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Black and White Photography: A Beginner’s Guide

Black and white photography has been an art form for decades. Before the widespread use of color film beginning in the 1970s, black and white photography was the most inexpensive and practical choice for commercial photographers and amateurs alike.

Even after the emergence and popularity of color, black and white photography has continued to be highly prized well into the digital age.

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In this beginner’s guide, we’ll touch on why black and white photography is important and discuss how to effectively shoot in black and white. We’ll also share tips and tricks to help you create stunning black and white images.

Why Black and White Photography Is Important

Black and white photography has a long tradition of masterful practitioners who’ve become legendary in their respective genres long before the dominance of color photography as the go-to format. In fact, black and white photography is nearly synonymous with names like Ansel Adams, known for his beautiful black and white landscapes.

We could add dozens of other names to the list of black and white photography masters: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Robert Frank, Vivian Maier, Fan Ho, Shirley Baker, and Sebastiao Salgado are but the tip of the iceberg.

The more you explore black and white photographers of the past and present, you’ll discover fantastic photographers of every gender and ethnic background, from just about every corner of the world.

Apart from the numerous individual photographers who’ve elevated black and white photography through their work, there’s also the artistic side of the medium that’s significant when it comes to understanding why black and white is so important. We’ll cover a few of these elements in the hopes that you’ll be able to incorporate them in your own black and white photography.

We have a guide on how to create expressive black and white images using color in Photoshop.

What Exactly Is Black and White Photography?

Black and white photography simply means a lack of color. Also known as monochrome, although not all monochrome photography is black and white. Monochrome simply means one color.

Ansel Adams famously co-developed the black and white zone system with Fred Archer; a scale that defines pure black as zero, 5 as middle gray, and 10 as pure white, with the numbers between acting as tonal shifts from black to white. All black and white images and their tonal values ​​fit neatly into this zone system.

If you’re a black and white photography beginner, we recommend studying the zone system. It should help you further advance as a black and white photographer when it comes to mastering composition, contrast, and texture, among other important aspects of black and white photography.

How to Shoot Black and White Photography

There are two different approaches to shooting black and white photography. You can shoot in color and convert select images to black and white. This can be accomplished regardless of whether you shoot in RAW or JPEG.


The other method is to shoot in black and white. In digital photography and with many SLRs and smartphones, it’s easy to use a black and white preview mode. Ideally, you’d want to have the ability to keep the color information, which is usually only possible if you’re shooting in RAW.

Whichever way you decide to create black and white images, it’s important to understand what you’ll ultimately end up with as a finished file. Do you want to save the color details in case you want to create a color image later? Is your camera capable of shooting with a black and white preview and saving the color data?

Check your camera’s manual or consult an online forum if you’re not sure about your camera’s features. It’s important to know any limitations before you set out to shoot in black and white.

For beginners, we have a list of free online photography courses.

How to Use Editing Software to Create Black and White Images

Thanks to modern editing software and third-party plugins, there are numerous ways to convert your color images into black and white images. We’ll discuss a few of the most common techniques found in smartphone editors and popular software editors like Lightroom and Photoshop.

filters

Many smartphones and photo editing software have black and white filters of various kinds. Some are simply called “black and white” and offer a straightforward conversion. Other filters offer variations in contrast that place the bulk of the image’s pixels into specified zones to create a wide array of looks.

The Saturation Slider

The handy saturation slider can act as a simple way to convert a color image to black and white by pushing the slider completely to the left or a value of -100. This rarely creates the best black and white version, but it’s a good starting point for beginners.

A Black and White Tool

Most advanced photo editing software offer a black and white tool of some kind that controls the color channels to enhance the luminance values ​​of the tones.

For example, a converted color image could be enhanced by tweaking the red and yellow channels because most color images will contain these colors. In essence, you’d be able to make these tones brighter or darker.

Third-Party Plugins

Third-party plugins like SilverEfex Pro from the NIK Collection are convenient and effective ways to convert your color images into black and white. They offer a wide range of tools to make global and local adjustments in your images for superior control. We show you how to convert color images to black and white using SilverEfex Pro.

Black and White Photography Is Dependent on Contrast

Contrast is very important when it comes to black and white photography. Contrast is the difference between the bright and dark areas of an image. How contrast is applied in black and white images has the potential to control dimensionality, exposure, and the overall tonal range, among other things.

Whether you are using black and white filters or using more advanced techniques to manipulate contrast, it’s one of the qualities of a black and white image that should never be neglected. Learn to use contrast to greatly advance the effectiveness of your black and white images.

For Photoshop users, we show you how to use Curves for better contrast.

Composition Is More Manageable in Black and White

Composition is how elements in an image are arranged to capture the viewer’s attention in a specific way. A well-composed image will often have a defined subject and make use of foreground and background elements to communicate ideas or showcase objects, people, and places.

A poorly composed image, on the other hand, can result in a cluttered or chaotic look that doesn’t communicate anything of substance.

Many black and white photography enthusiasts suggest that the mastery of composition is a lot easier with black and white images because color can be a powerful distraction, especially when you’re new to photography. This is because compositional elements like leading lines, geometric shapes, textures, and light and dark pixels are more prominent without color.

In other words, mastering composition may be easier for many photographers if they’re working with black and white images. Once mastered, compositional techniques would carry over to colored images more naturally. Regardless of where one starts, composition is an important element that applies to most forms of photography.

Check out our guide on how to apply the rules of composition if you’re a beginner.

Black and White Isn’t Meant to Be a Last Resort for Bad Color Images

There are a few photographers out there who believe that black and white images are best for subjects when the color is bad. This sort of thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. Black and white photography is an art form in and of itself. If you learn to do it correctly and with skill, it could rival any color version.

We gave you some tips as a starting point, but studying the masters of black and white photography is also important. Discovering great photographers who work exclusively in the medium, past or present, will help develop your understanding and craft. Research their names, discover whose images you like, and learn all you can.

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