Getting Started with Black and White Photography

Marianne Stenger
1st October 2020

Long before colour photography was accessible to the average person, photographers were capturing the world in black and white. Even today, well-known contemporary photographers including Sally Mann and Michael Kenna shoot almost exclusively in black and white. So what are some of the reasons a photographer might choose black and white over colour?

When done well, black and white images can make a powerful statement, because without the distraction of colours, the viewer’s attention is naturally drawn to other elements such as texture, contrast, and shapes as well as facial expressions. Portrait and street photographers often favour black and white images as a way of drawing attention to their subject or conveying a particular message or emotion.

If you’re new to photography, shooting in black and white can also be a great way to strengthen certain aspects of your photography, such as lighting and composition. Of course, there’s more to creating a strong black and white photograph than simply converting it to monochrome. So if you’d like to start experimenting with black and white photography, read on for our tips and advice on getting it right.

What’s your reason for shooting in black and white?

Digital photography has made it easy to convert a photo to black and white, but although this can be convenient, it also means that photographers often don’t give black and white photos the consideration they deserve.

Shadows, highlights and textures are all very important when shooting monochrome images, so making a deliberate decision about whether to present a scene in black and white will help you think about how colour, or lack thereof, can create distraction or harmony.

Ansel Adams, who was known for his black and white landscapes, famously said “I can get a far greater sense of ‘colour’ through a well-planned and executed black and white image than I have ever achieved with colour photography.”

So before you even begin shooting, ask yourself why you might want to present a particular scene in black and white. Is it to draw attention to the composition? Maybe you want to accentuate light and shadow? Perhaps you’re looking to evoke a particular emotion or give the photo a timeless feel?

Essential elements of a black and white photograph

There are a number of essential elements that can either make or break a black and white photograph. So if you’d like to experiment with this style of photography, strengthening your skills in the following areas will get you off to a strong start.

Composition

Composition is an important component of any photograph, but it becomes particularly important in the absence of colour. Composing a photograph in a particular way can help draw attention to your subject, create a sense of depth, and lead the viewer’s eyes through the image. Some well-known compositional techniques include the rule of thirds, framing, and the use of leading lines. If you’d like to learn more about getting creative with composition, check out these ten compositional tips.

Light and shadow

When you remove colour from an image, you’ll automatically start to focus more on the direction and quantity of the light as well as the shadows it casts. Different types of light will create different effects. For instance, on an overcast day, your images will be paler and lower contrast than they would be on a bright sunny day. Similarly, the same subject would look very different depending on whether the light is coming from behind, in front or the side of it. Lighting can also change the mood of a photograph, for instance, by making it feel dark and mysterious or bright and cheerful.

Contrast and tone

Despite their lack of colour, black and white images contain a range of tones that move from pure black to pure white. In fact, on most modern digital cameras, the histogram shows 255 shades of grey. A high contrast image that moves dramatically from dark to light would have fewer tones of grey, whereas a lower contrast image would contain a fuller range of grey tones. Neither approach is wrong, but each one will produce a different type of image. With this in mind, it’s important to pay attention to the difference in shades and how they relate to each other within an image.

Shapes and texture

Black and white images also tend to emphasise shapes and texture, whether it’s the smile lines under your subject’s eyes, the roughness of a rock or the geometric shapes used in architecture. So if you want to shoot more interesting black and white images, look for lines, patterns, shapes or textures that stand out, draw attention to your subject, cast shadows or create contrast.

Final considerations for black and white photography  

Mastering the essential elements of black and white photography will help you create stronger monochrome images, but there are a few other practical considerations to keep in mind. For instance, it’s always a good idea to shoot in RAW as this will allow you to more easily adjust exposure, reduce noise and sharpen your images during post processing.

Keeping your images simple is also important with black and white photography, as this helps to further emphasise elements such as composition, shapes and texture. Although there are exceptions, a black and white image with a single focal point will usually make a more powerful statement than one with multiple points of interest.

Finally, keep in mind that if a photo is poorly exposed or just not very interesting, chances are it won’t look much better in black and white. Viewing black and white photography as an artform on its own will help you get far better results in the long run.

Are you looking to strengthen your understanding of basic photography concepts? Be sure to check out our Essential Photography Tips for Beginners or have a browse on the Bob Books blog to find inspiration and advice from working professionals on a variety of topics.