When you first start getting into photography, it’s very easy to fall into a habit of converting almost every image you take to black and white. I know I did it.
The thing is, while black and white images can look classy or cool, they’re not always strong images. Removing all the color can take away from a photo if you don’t do it right.
So with that in mind, let’s look at how to take good black and white photos.
What Makes a Good Black and White Photo?
Unless you suffer from a really rare eye condition, you don’t see the world in black and white. Colors are a huge part of how our vision works, and are really important in how we see and interpret different things.
When you remove the color from an image, you’re separating it from the reality. A color photo is, at least superficially, a representation of a scene that existed, but a black and white photo can only ever be an interpretation of something. It can never show something as it actually was, but it can be a really good way to show how you felt about something. The best black and white images make that emotion very clear.
In a black and white image you’re left with two things: tone and texture. The tones are the shadows and highlights in the image. The texture is all the little variances between the tones. These are what make a black and white image work. Not every photo will make a good black and white image; if the tones and textures aren’t there, it’ll just look boring. The photo below looks awesome in color but drab in black and white.
If you look at the image of the mountain above, you can see all the tones and textures. You have the bright spots where the setting sun is hitting the snow, the dark rocks, and the smooth snow and sky. Everything plays well together.
The Technical Details
Unless you’re shooting film, black and white conversions are best done in post-processing. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have a black and white mode, but all that does is take a color photo and desaturate it in the preview. The color information is still there if you want it.
When you’re shooting images that you think you’ll want to convert to black and white, you need to give yourself as much room to play in post-processing as possible. This means you need to shoot RAW.
One big mistake new photographers make is that they shoot for the exposure they want, rather than one that gives them the best options later. Even if you know you want a dark, moody black and white image, you shouldn’t shoot it that way. You should shoot a well exposed image and then use Photoshop (or any other image editing app) to make it dark and moody.
Look at the photo above. That’s what the image below looked like straight out of camera. I knew I wanted a deep, dark, moody image but if I’d shot it that way, I probably would have messed up the exposure and ended up with an unusable image. By shooting a neutral exposure, I was able to get the shot I wanted.
To get an accurate exposure, it’s often easiest to let the camera do some of the work. Put it into aperture priority mode, set your aperture and ISO, and take a test shot. If the test shot looks underexposed or overexposed, adjust the exposure compensation and take another. Once your exposure looks relatively neutral, you’re good to go.
Just make sure to reset the exposure every time you change location or lighting situation. There’s nothing more annoying than setting your camera up perfectly for one set of pictures but forgetting to change it before you take the next.
Other Tips and Tricks
If you’ve got a relatively neutral exposure to work with and an image that you think will look good in black and white, all that’s left to do is convert it to black and white in Photoshop or or your favorite image editor.
You should never just desaturate your image or apply a random black and white filter in Instagram. You should always use an app like Photoshop or Lightroom that lets you control how each color is converted to grey. This control is what will let you make strong images. If you really want a simple, filter-based option, try Silver Effex Pro; it’s free.
Black and white images can take a lot more contrast than color images. In a color image, extreme highlights and shadows make a photo look surreal. In a black and white image, contrast just increases the difference between the tones and makes everything stand out more.
With that said, don’t add too much contrast. Pay particular attention to your shadows. Texture is as important as tones. Don’t add so much contrast that all the small tonal variations disappear. Look at the tree in the image below; even in the darkest shadows there’s still some texture. This was a very deliberate decision. It would have been very easy to accidentally crush it to black.
Black and white images are associated with very specific emotions. Things like calmness and tranquility, nostalgia and timelessness, class and elegance. This doesn’t mean your images have to always fit one of those emotions, but you just need to be aware of them. Some of the best black and white images contrast the subject with how people normally see black and white images.
Portraits, landscapes and any abstract sort of photo tend to be the best images for black and white conversions (though they can be great in color too, obviously). When it comes to street photos, travel photos, and anything more documentary in style, color is usually a better bet. Converting the wrong images to black and white is a mistake I’ve made more than once.
Making the viewer feel a certain way is the best reason to convert to black and white, but you can also do it simply to remove distractions. In a black and white image, a jarring, color-filled background can be reduced to a light grey.
Here’s a piece of advice I picked up from David DuChemin: if color doesn’t add anything to the image, you should convert it to black and white. It’s something I’m not sure I agree with, but there is a logic to it. To me, color will always tie your images to reality. However, it is worth converting any image where color isn’t a major part of the photo to black and white. Not only will it let you practice converting images, but it will give you a deeper understanding of the effects a black and white conversion can have. It won’t always make for a stronger image, but the process will make you a better photographer.
I love black and white photography. I spent a year shooting it almost exclusively. During that year I made a lot of mistakes by converting the wrong images or the right images badly. Now though, I’ve a much deeper understanding of when, why and how to convert an image to black and white. Hopefully, you do to.