Stunning B&W

Like most photographers who got into the medium before digital, my first photos were black-and-white. It was popular with students because it’s much easier to work with than color film and chemistry when you’re developing and printing your own work. Shooting in black-and-white is also a good practice for developing your visual "vocabulary" because it really forces you to concentrate on composition without the distraction of color.

There’s a timeless quality in a black-and-white image, making it a classic choice for family portraits. Black-and-white is also a great option for scenes rich with detail or dramatic light.

Although you can always convert a color image to black-and-white—and, in fact, that’s the workflow we recommend for creating these images—for the best ones, you need to be thinking in black-and-white when you’re shooting.


This is always good practice in order to create strong geometric compositions, but it’s especially important for black-and-white photographs. Removing the element of color focuses our attention even more directly on the shapes and formal relationships in the frame. Without color to convey mood and emotion—or serve as a distraction—the way you arrange the shapes in your composition creates the visual tension you need for an engaging image.


Successful abstract images detach the subject from how we would normally perceive it. Abstracts work particularly well in black-and-white because by removing color, we push the subject even further away from the ordinary. Moving in close to a subject, or framing it in such a way as to eliminate the horizon or other spacial clues, enhances the disorientation that can help attract and hold attention to your photo.


In addition to the arrangement of shapes that anchor your composition, try to include elements that have surface textures. Texture adds another layer of interest. The direction of light can dramatically affect how a texture will be rendered, so if you’re working with available light, try photographing the subject at different times of day and see how the texture changes. If you’re using an artificial light, place it at a variety of angles until you find a setup that accentuates the texture and adds depth and dimension to your photograph.


One of the reasons why Ansel Adams is so revered was his ability to capture an incredible range of tonality in his images. The Zone System, which he helped develop and promote, breaks down the range of tonality from pure black (Zone 0) to pure white (Zone 10). The remaining zones are one stop apart, with Zone 8 being twice as dark as Zone 9, Zone 7 twice as dark as Zone 8, and so on.

Though the Zone System was developed for exposing film, the basic principles are just as applicable with digital. An ideal black-and-white exposure will have a range of tonality that spans all 10 zones, from pure black to pure white and everything in between. Careful exposure is part of this, but so is getting good light. Compose images that contain this range of tonality, and be prepared to add more light if needed.


While we recommend that you capture your images in color and then convert them to black-and-white when processing, you can take advantage of your camera’s monochrome mode to get an idea of how the image will look in black-and-white. If you’re shooting a still life or scenic on a tripod, this is especially easy to do before switching back to color for the final capture. If you’re shooting action and need to move quickly, you can still fire off a few test exposures before the action starts, just to get an idea of the light in the scene and how it will render in black-and-white.


Most cameras offer both JPEG and RAW formats. Use RAW when you know you may want to convert an image to black-and-white later. JPEG throws out data in the compression process—why limit yourself? An uncompressed RAW file contains all of the image data captured by the sensor, giving you the most latitude when processing the image, as well as the ability to go back and reprocess it differently if you want a different look later.


Your camera likely offers a histogram display, and if it does, learn to use it if you want to make the best exposures possible. An ideal histogram will be completely contained within the extremes, but heavier on the right side. You want an exposure that’s just shy of blowing out the highlights. The reasons for this are too complicated to go into here in this tip, but there’s an excellent explanation of the science behind this at The Luminous Landscape (


Before digital cameras gave us the advantage of instant review, bracketing was really important. You didn’t want to lose an unrepeatable shot to an off exposure, but you wouldn’t know for sure until your film was processed. Bracketing, or taking a few exposures on either side of "normal," is insurance against lost tonality and detail. Your camera likely has an automatic bracketing mode that you can set to specify the number of frames and the amount of exposure compensation for each. Remember that to adjust the exposure based on the meter reading, your camera either will be changing the aperture or the shutter speed, which will affect your depth of field or your ability to freeze action, so be aware of this and select either aperture- or shutter-priority as appropriate for your subject. For the ultimate control, shoot in manual and bracket manually. Bracketing not only lets you choose the best exposure once you can see them full-screen on your computer, but it also gives you the option to use HDR techniques, if necessary.


Optical filters were especially popular for black-and-white film photography, but they’re just as important today. Yes, you can replicate the look of many optical filters using software, but that is time consuming, and some digital filters are really an inadequate simulation of their optical origin. For example, a polarizer reduces glare on an object’s surface, allowing you to capture details that wouldn’t be captured otherwise. No digital filter can truly re-create details that aren’t in the digital file.

Popular filters for black-and-white photography include yellow, orange and red for enhancing blue skies and clouds, green for enhancing foliage, and graduated neutral-density filters to reduce the contrast between a bright sky and a darker foreground.


Sometimes you’re faced with a range of tonality that your camera sensor simply can’t capture in one frame. That’s where HDR can help you create a final image that’s closer to what you actually saw. By combining bracketed exposures with HDR software, you can retain the best detail in each of the exposures. Black-and-white HDR tends to lo
ok more natural, too, as it doesn’t have the sometimes obvious color shifts you see with more extreme color HDR images. If you know you’ll be relying on HDR to render your final image, take the time to make several exposures that together fully capture the tonal range of the scene. And while it’s always a good idea to use a tripod for the sharpest results, a tripod is critical for HDR images to be sure each frame is identically composed.


Your camera has a monochrome mode, so why not skip the postprocessing and shoot in black-and-white? One reason to shoot in color is that monochrome mode is simply discarding data, and the camera is making all the decisions in translating from color to black-and-white. Another good reason is that you may one day decide you want a color version of the image—impossible if you captured it in monochrome.

Software technology will continue to improve. A few years from now, you may want to reprocess a favorite image to take advantage of something future software can do that today’s software can’t. If you have your original, full-color RAW file, you have the most options now and tomorrow.

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