10 Top Black and White Photography Tips

This is our Top 10 Black and White Photography Tips to help you producing impactful and meaningful black and white photographs.

10 Top Black and White Photography Tips

Back in the days of film, black and white was a decision that you had to make before the picture was shot. Nowadays, thanks to technology and the great evolution of RAW files, black and white photography happens in post-production (unless you are working with this thing). Thus, we have the best of both color and black and white at our fingertips.

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In the following, we'll give you the best tips for creating impactful and stunning black and white photography; so, sit back and enjoy.

1. Shoot in Color

It is no coincidence that our first tip is to shoot in color since this is one of the most important secrets you'll ever learn when trying to achieve amazing black and white photographs.

I, myself, had to learn this lesson the hard way.

I have been in love with monochrome since I started taking pictures with my first camera. My problem, however, was that I was shooting directly in monochrome mode and getting black and white JPEG images straight from the camera, which was just a desaturated image of the actual scene.

Instead of controlling how my final image looked, I let my camera control the black and white conversion based on its own predefined algorithms and averages. Unsurprisingly, I had pretty pathetic results after my first experience with black and white photography.

Only later on and thanks to this guy, I learned that color plays a huge factor in the final result of black and white photographs. Believe it or not, the great secret behind all those jaw-dropping contrasts found in the fine art of black and white photography is precise color management.

All colors can be grouped under the eight channel light breakdown, which consists of the following colors:

  • ​Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Aqua
  • Blue
  • Purple
  • Magenta

When you can manipulate each color channel separately in terms of hue, lighting and saturation when converting them into monochrome, you gain full control over the black and white conversion.

And, when you start to understand the potential of minding the overall color palette or the color script inside an image, you'll start to consider shooting scenes with complementary colors in mind, instead of shooting them randomly. Applying this technique will give you extremely dramatic contrasts at the end of your image editing.

To summarize the first lesson: Shoot in color first. Then, convert to black and white during post processing.

Top Black and White Photography Tip

Original photo shot in color

Top Black and White Photography Tip

Converted to Black and White in Lightroom

2. Shoot RAW

I never get tired of telling people that one of the best things they can do in photography is to shoot in RAW format. But, I must admit that when somebody doesn't know the real difference between shooting RAW over JPEG, the necessity of doing so is not very clear.

My first camera did not have RAW functionality and, for a long time, I shot JPEG without understanding what I was missing. So, when I purchased another camera (after getting robbed at gunpoint) and I started shooting in RAW, it completely changed my photography by giving me more control and freedom to achieve my creative vision.

If you want to actually see the power of RAW files, do the following:

  • Shoot a few pictures in RAW + JPEG format (I always shoot like this for the purpose of image selection in my workflow and, although it may be not efficient, I like it). First load the JPEG file in Lightroom and start developing the file. Pay close attention to the behavior of the image while increasing or decreasing the units on each slider.
  • Now, load the RAW file and do the same. You'll get to see smoother transitions in tones while developing your file. This happens because RAW files have much more information than JPEG files, which are final renditions of the light your camera's sensor captured. RAW files, on the other hand, are files that contain all the information from the sensor without skipping a beat.

Let me tell you a little more about my traveling workflow

Every time I travel, I return home with a generous number of images. To manage so many images, I create contact sheets. Yup, contact sheets. I "print" a PDF version of all my JPEGs (because I shoot in RAW + JPEG) in batches of 35 images per page. Then, I select them with the marking tool inside my PDF reader. Ooh, I realize this sounds nostalgic, but it’s not. It is just a very fun way of discerning which RAW files are worth processing later.

As you can see, I have a use for both JPEG and RAW files in my editing workflow.

Top Black and White Photography Tip - 2. Shoot RAW

3. See the World in Black and White

Back in the good old days of film, one of the most important skills of a black and white photographer was to interpret the color environment and visualize it in a monochromatic color scheme. This skill allowed a photographer to access the scenes in terms of the potential for black and white photography. Unfortunately, it was not an easy skill to learn and took years to develop.

Thanks to technology, we can now use live previews and electronic viewfinders to look at the real world in black and white. More importantly, we are not contradicting our first tip; instead, we are advising that you use live preview to understand the black and white potential of the overall scene you are about to shoot.

Personally, I have never been good at visualizing reality in black and white without some sort of aid (this is my favorite hack from the old days). Nowadays, I shoot using the Fuji system and, thanks to the Electronic View Finder (EVF), I can see a preview of reality in black and white. How awesome is that?

To summarize, set your camera preview to black and white but keep shooting in full color in RAW format.

Top Black and White Photography Tip - 3. See the World in Black and White

4. Don't mind the ISO

Wait, What? Yeah, forget about the ISO.

If excessive noise is the first enemy of color photography, then it serves as an artistic element in black and white photography that can enhance your photos. Even when I have plenty of light to produce a clean, noise-free photograph, I often add noise or grain in Lightroom later to create a grittier, old-fashioned look.

If you absolutely must shoot in difficult lighting conditions and use a high ISO, do not worry—just use the excessive digital noise to your advantage.

Also, cameras have reached such a powerful state (and they will continue to become even more powerful in the years to come) that a high ISO value of 1000, for example, does not produce extreme digital noise. The digital noise my camera produces at an ISO of 800-1200 can be easily removed in post-processing.

Top Black and White Photography Tip - 4. Don't mind the ISO

The grain was added in Lightroom

5. Use Modern RAW Editor

We've been talking a lot about RAW files, but there is not much you can do with a RAW file if you don't develop (edit) it. RAW editing software allows us to transform a pure rawness of our precious files into our own masterpieces.

Most new cameras ship with RAW editing software that is, to be honest, just meh and below average. The real trick is to invest in powerful software that can handle RAW files.

Personally, I use Adobe's Lightroom, but PhaseOne Capture One Pro and ON1 Photo RAW are also good alternatives. Whatever you buy, learn to use it blindfolded. Just like taking pictures, practice your developing skills frequently because they are a huge part of the final image where your creative vision comes to life.

When editing a RAW file in Adobe Lightroom, we can achieve amazing results by paying close attention to the HSL panel. Here, we can fine tune the highlights, lights, darks and shadow tones separately with unprecedented precision.​

Top Black and White Photography Tip - 5. Use Modern RAW Editor

Anytime someone tells me that post-processing is unnecessary in photography, I laugh… a lot. The great master behind negative developing and image printing, Ansel Adams invested a lot of hours in perfecting the art of photography after the picture was made. RAW editing is just a mirror of what was routinely done in darkrooms all over the world decades ago.

6. Use Presets 

Whether you are dealing with a batch of RAW files from a recent trip or from a social event, it is highly likely that you'll be dealing with batches of images containing similar light situations. The first step in the developing process for a typical RAW file should be to correct the White Balance, which leaves us with even more similar color palettes and light situations.

Presets help us save time and achieve more standardized results simply by replicating a specific developing setting. Not all images will meet the same exact criteria, but using a preset will give you a standard baseline to work with. While “standard” may sound anti-creative, it is actually the hero of "personal style."

Presets are readily available. We at PhotoTraces.com have some pretty efficient presets that meet a whole lot of criteria for common scenes. They can be found here.

Presets can also be created from scratch simply by clicking on "Develop > New Preset" while working in the "Develop" panel. They can be used for everything from traceability to standardization.

7. Pay Attention to Composition

Composition is, for me, one of the main reasons why photography is indeed an art form. By getting rid of the distraction that color presents, composition must be taken far more seriously when looking for meaningful black and white results.

Learn about composition techniques that go far beyond the rule of thirds and practice these composition base lines as often as possible. One of the most challenging things to do, and obviously also the most rewarding, is to wisely compose in your camera. Cropping in an editing program can be used to enhance a previous composition’s intention, but never pretend to recompose an entire scene in post-production because the results may not be as impressive as if you initially composed with aesthetics in mind.

8. Do not Forget About Elements of Composition

Texture

Texture is enhanced more so in black and white photography than in color photography because, by simply removing color, the presence of texture becomes a pure exercise in tonal interaction. So, how can an image could be enhanced in terms of texture? For us, the precise handling of highlights and shadows give a richer array of textures in an image.

Top Black and White Photography Tip - Texture

Shape

Shape can be used to define form, which leads us to capture better qualities of volume and presence. Shape is defined by outline, or in simple words, the contrast of the edges between bright and dark areas of the picture (silhouettes are a good example of illustrating shape).

Top Black and White Photography Tip - Shape

Pattern

Like rhythm, pattern has a lot to do with repetition. A vast number of elements of the same shape will eventually lead to a particular texture. Not all images share the joy of patterns, but thanks to black and white photography, the nature of patterns can be enhanced via contrast and texture. Hiroshi Sugimoto created a great piece out of repetitions as you can see here.

Top Black and White Photography Tip - Pattern

9. Watch Modern Black and White Movies

The obvious relationship between cinema and photography became clearer when photography direction in the film industry became a huge deal. Back in the old days before color screening became a reality, black and white was the only way of doing things. Today, anytime a movie director chooses to shoot a film under monochrome settings, it is because the director has a clear intention for the film rather than just reflecting some nostalgia or trend.

Feelings and intentions in each scene are deeply enhanced due to how black and white formats communicate ideas to our minds. Black and white formats help directors and cinematographers give more detail and focus to characters and situations inside a scene as well.

Start by watching these movies—Pleasantville (1998), Memento (2000), Sin City (2005), Following (1998) and The Artist (2011)—and see firsthand how black and white was used to accentuate the overall situations of the stories. Because I'm a huge movie buff, here is a list of great black and white movies to watch if you enjoyed the previous exercise and are looking for more inspiration.

Top Black and White Photography Tip - 9. Watch Modern Black and White Movies

Following (1998)

10. Embrace Bad Weather

We all know that nothing beats drama and contrast when it comes to extreme weather as it often results in impactful and dramatic photography.

What about bad photography weather? What do we do on an overcast day with no clouds?

If a gloomy and grey day with absolutely no color contrast ruins your photography trip, switch your camera to monochromatic preview mode (see tip #3) and start looking for contrast rather than colors. You will be amazed at how many stunning black and white opportunities you will discover.

If we paraphrase the Spoon boy’s quote from The Matrix: "Do not try and change the weather. That's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth. Then you'll see, that it is not the weather that needs to be changed, it is only yourself".

Top Black and White Photography Tip - 10. Embrace Bad Weather

Why are you interested in creating better black and white photography? Share your reasons with us as we work together to evolve our photography skills and style!

Federico Alegria

Federico is a professional photographer from El Salvador. Check out his work on his website.
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