10 Tricks for Stunning Black and White Photos

There’s something unique and impactful about black and white photos.

They can be haunting, beautiful, eerie and moving. One photo can tell an entire story.

Before the advent of color photography, photographers would simply load the film into their cameras, get out into the world to shoot their subject matter, and then duck into the dark room to work their magic.

black and white photosAsk anyone who spent time developing film in a dark room. There really was something magical about moving about under the red lights, smelling the chemicals (harsh as they were), playing with light and watching the photos appear.

The digital revolution eliminated the need for the harsh chemicals, at least, since there is now software that emulates some of the same activities performed in the dark room.

But as far as picking your subject and capturing the image in black and white photos, the classic methods are still in place.

There are some cool tricks of the trade that you can apply in the creation of great black and white photos.

It should be noted that many photographers who work in black and white photography prefer to shoot in color and then convert the images to black and white in post. As far as capturing the image and seeking out your subject matter though, many of the old-school rules still apply.

1. Contrast is king.

While color photography tends to discourage contrast, black and white photography is quite the opposite. Many of the most eye-grabbing black and white photos have some portion of the photo that is nearly white, and another part that is nearly black.

Making the darks darker will make the lights appear to be brighter. Now, you may often find that you have to make this contrast happen after you’ve taken the photo. But if you know you have that capability, it can help you to pick interesting and contrasting subject matter.

For instance, shooting the limbs of a birch bark tree against a dark blue sky. Of course, the blue won’t show as blue once you go in and convert, but you can make that sky a much darker grey and birch bark lighter and the image will really pop.

Look for shapes, patterns and textures in a scene that are naturally contrasting. Then move around to capture the best composition.

The exposure settings that you use will also have an impact on contrast. Setting the exposure for brighter areas makes the shadows darker and the highlights stand out even more.

2. Try a long exposure.

Long exposure shots can work really well, particularly in situations where there is moving water or clouds.

For example, a long exposure will capture the highlights of the water and then record them across a wider area than they would with a short exposure. This will boost the contrast (there’s that word again).

In addition, the blurring of the movement adds textural contrast with any solid objects in the frame. If necessary, use a neutral density filter to reduce exposure and extend shutter speed (by 10 and 4 stops respectively).

Unless you have the hands of a brain surgeon, you’ll want to use a tripod when exposures extend beyond about 1/60 sec a tripod to avoid blurring. It’s also advised that you use a remote release and mirror lock-up to minimize vibration and produce clear, sharp images.

3. Look for patterns.

When seeking out patterns, keep your eye peeled for ordered repetition.

If it’s a pattern with a lot of color, try to imagine how it will look without the color. Typically, using black and white images of patterns are far more compelling.

The cool thing is, once you start looking for patterns with an eye toward black and white, you’ll notice them everywhere. And you’ll start to see things like cars in a parking lot or a row of shoes in a whole new light.

You’ll soon join the ranks of professional photographers. (Well, maybe.)

4. Shoot in RAW.

Yeah, there are many current DSLR cameras that allow you to switch from color to black and white/monochrome inside the camera menu. Some of the more advanced DSLRs even allow you to pick different types of color filters for better black and white conversion.

While it’s nice to be able to shoot straight black and white from such cameras, just know that you are stripping the colors from images and limiting your post-processing options. Once those colors are converted to B&W, you can’t go back.

If you shoot in RAW though, no matter what color profile you apply on your camera, the file will contain all information you could ever need for a successful conversion.

Here is what one photographer recommends:

  1. Image Quality/Format: RAW
  2. RAW Bit Depth: 14-bit (if available)
  3. ISO Sensitivity: Lowest ISO (base ISO)
  4. White Balance: Auto

Similar to color photos, you want to shoot in RAW with the highest bit depth available. This will enable you to pull as much data as possible for color filters, with a minimum amount of noise.

Speaking of color filters…

5. Get some color filters.

When you place a specific color filter in front of a lens, it absorbs other colors and lets the same color as the filter pass through.

All colors are combinations of red, green and blue (RGB) colors. So if you were to use a blue color filter, it would let in blue, but block green and red.

For example, a green filter will make a yellow object (a combination of green and red) appear green, because the red portion is blocked. At least that’s how it works in color photography.

But since you’re converting to black and white photos, you need to remember that filters lighten their own color and darken the colors that get blocked. So if you were photographing a landscape with a green lawn using a green filter, the ground would be very bright when converted to black and white – as if it snowed. On the other hand, if you used a blue or a red filter, the lawn would appear much darker.

6. Use a polarizer and/or an ND grad.

When shooting around reflective surfaces such as water or leaves, using a polarizer will cut the reflections of the sun’s light. Without the polarizer, those specular highlights can be distracting to the overall composition. Particularly once the color is removed.

In addition to a polarizing filter, you’ll want to look into graduated neutral density (AKA ND grad) filters as well for black and white photos.

An ND grad is great when you want to retain detail in a bright sky, and a polarizing filter is ideal for reducing reflections and boosting contrast. You can take two or more shots with different exposures to create a high dynamic range (HDR) composite.

Try using an ND grad with a standard neutral density filter if the sky is brighter than the foreground in a long exposure shot. Go ahead. Don’t be afraid.

7. Dodge and burn, baby.

Dodging and burning is a technique that came from the aforementioned darkroom. The technique involved the precise use of light and time to burn in or darken highlights, or to hold back and brighten shadows.

But now there’s Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn tool, which allows a level of control that past photographers could only imagine. You are able to target the highlights, shadows or mid-tones with both.

Essentially, with Dodge and Burn you can use the Burn tool to darken highlights that are too bright, and the Dodge tool to brighten them and increase local contrast.

All of this equals greater sharpness and an enhancement of texture.

8. The magic of Photoshop CS6.

They say don’t sweat the small stuff, but it’s those small subtleties in black and white photos that can create big effects.

Photoshop CS6 allows you to add those small but important subtleties that you couldn’t get otherwise. Like maybe you use the Curves and Brush functions to add a slight darkening on the side of a mountain to make the mountain next to it brighter. Using Levels, you can push some blacks to deeper black.

Whatever the case, these subtleties are essential in making black and white photos that demand attention.

9. You need Silver Efex Pro 2.

Across the board, this seems to be THE widely agreed-upon software for creating black and white photos.

It is a Photoshop or Lightroom plugin that is a little pricey, but worth the cash if you’re looking to invest in creating stunning black and white photos.

Silver Efex Pro 2 is easy to use. There is a slider in the program referred to as the Structure and it’s unlike anything else out there in terms of functionality.

You can place a control point – or multiple control points – on a specific spot or color within the image and then you can adjust its brightness, contrast, and structure. You can also change the radius of the control point, enabling you to limit the affected area.

For example, if you have two objects of the same color in your image, you can make one object dark and the object lighter simply by using the control points.

10. Watch B&W Movies


Check out some old movies from the 40s and 50s.

In those days, they couldn’t use color to grab our attention and pull it from place to place.

Instead, they had to use light to draw us in and evoke emotions. They used shades to tell the story and move the plot.

Watching and studying these works of art can help you to learn a lot about B&W photography. Plus, they can be a lot of fun.

The world of black and white photography is yours to learn and explore. Get out there and enjoy yourself.

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