layer added in to add meaning. If a photo looks good in mono, then it will look good in colour, as long as the colours emphasise the mood or the message of the image rather than distract from it.

This is a different way of seeing than creating a composition based on colour alone. Composing in mono involves looking at the light, textures and tonal contrast. Colour is secondary.

Take a look at this image:

Steel wool spinning at night

This scene is built around the colour contrast between the orange light in the foreground and the deep blue colour of the night sky. Tonal contrast and light are important, but only in the way they relate to the colours in the scene.

Further reading

Learn more about black and white photography by reading these articles:

Seeing in Black and White (similar topic to this article)

An Introduction to Silver Efex Pro 2 (black and white conversion software)

And a little inspiration:

The Art of Black and White Film Photography

Inspirational Black and White Photos

50 Beautiful Black and White Photos (with apologies for the missing photos, one of the hazards of linking directly to Flickr)

The Magic of Black and White

The Magic of Black & White ebookI have also written three ebooks about black and white photography for Craft & Vision. Click the links below for details:

The Magic of Black & White Part I: Vision

The Magic of Black & White Part II: Craft

The Magic of Black & White Part III: Nine Photos


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One Response to “The Key to Successful Black and White Photography”

  1. Starkman says:

    “More and more I’m seeing images in black and white, and thinking of colour as a layer added in to add meaning.”

    I think this says it all. When we discover what lies behind a picture, the base that drives its production as a presentation of art, we open up our world to those vast other worlds of making photographic art, and good art at that!

    Very nice,


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