How to tell stories with beautiful black and white photography

Just a year ago, I would have picked-up my camera and taken a million hasty pictures. And then I would have had to force myself to go through them all.

However, I quickly learned that this wasn’t the kind of photographer I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be in a mad rush every time I picked-up my camera! I didn’t want to spend hours culling through a bunch of shoot-and-spray photos!

So I spent time to change the way I approached photography. Instead of rushing, I slowed down. I planned ahead. I looked for light. And in the process, I learned more about myself as an artist.

One of the big revelations for me was my love for black and white photography. Before, I would simply convert a photograph to black and white out of necessity. Perhaps the white balance was off or the color was distracting. But now, because I have slowed down, I shoot intentionally to create black and white photos and I LOVE it.

I can say with confidence that being an intentional photographer is the kind of photographer YOU want to be. So let’s slow down together. Let’s be intentional. And let’s be more efficient in our processes so that we can spend more time creating work we love.

Plan for the story you want to share

I am not going to tell you to spend hours planning each and every shot you take. However, taking time to identify the moments you want to share will make you better equipped to capture them.

Maybe it is the way your baby sucks his thumb. Perhaps it is the way the light in the living room falls on your daughter’s hair midday. Whether it’s lopsided pigtails or gap-toothed grins, take time to notice the details you may miss someday.

When planning your story, take time to consider what to include and what to exclude from the frame. Does shooting with a wide angle lens make sense so that you can illustrate the setting? Or would it make more sense to shoot with a longer focal length to zoom in nice and close to your subject’s face?

Consider what to include in the frame

In the same way that you plan for the story, consider the “stuff” that you include in your photos. While props can be super cute, they can also be a distraction. Be sure that when you add things to a photo that they are true to the moment and won’t make you cringe in a few years’ time.

I am a bit of a minimalist, but my rule of thumb with props and stuff in a photo is to only include those things that I want to remember. My kids’ prized possessions are welcome additions to the frame. But stuff for the sake of stuff doesn’t appeal to me.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. At certain times, the clutter of a scene is what contributes most to the story. Any mother can related to the mess of toys scattered about and dirty hands and faces!

Take the time to identify what you love about a moment and then capture THAT with your camera.

Look for contrasting light and colors

Removing the color from a scene can be complicated. If everything falls into the midtones, the photo looks dull and muddy.

Therefore, I am always looking for contrast. Light and dark colors in the same frame help make your image pop when converted to black and white. In much the same way, having areas in both light and shadow will create visual interest and add dimension to your images.

In general, darker areas of the frame will recede while lighter areas will feel more front and center. So when planning when and where to get your shot, try to have your subject in an area with darker colors than the subject is wearing. Even in the busiest of scenes, this will effectively direct your audience to your intended focal point.

Keep an eye on your exposure

Regardless of what I’m shooting, I always pay attention to the histogram. You do not want to lose details in your blacks and want to avoid blowing the highlights. The histogram graph illustrates exactly where your exposure is so that you don’t have to rely on the LCD screen (which is often brighter than the actual photo!).

I also highly recommend exposing for your subject’s skin. I do this by spot metering with my camera on a bright area of my subject’s face.

This will ensure that the details remain intact on the most important part of your photo. For those times when the light is bright in one are and the shadows are dark in another, spot metering can save an image!

Add layers to your photographs

I want my photographs to feel as three dimensional as possible. Therefore, I look for ways to create space in my photos.

A great way to do this is by layering. Having objects in the foreground and in the background with your subject somewhere in between gives the illusion that your viewer can walk right into the frame.

Experiment shooting through doors, shooting with varying apertures, and trying new focal lengths to add layers. It can add so much to your story and you may find a new technique you love!

Experiment with different kinds of light

Shooting with different types of light (harsh light, directional, dappled, low light, artificial) can alter the story your trying to tell with your image.  Pushing yourself to try different light sources is such an incredible way to get more comfortable behind your camera.

When shooting in black and white, light that can sometimes be less-than-desirable in color can suddenly become welcomed and interesting. This past summer I challenged myself to focus on harsh light. It was a weak area for me (no one likes “raccoon eyes!”) and I wanted to be better.

My first results weren’t terribly exciting. However, the more I practiced, the more I found that harsh light could help me tell my story. I learned to use this light to my advantage rather than work against it and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

There is no such thing as “bad light.” You simply have to figure out how to use the light available to you for great results! The best way to do that is to shoot in every light and learn from experience.

Pay attention to the details

It can be tempting to get everything in one shot to tell your story. However I have found that sometimes, it’s the little things that have the most impact.

Take time to assess a scene and identify if there are details that might add depth to the story you are trying to tell. Here, my little artist is hard at work. I love the way the light is shining on her as she creates.

But what if I took the time to get a close-up of her paint-covered hands? What if we could see the bristles of the paintbrush? Would those photos add to the story?

Be sure to ask yourself questions like this as you approach a scene. Don’t be afraid to try something and scrap it later! Shoot for yourself and figure out how to use your camera to make photos you will treasure.

Use editing to strengthen the story

Unless you are a strict photojournalist, you don’t have to shoot a scene exactly as it happened. Editing software can add to your images and can be really fun!

I’ve been experimenting with overlays and different textures in my portrait work. I don’t always have the opportunity to shoot my children in the ideal locations. Editing really helps in these scenarios!

The background here was just a plain white wall. I added a texture overlay to make it more appealing and less boring. I love the timeless, painterly feel it gave this portrait.

When shooting back lit images, I love to play with the light and add even more of a glow. This image with my daughter and my dog was taken at golden hour, but I did not allow that much direct light into my camera for fear of overwhelming haze. This is where Photoshop comes into play! I used a light overlay to add some magic to the scene.

To save time, I really love the Casablanca Cinema Presets from the Click & Co. Store. They are customizable and are so much fun to play with!

Of course, your editing doesn’t need to be so pronounced. In black and white imagery, simply playing with the shadow and highlight sliders in Lightroom can make a massive difference in the final product! Take the time to get to know your editing software and use it to your advantage.

Now you’re ready to create a timeless black and white image that tell your story! So slow down, identify the stories you want to tell, and use these tips to help you tell them. I can’t wait to see what you create!

About the Author:

Shay Cronin is a natural light photographer making roots in the country in an old stone house with her husband two girls and one giant polar bear of a dog. Shay looks for the balance between light and shadows in the beauty of everyday. She loves the outdoors hiking, exploring and being with her family where she can capture the moments they will treasure forever.

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