This Tuesday I’ll be looking at one of my favorites… black and white photography.
The general idea seems pretty straightforward: either you make the setting on your camera black and white or change it in post-processing. However, just like color photos, you should have your creative eye and mind in a black and white setting if you take a photo and plan to make that the outcome. Black and white photography is the original photography and should be taken just as seriously and not as an alternative afterthought.
I love black and white photography. Give me grainy, dirty, smudged, mid-movement black and white photography any day and I will be obsessed with it. Black and white is fun because it allows you to:
- focus on shape, line
- focus on composition
- focus on expression and emotion
- focus on lighting: shadows and highlights, silhouette
- focus on texture
- focus on patterns
In black and white photography, you can’t rely on soft colors or Instagram filters to tell your story. It has to be done with the shapes, the faces, the pure feeling that the photo evokes. And that, my friends, is the best part about photography. Take away all of the tools, all of the technology, and yet you still have the chance to do what photography is all about, and that is tell a story.
Below I’ve listed some tips for black and white photography. This is not my most complex Technique Tuesday, so I hope you will be able to try out some of these ASAP!
Shoot in RAW
Always shoot in RAW! It serves the same purpose as a negative for film, meaning you can go back and work on it again and again and it won’t lose quality; it’s the highest data image file you can have! Which is good for black and white, as you may need to adjust things like highlights and shadows quite a bit.
WARNING: only shoot in RAW if you have a program on your computer that can edit it! That would be the program your camera with, or any Adobe program (Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) at least the newest versions.
Be sure to shoot your photos at a low ISO, even if they are in color. As soon as they are turned black and white, grain becomes much more apparent. Here’s one I took with grain to show you the difference between a low ISO photo and a high ISO.
You can see the grain in the photo above from a higher ISO I used.
Remember what ISO is: your camera’s sensitivity to light! 200-400 is the ISO for normal daylight and counts as a lower ISO number.
Best Times of Day to Shoot
Black and white photographs actually work best on overcast days. So if you’re not getting the sun you want for dramatic colors, try out some black and white instead! Overcast works best because it stops your photos from being overexposed or too shadowed.
However, this may not work for you if you want a more dramatic lighting situation, which would still work for photogs. Sun flares in black and white can be dramatic and beautiful! However they make a more dramatic landscape (either very dark or very bright) and aren’t great for portraits or for certain types of photographs (some architecture shots or general subject-based photography).
Composition matters SO MUCH in black and white photography. The placement of people, things, and even you when it comes to taking the photo is key. This is when you really have to stretch your brain. Don’t just look at what’s happening in front of you but what makes up the scene. Is that just a door on the side of a building, or is it a minimalist rectangular shaped photo that extends to the building shape? Is that railing just a railing or a pattern to study? Look at architecture as a good starting point: watch for patterns, bold designs, straight lines, simple compositions. Once you start thinking this way, it is almost impossible to stop. I’m like this even when I don’t have my camera on me; it’s a great way to be, because then I remember what catches my eye and I go back later with a camera!
Texture: Active Skies or Minimalist
It’s important to start learning to look in tone and texture, not color, for black and white photography.
“Active skies” refers to the idea that if you are taking a black and white landscape, it doesn’t always work best with a plain sky. It’ll create a drab photo. It might look beautiful and blue in color, but in black and white it just looks like a flat space, which is not always what one wants. Active skies is a term for an exciting sky with depth, however I also mean it in terms of overall texture in your photograph.
One time this won’t apply is when you are going for a minimalist look, with bare accents and mostly shapes and light as your main tool to create a photograph; this works just fine in some cases as well, of course! There are no limits in photography, only different directions.
An active sky above adds depth to the photo.
A rather inactive sky here shows a more minimalist approach to black and white landscape photography with similar-sized subjects.
What Kind of Lighting to Look For
Light is one of the biggest elements in B & W photos. What adds depth and variety to these types of photos is the combination of shadows, highlights, and contrast.
Make sure to keep an eye out for varying shadows because it will add different and dynamic depths to your photos. If you see a good contrast–a white building with a black door, say–this makes for a strong photograph as well. Light is so important to keep an eye on in a photo. Go with your instincts; if it looks like a cool light dynamic against a builiding, or there’s a shadow cutting half across a person’s face to add an element of mystery and you like it, then go for it! Document it!
In color, this photo was rather flat. But with a quick change to black and white, you can see the shadows pop and add depth to the photograph.
My favorite technique: underexposure! Do this especially if you have the intention of creating a black and white image; if you don’t do this, there is a high chance of blowing out the photo’s highlights in post-processing. This means that when you play around with the image, your whiter highlights will end up becoming too bright and ruining the photo. Underexposing solves this irritating dilemma.
How to Make Black and White in Post-Processing
This is easy!
In Photoshop, you just go to the Image tab, adjustments, and then change to black and white. From there you can play with brightness, contrast, or shadows + highlights if you feel the inclination. You can also do it on your camera beforehand but it’s not recommended. In post-processing you have much more leeway if it is a color photo that has been changed afterwards.
One of my favorite things is to use my polarizing filter. It helps cut reflection on objects and reduces the risk of having washed out black and white photos. A polarizing filter is meant to reduce glare (i.e.: turns water clear, skies darker, etc.) but I love to sneak it in for black and whites. This is a bit of a cost but fun to work with!
Now these are all a few quick and easy tips. Post a comment if you have any questions or other black and white ideas! My main point is: start thinking and looking in a way that breaks down what is in front of you to light and shapes. Just try it out! Now go have fun. 🙂