How to Start With Black and White Photography

How to Start With Black and White Photography

The best way to begin with black and white photography is to understand the importance of what it means to deliver a direct message with less distractions. When it comes to the differences between black and white and color photography, the most accepted theory is that color photography achieves a greater grade of realism while black and white photography tears realism apart and pretends to see things differently.

By removing the color in a photograph, we potentially end up with two wonderful things:

  • Something different from reality
  • A deeper message by removing the distraction of color

Today, black and white photography is considered a retro operation. Why? Not only do we have extremely powerful and great sensors, color has become the new photography standard. As a result, photographers have to make wide range adjustments to achieve the desired results for a stunning monochromatic finale.

Color is First

The first thing you should be aware of about black and white photography is that you need to shoot in color. Why? Because you’ll have the opportunity to later convert your image into a black and white rendition using the software of your choice. Remember, today’s powerful tools are the equivalent of the film era’s darkrooms, but not just any darkrooms…the most powerful ones you can imagine. After all, there’s no physical limit when it comes to digital development.

Camera Settings

The settings you’ll be working with in black and white photography are very simple. All you need to do is shoot in your favorite mode—Manual Mode, Aperture Priority Mode or Shutter Priority Mode—and aim for the exposure and the focal length you want and need to achieve your ideal shot.

Another great tip is to always shoot in the RAW + JPEG format. Doing this offers two excellent benefits. First, you’ll be able to get all of the possible information your camera can produce onto your hard drive and, second, you’ll get an easily digestible JPEG file to use later when deciding if the image has the potential of becoming an amazing black and white image.

Selecting Objects for Black and White Photography

Since you’re first shooting in color, you can do the following to decide if an image you intend to shoot has the potential of becoming a great black and white photograph.

Option 1: Make a preview of the scene:

If you use a mirrorless camera you more likely to have the option to switch your EVF to black and white mode. Although you won’t shoot using the black and white format, you can view the scene in black and white in order to determine the scene’s potential.

If you use DSLR the second option is for you.

Option 2: Use a black and white viewing filter:

Black and white filters are actually considered to be more like viewers than filters since they are capable of showing you, in real time, what happens to reality when seeing it in black and white.

This is the old and proven method used by Ansel Adams. The black and white viewing filter looks like a monocle and it allows photographers to preview the scene in black in white before taking a shot.

The Importance of Post-Processing

Post-processing a picture makes up 50% of the shot with the other 50% obviously coming from the act of shooting the photograph itself. This is the main reason why there are so few camera settings that allow photographers to shoot specifically in black and white. When analog was popular, photographers had the option to use the colored filters mentioned above but, in modern photography, they’re no longer needed.

The magic of black and white photography happens only at the computer and never at the camera. This is something incredibly important to keep in mind when you are hoping to achieve a stunning black and white photograph. Additionally, having an idea of what you want always produces even better results than leaving everything to improvisation.

Getting the Desired Contrast

Traditionally, black and white photography has the potential of achieving superb contrast by lightening or darkening the colors in the picture. In earlier days, photographers used color filters to restrict the specific color array of light passing through the lens, which resulted in images with dark skies (such as in the case of blue filters) or very dark tones of grey when shooting elements with red in it (such as in the case of red filters).

When we talk about contrast in black and white photography, we have a greater advantage over color photographs because contrast can be increased or decreased without getting odd results. Also, you can—and this is what I love the most about black and white photography—make an even bigger difference in the contrast by playing with the eight color channels every RAW development software program (like Adobe Lightroom) has.

Contrast is the most tangible part of black and white photography.  It can be soft and dreamy or it can be crisp and sharp. When working with contrast, your black and white photographs come to life as almost any tweak you do on the computer can be summarized as a “contrast enhancement” at the end of the day.

Digital Goodies

Today, we have plenty of great digital assets that can help us to create stunning photographs. Lightroom has all the tools you need to create beautiful black and photos. But in a combination with the Preset Functionality, Lightroom becomes irreplaceable education tool. By using presets developed by professional photographers you can learn how to use black and white conversion effectively in Lightroom.


Out of everything, the most important thing to remember is to look at the shot first to determine if it looks better in color or in black and white. Once you’ve made your decision, have fun and embrace the art!

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

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