The world is full of intense, beautiful colors. As photographers, we soak up the colors around us and use them as part of our compositions — part of the stories we tell with our photographs.
But sometimes the absence of color can be powerful.
In certain images, color can be a distracting element. Turning the photo to black and white allows the viewer to focus on the important part of the scene without getting lost in the colors.
As with any great image, most amazing black and white photos don’t just happen. They are made through careful planning and intentional shooting.
How do you shoot for a black and white edit? What are the things you need to think about? Let’s find out!
Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever struggled with the colors in an image until you finally gave up and turned it to black and white to “save” the image?
It’s possible that it worked. Some images can benefit from stripping out the distracting color.
But don’t expect it to always work. If you want to take stunning black and white images, you want to plan them as black and white images before you click the shutter.
Admittedly, while you’re working with your images, one might jump out at you and you wonder how it will look in black and white. When doing this, always ask yourself why you’re removing the color.
Hint: “because you can’t get the color right” is the wrong answer. You need to have a defined reason for removing the color.
In short, black and white images need to be intentional, not an afterthought.
Shooting in Color vs. Black and White
As we talk about intentionality, we encourage you to go out specifically to take black and white photos. We are going to discuss the elements you should be on the lookout for in a moment.
First, you might notice that your camera has a black and white mode. Does that mean you should use it on your black and white photography quests?
In general, no.
Shooting in color gives you more control over the look of the final image. You can adjust the blues to darken the sky or bring up the greens to brighten the trees. You won’t have this ability if you shot the image in black and white. Plus, if it turns out the photo was stronger in color, you can always turn it back.
However, this point is moot if you shoot in RAW. RAW files hold more information than JPEGs and photographers looking for high-quality images are probably already shooting in RAW anyway.
The extra information in RAW files includes the color information. Color cameras always shoot RAW files in color. However, you can ask the camera to show you the image previews in black and white. This way you can view and critique your B&W images as you’re shooting, without losing the benefits of a color photo.
How to Shoot Black and White Images
Now that we’ve got the pre-shoot stuff out of the way, let’s focus on how to shoot the images. What do you need to be looking for? What compositional elements will help strengthen the images?
Let’s find out.
Look for Contrast
Do you want an intense, dramatic B&W photograph? You need some stunning contrast!
Contrast isn’t as important in color photography. In fact, too much contrast can detract from the overall image.
In color images, you have over 16 million colors that differentiate each element from the other. You don’t have that in B&W photography. You get black, white, and a few shades of gray in between.
To be exact, there are 255 color choices in a B&W photograph. B&W photos that don’t have enough contrast end up looking muddy and the viewer may not be able to immediately pick out the subject.
However, what happens when you shoot a dark subject against a light background (or vice versa)? The contrast between the two elements makes the subject jump out unapologetically at the viewer.
Play with light and shadows and think about how the two create contrast in the photo. Study your landscape images and look at the interplay between dark and light. You’ll start to see amazing things!
Get a Clear Image
Digital noise shows up more readily in the darker areas of images. If you’re not careful, your stunning black and white image could be ruined by those irritating specks.
To avoid this, pay attention to your camera settings.
It’s vital to keep your ISO as low as possible. Bumping up your ISO adds light to dark images, but it also introduces noise.
Use a small aperture to get more of your image in focus (especially in landscape photography). This will give the image a sharper feel and help avoid muddiness.
However, a low iso and a small aperture both limit the light. If your scene isn’t bright enough to allow these settings, try putting your camera on a tripod and lowering the shutter speed. This way you won’t have to sacrifice either setting and your image will be clearer.
Learn to Read Your Histogram
Though many photographers are aware of histograms, few know how to use them effectively. As you dive into B&W photography, this is the perfect time to learn.
Histograms are a graphical display showing the proportion of light and dark pixels in the image. Check out a dark photo and you’ll notice that the histogram is bunched up on the left side. A bright image will show the histogram all bunched up on the right side. Ideally, you want a bit of a spread.
Histograms will also show you when pixels have gone off either end of the spectrum. In other words, too bright pixels are blown out and too dark pixels have lost detail.
You can check your histogram in the camera and adjust as needed when shooting. You can also view and play with the histogram directly in an editing program like Lightroom to help you understand how it works.
Texture is amazing in black and white photography. The shadows cast by a rough surface create more opportunities for contrast in the image and can really make a subject stand out. You won’t get that same oomph from a smooth subject in your image.
Try shooting things up close to see how the texture of your subject impacts the image. Some great ideas include pet or animal fur, macro leaf or flower photography, etc.
Again, without the color in an image, the viewer needs something else to cue the brain to help them understand what they are seeing. Shapes are a great way to do this.
Every image is essentially an image of a bunch of shapes. How those shapes are positioned and how they are emphasized is what impacts the photo.
For example, imagine a scene in a busy market. Both the colorful wares from the vendors and the shapes they make can distract from the subject of the image.
Eliminating the color eliminates this distraction, but how do you eliminate the shape distraction?
Give the viewer a strong shape in the foreground to rest their eyes on. Generally, this will mean something that contrasts starkly with the background, jumping out of the image and demanding to be seen.
Of course, there’s more than one way to do it, but you want to give the viewer’s eye a strong resting point.
Remember the Rules
The rules of composition are always important in photography. (Remember, that doesn’t mean that they always have to be followed, but they do need to be broken with intention).
However, the lack of color in B&W images makes good composition even more necessary. Find leading lines to draw the eye of the viewer directly to the subject. Position your subject on the intersecting lines to follow the rule of thirds.
Look for patterns in your scene or focus on the one the “breaks the pattern.” Look for symmetry that you can use to frame your subject. Choose your angle carefully, aiming to eliminate distractions and make your subject the star.
Because composition is so integral in shooting without color, shooting in B&W is a great exercise for practicing your composition. You don’t get any help from the colors in the image, you have to rely on the lighting, shadows, contrast, and compositional elements to create the interest.
Create Your Colorless Masterpiece
If you haven’t delved too much into the world of black and white photography yet, we encourage you to try! You’ll learn to see the world in a different light (quite literally).
It will take a bit of practice, but as you delve deeper, you’ll start to “see” the world in black and white. You might even notice a few things that you never would have realized otherwise.
Let us know how it goes in the comments!