Stripping away the color from an image reveals its heart. Black and white photography is more than a quick conversion when light or colors aren’t ideal, it is an art in its own right. When you remove color from an image, other elements, such as light, emotion, texture, and depth, take center stage.
But not all images are suited to monochrome. A great black and white photo takes vision, technical skill and the right combination of elements. Here are the three secrets to creating an amazing black and white photo.
1. You need to see in black and white.
A great black and white photo begins with the artist’s eye and ability to see in black and white. Not all situations or scenes are suited for black and white photographs. Being able to see light, texture, contrast and tonal range will mean the difference between a visually interesting black and white photo or one that falls flat.
Here are five things to look for when shooting black and white photography:
Contrast is what sets a good monochrome image apart from a lackluster black and white photo. You’ll see good contrast where light meets dark and dark meets light. That doesn’t mean contrast is limited to where the light meets the shadow; it can also be where light tones meet darker tones.
Light and shadows adds dimension and depth as they fall over the contours of your subject. Look for light coming from a single source instead of an overall wash of light. If you find yourself with too much light, find a way to block light from one side using the dark side of a reflector, a line of trees, a wall, or curtains.
A good monochromatic photograph has true blacks, true whites, and many shades of gray in between. The array of tones adds depth and interest whereas a frame full of midtones would look flat and muddy. Place light tones next to dark tones to allow all of the elements to pop out of the frame. Make sure your histogram data spans the full length of the histogram to maximize tonal range.
Texture shines in monochrome. Use directional light and contrast to emphasize all of the nooks and crannies of your black and white photographs. Foliage, masonry and wood walls, fabrics and water are all great sources of texture.
Moment and emotion take center stage in black and white photography. Color plays a pivotal role in drawing emotions from an audience. When you remove color, the moment or mood of the image must stand on its own. If you convert an image to black and white and the overall impact is diminished, you’ll experience firsthand how certain images are reliant on color to tell the story.
On the other hand, images with a strong emotional component can be elevated once you remove the distraction of colors in the photo. Try converting several of your favorite images to black and white and watch how the overall story is strengthened, weakened, or changed completely.
2. You must be intentional with black and white photography.
Black and white editing conversions should not be used as a crutch to save an image shot in bad lighting or full of color casts. A successful black and white conversion requires the photo to have the above listed elements straight out of the camera. When those key elements are missing, you’re left with a muddy mess.
Can a conversion save an editing nightmare? It is possible, but the elements of a strong black and white image must also be present to make the conversion a success.
3. You need to edit specifically for monochrome.
A good black and white photograph begins in camera, but can be taken to a new level through thoughtful editing. Here are my best tips for editing a black and white image:
Add contrast and clarity.
Adding contrast to an image when converting it to black and white stretches the histogram data to the edges, deepening the darks and brightening the lights. This amplifies the tonal range and gives the image a nice pop. Clarity, via the clarity tool in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, enhances midtone contrast and textures beautifully.
Utilize color manipulation tools.
When trying to convert a midtone-heavy image, work with the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) sliders in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw or the Black and White layer adjustment in Photoshop to create tonal variance among the midtones. Lift the reds or oranges to brighten a fair skin tone while lowering the blue slider to darken a mid-blue dress; what was once two midtone colors are now highlights and shadows for an instant contrast boost.
Decide if you want tonal range or a matte finish.
Matte finishes condense tonal range, which seems contrary to all of the above points. But, matte finishes have their place to soften and transform the mood of an image. Which do you prefer?
Black and white or color — which do you love?
Some of us are drawn to black and white photography, while others love color. Which do you prefer? And if you love both, how do you decide when to shoot with black and white in mind and when to shoot for color? I’d love to know your artistic thought process! Please share in the comments.
All photos and video by Kate Luber