From Gray to Great: Tips For Taking Better Black-and-White Photos
A little care and a little knowledge can vastly improve your black-and-white efforts.
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Photography is very often about using the best tool for the job—both in terms of hardware and technique. One of the more flexible, if misunderstood tools that every photographer should have in their bag is black-and-white shooting. Knowing when to leave color out of your shot, and how it will ultimately affect the quality of your image, is key to understanding this very traditional form of photography. Black-and-white shooting can make certain drab shots look fantastic, but it's not for every situation. Knowing when and where black-and-white is appropriate is key to getting the most from the technique.
Choosing Your Subject
Black-and-white shooting, like other types of photography, yields the best results when you plan your shot out beforehand. While it can be tempting to shoot from the hip and figure it out in Photoshop later, careful composition and subject choice are essential to getting the best results. Of course, we all occasionally give dull images a shot of life by converting them to black and white in post, but I've gotten the best results when shooting with the express purpose of capturing black-and-white shots.
Monochromatic shots look best when you shoot a subject that has strong lines, repeating patterns, lots of negative space, and plenty of contrast. While this can work for large, simple shapes (such as the umbrella above) it also works for rugged, textured surfaces. Personally, I've found that cities at night provide some of the best black-and-white shots—especially during inclement weather, where the reflections off of snow or rain give images even more depth.
It also helps to understand how a color scene will look once it's converted to black and white. In the original version of the above image, the sign is a dull red. But with some exposure tweaks in post, the sign becomes a much stronger subject as it stands brightly against the dark background. All else being equal, it's hard to go wrong putting a light subject on a dark background, or vice versa. By paying close attention to—and purposely exposing for—brightness differences rather than saturation and vibrancy, you'll give yourself a better starting point when you actually sit down to edit your photos.
Know Your Settings
Once you've pinned down your subject, there are some specific settings you can use to get the most from your shot. Without question, the most important is RAW shooting. Not every camera can record RAW files, but if yours can, you should take advantage. JPEG compression often crushes blacks and limits the dynamic range of your image, reducing your editing latitude down the line.
RAW shooting alone isn't enough, however. You'll also generally want to keep a low ISO speed so that your image is free of ugly noise and grain. There are plenty of classic black-and-white shots taken with noisy high ISO film, but digital cameras usually produce ugly images at high ISOs. Even if you like the look of your camera's high ISO black-and-white shots, having a noisy image will limit how much editing you can do later—as any time you bring up shadows or midtones, you'll also enhance all that noise as well. If you're not totally familiar with how ISO works, check out our helpful introduction to ISO guide.
There are other settings that will also help you get the most from your shot. Any mode that expands dynamic range will be helpful, though most of these only work with JPEG, not RAW files. You can also get great results just by controlling exposure using your camera's exposure compensation settings. Since you're likely going to enhance contrast in post anyway (more on that in a second), underexposing your shot by around a half stop will preserve highlight detail and can pay nice dividends later. Your shot may come out of the camera looking a little dark and dull, but there will be more image detail to work with later.
The Digital Darkroom
It's a pretty common refrain that you should get your shot right in the camera, using post-processing tools as sparingly as possible. For black-and-white shooting with a digital camera, this is simply impossible. Many modern digital cameras come with some sort of monochromatic shooting mode or art filter, but virtually all of them output color by default. And if you're shooting in RAW, you'll have no choice but to convert to black and white later (unless you're lucky enough to own a Leica M Monochrom).
But don't start saving your pennies for the Monochrom just yet. The benefit of preserving all that color channel information is that you can selectively edit just a single range of colors in your image. Want to apply edits to just the blue sky and not adjust the rest of the shot? You can apply a different tonal curve to just the blue channel, which will leave the rest of the image alone.
The image above is a perfect example; in the original shot the pattern on the sheets and pillow were an annoying, bright green, and the contrasting shapes were distracting even after desaturation. A tonal curve adjustment on just the green channel flattened them out considerably, removing the distraction without harming the rest of the shot.
No matter how your image starts out, however, the primary editing work is going to involve working with differences in brightness. Black-and-white shooting is, after all, about the interplay between darkness and light. Most shots, when first desaturated, look quite flat and gray. To give them some life, you'll need to adjust the tonal curve of the image, which enhances contrast. You can accomplish this with tools like Curves or Levels in Photoshop, which let you push highlights and drop shadows to bring out the best in your subject.
But don't go overboard: Subtlety is key. While strong contrast between black and white areas of a shot look great, most of the details will be in the midtones and grays. By carefully adjusting the tonal curve of your image, you can still have a striking subject, with plenty of smooth gradation and fine detail preserved in the final image.
Whether you're a Photoshop expert or an editing novice, there are plenty of tools designed specifically for black-and-white shots. One of the best known plugins amongst black-and-white photo nuts is Silver Efex Pro 2. It comes as part of the $149.99 Nik Collection of imaging software, but there's a free trial available so you can give it a spin yourself. It's a powerful set of tools—compatible with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, as well as Aperture on Macs—specifically designed to get the most from black-and-white shots.
(Photos: TJ Donegan)