Black and White Photography Fundamentals

Introduction to Black and White Photography

Black and white photography used to be a matter of choice long before the shutter button was pressed. Nowadays, we shoot in color and later decide if the image looks good in black and white.

With little distractions, thanks to the absence of color, black and white photography has been accepted as an efficient format of image making that is a beautiful way of capturing a moment or scene. It also takes a fairly large chunk of time to master and love. In the following, I’ll share my own experience with black and white photography as well as the things I wish I knew when I was a beginning photographer with my first camera.

Things didn’t happen like I wished, so I learned everything from a book, which was, gladly, the only book I bought when I purchased my first DSLR camera. This book is like a bible to me when it comes to black and white photography, which is exactly why it is pretty wrecked by now thanks to me constantly revisiting its pages.

Bryce Canyon in Black & White

Learn to Understand the Behavior of Color

While it may be odd to hear, you need to understand color to achieve beautiful tones in black and white photography. Tonal range is everything when it comes to creating striking monochromatic images. Learning to work it out via color comprehension is perhaps the most valuable asset I have gained over the years.

– Color Subtraction

Color has a huge influence on our perception of the world. Without over analyzing colors, we tend to like or dislike certain colors and color palettes. Color surrounds us and is integral to our everyday experience of the world, which is why most people—photographers, too—don’t separate it in the mind’s eye from everything else that is going on. All images have certain graphic components that are generally accepted as standard: point, line, shape, texture, volume, and contrast. By subtracting color, these elements tend to enhance their own nature within the image.

– RAW

In my personal opinion, using the camera’s Shooting in Monochrome mode is not the wisest move for creating breathtaking black and white pictures. The reason for that is because I prefer having full control of the image later during post-production. Any RAW file has the potential of becoming a powerful monochromatic image thanks to the joys of RAW development.

The original photo was shot in color
The final photo was converted to black and white in Lightroom.

– White Balance

This is perhaps the first thing you’ll want to correct because it gives the image the ability of achieving a precise white tone temperature. A secondary benefit from doing this is that you’ll also get a more precise hue separation on the image. This will make your work with color hues a more enjoyable process when you work out the contrast.

– True Contrast with Color Hue

Contrast can be applied in a much stronger way in black and white photography than when working with contrast on a regular color image. This is not a feeling but is an actual fact because color is less generous and starts to look funny after some small tweaks. Typically, RAW developing software offers the capability to work with the eight channels of hue inside an image after converting the image to black and white. These colors are:

– Red
– Orange
– Yellow
– Green
– Aqua
– Blue
– Purple
– Magenta

Working with hues for defining contrast in black and white photography is the exact equivalent of working with the filters used in the early days of film photography.

If you are curious enough to browse through the Wratten list of optical filteres, here it is. You will notice that it is long and is not even close to the possibilities that working with hues in RAW gives us today. Just by sliding the channel controllers in Lightroom or another RAW editor, you’ll see how the contrast behaves when working with hues instead of simply working with exposure, brightness and contrast tools.

The first time I discovered this, I was blown away as every little movement I tried with different color-dominant images produced amazingly wild results. The benefit of working with contrast in this way is that you’ll be able to crank the contrast a little bit more and the other colors will remain “still.” Therefore, the image won’t be jeopardized by the strength you ultimately decide to apply to reds or blues, for example.

Subtler and more appealing contrast is easily achieved with hue control. Imagine a scene that has the presence of two primary colors; these two colors oppose each other and, therefore, contrast can be easily seen by moving the sliders in their own opposite directions. Precise decisions made to hue adjustment can make contrast correction an easier thing to manage later on in the editing process.

Depth and Atmosphere: Have you seen those beautiful landscape pictures of a forest photographed from a high angle perspective with thick and rich bodies of humidity covering the trees? They are usually shot during the early morning hours and, thanks to hue control, the depth and atmosphere can be enhanced due to the heavy amount of blue tones in the mist and humidity. Using tone control for contrast results in a richer depth of field and a more interesting atmosphere.

Skin Tones: From Caucasian to dark browns, skin tones are complex and tend to fit inside the zone of colors of reds, oranges, and yellows. The first thing you need to do is achieve a precise white balance in order to separate the skin tones from the adjacent elements.

Vegetation: This is a tricky one to approach because of the vast amount of green tones. But, thanks to hue control, you can enhance the contrast by lighting up the vegetated areas as well as making all the greens darker.

Compose with Complementary Colors in Mind: Now that you know about the importance of primary colors and the magnificent contrast they can produce, it is very wise to compose your images with complementary colors in mind to get a richer contrast in your shots. Without a doubt, this will give you the freedom to enhance the contrast to similar levels likes those easily seen in many fine art photographs.

The midday summer shot of Old Montreal was rescued by converting it to black and white

Make it Your Own and Avoid Defaults

RAW files are considered to be the purest archive that a camera’s sensor is capable of creating thanks to captured light. Nevertheless, the default settings for RAW files have small tweaks that could be seen as “not the purest archive possible.” If you want to make beautiful black and white photographs that are a true reflection of your own style and vision, then you’ll want to have absolute control over your precious RAW file. RAW editing software has the capability of opening such files in a completely raw state with all the settings at values of 0. Each software has its own way of doing this and is typically found in the preferences menu or equivalent.

“See” in Black and White

Ok, this one may sound weird at first. I even remember myself saying, “Huh?” when I first heard this as a beginner, but there are some ways to actually see reality at a constant grayscale. Here are three options:

1. Use a Viewing Filter: These filters are not meant to be threaded on the camera as regular filters. Instead, they are meant to actually see the world in black and white, almost like a magical monocle.

3. Use Your Phone’s Camera in Grayscale Mode: This is the option I use because it is quick, cheap and doesn’t interfere with my shooting dynamic.

2. Use the Camera’s Monochrome Mode: When shooting RAW + JPEG in monochrome mode, you get the best of both worlds. You get JPEG in black and white, RAW in full color, and you are able to see the world in black & white through the camera’s viewfinder or LCD.

Justify Your Choice

The subjective response to color is powerful, so when images have strong, rich, unusual or simply noticeable colors, there is a good chance that they may affect the intended message of the image.

At this point, it is important that we recognize that there is not a “correct” way of doing stuff here. This is why we didn’t mention any specific software because everything from Aperture to Photoshop is great tools to angle black and white conversions. You must trust your eyes and let your own desired look guide you on the road of achieving what you want in your black and white photography.

Federico Alegria

Federico is a professional photographer from El Salvador. Check out his work on his website.
  • goutam mitra says:

    very useful and informative

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