Tips for Black and White Photography

Image by Joakim Heltne

You might be one of those photographers who decide to convert a photo to black and white in post production. Trying if it ‘works’ for a photo you took without thinking about black and white at the time. Nothing wrong with that, but have you ever tried to go out and shoot specifically with a black and white photo in mind? 

Shoot in color
Most camera’s have a black and white preset that lets you take photos directly in black and white. Don’t use it. This might sound a bit weird, but you can better shoot your black and white images in color. A good black and white image will require post processing and the standard in-camera black and white conversion isn’t as good as your own black and white conversion.

There is an exception to this rule; if you shoot in your cameras RAW format, you can use the black and white preset on your camera. When you’re shooting in RAW, your camera shows you its poor black and white conversion on your display, but the color information is still available. If your camera supports a RAW format, use it. It will give you more control over the end result. The black and white preview on your camera display can help you to get an idea of how a black and white version might look.

Shoot at your lowest ISO setting
The grainy film look is popular in black and white photography, but it’s recommended to use the lowest possible ISO setting when taking your shots. Just like the black and white conversion itself, the grainy look is best added in post production. In the film days, photographers often used high ISO films to get the grainy look. Shooting in high ISO will give you enough noise, but the digital noise isn’t as sweet as the analog. Be careful not to get unwanted movement in your shots when going for the lowest ISO setting. With modern cameras, you can go up quite a lot before the noise kicks in. It’s better to get a sharp shot with some noise instead of a noiseless shot where your subject is a blur.

Shoot on those gray days
You know those dull gray winter days when you feel like staying in bed for the day? Pick up your camera and go for a black and white shoot! Those grey days are perfect for black and white photography. The soft light will give you silky smooth transitions in your subjects. And, when needed, you can always add some extra contrast in post.

Learn to see black and white
The world looks differently in black and white. When you learn to ’see’ in black and white you’ll easily pick out the situations that are perfect for black and white photography. Try to envision how a shot will look in black and white before you take the shot. Seeing black and white requires practice. It isn’t too easy, but there are several things that may help you.

Differences in color versus black and white
Look for shapes. Shapes cast shadows that bring out the shape of a subject. If the light you use is hard, the shadows will show it. Beautiful shapes might disappear in an abundance of color. Black and white helps you to bring out the shape again.

With the absence of color, structure becomes more important. Use (or create) the light to bring out the structure. Structure can be found in many subjects, like hair, sand, skin or wood. Too much contrast in a color photo often results in harsh and confusing images. Remove the color and harsh contrast becomes a great way to attract attention to your subject.

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