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An Introduction to Black and White Photography

Telluride Creek - Example of black and white photography

Many photographers wax nostalgic about black and white photography. If you have been around photography for any length of time, then you have almost certainly heard some old photographer carry on about the “timeless look” of black and white pictures. They will also try to justify the lack of color in their image, saying it somehow “simplifies the image” and supposedly helps focus the viewer on an emotional state. Oh, and then they will talk endlessly about the texture of black and white images. I’ve even seen one place where they talked about the “classy and exquisite feel” about black and white photographs. It’s sickening.

The trouble with all this is, however, that they are right. All that is true. Black and white images can have a timeless look, a simplicity that focuses on form or emotion, and it can draw out textures much more so than color. That is why, more than 50 years after the wide-spread adoption of color photography, many serious photographers choose to take black and white pictures. Many greats choose to shoot only black and white.

At the same time, creating a black and white image isn’t easy. Well, creating any old black and white image is easy, in that all you have to do is remove the color/saturation from the image. But creating a good black and white image is hard. It requires a specific process and its own set of skills.

In this article I will walk you through creating a black and white image. We’ll cover the rote mechanics of getting it done, and then some of the creative factors that go into good black and white images.

Cloondooan Castle - Example of black and white photography

Creating Black and White pictures: The RAW (+JPEG) Advantage

First you should understand is that in the era of digital photography you don’t make a black and white image in the camera. You make a color image with your camera and later, at your computer, convert it to black and white. This might sound odd to you if you have heard photographers drone on about how they “like to get it right in camera.”

Why do you do it that way? Because you want to create RAW files when you take pictures. Shooting in RAW gets you the highest quality file possible. It gets you all the data that the camera has to offer. And it allows you to apply processing to your photos instead of your camera. RAW files are always in color.

The only way you can get your camera to take a black and white image is to create a JPEG and set the picture style to monochrome. If you do that, however, not only are you creating a lesser JPEG file, you are also creating one without any color data. If you ever want to see what the picture looks like in color, you are out of luck.

But, you say, you want to see what the picture looks like in black and white as you are taking it. Don’t worry; you may have already solved this problem when you set up your camera. Here’s how.

You may have seen that I suggest you set up your camera to take both a RAW file and a JPEG for each picture. So every time you press the shutter button, the camera is taking one picture but is creating two files. That gets you all the RAW data and at the same time lets you see what the JPEG looks like. In fact, no matter how you have your camera set up, the picture you see on the LCD is a JPEG preview. Even if you are taking a RAW file only, what you are seeing on the LCD as you shoot is a JPEG. Therefore, you can go into your camera’s menu to find the picture styles (Canon) or picture control (Nikon). This setting controls, to a certain degree, how the camera applies processing to JPEG files. The changes you make here will only affect JPEGs and will have no effect on your RAW file. Change this setting to monochrome.

After you do this, the camera will create the RAW file, just like normal. But when the camera creates the JPEG file, it will create it in monochrome (black and white). Importantly, when the camera shows you your image on the back of your LCD, it will show you the black and white JPEG. Therefore, you get to see exactly how your image looks in black and white, while still preserving all the RAW data for later use.

Cross

Celtic Cross – Example of black and white photography

The Black and White Conversion

We’ll come back to some tips for shooting in black and white in a minute. First I want to get through the basics. We already covered the basic capture of the black and white image (as a RAW file). Now, I want to cover the basic mechanics of the conversion to black and white.

The conversion happens in the Lightroom Develop module. If you are familiar with the controls in the Lightroom Develop module, you might think that you simply grab the Saturation slider, and move it all the way to the left to convert the image to black and white. Actually, doing that and removing all the color saturation in this way will create a black and white image. It just isn’t the best way. It will probably generate a fairly flat and lifeless image. So I’m going to show you the best way to handle the conversion (don’t worry it is simple).

All you do is go to the panel labeled HSL/Color/B&W and click on the B&W to the right. That’s it. Check out your image in the middle of the screen and you will see it has been converted to black and white.

But it gets better. Look at the group of sliders just underneath the B&W you just pressed. You will see 8 different sliders for different individual colors. These sliders are how you will bring your black and white photo to life. These sliders allow you to change the lightness and darkness of individual colors in the image. There is no set formulas for these sliders, just play with them and lighten some colors and darken others. Use them to create more contrast in your image and make it look exactly the way you want.

Improving the Black and White Image: Simplicity and Contrast

Now you know how to take the picture and how to convert it to black and white. You have all the mechanics you need to take a black and white photograph. Let’s talk a little bit about ways to take the best black and white photographs possible.

If you remember nothing else about black and white photographs, remember that black and white pictures like two things: simplicity and contrast.

The Herd - Example of simple black and white photography

The first part of that, simplicity, is something you will do at the time of capture. No matter whether you intent your photo to be color or black and white, you should generally focus on your subject and remove extraneous elements. Black and white pictures demand that you pay particular attention to that. In addition, don’t try to do anything that will result in a busy photo. Err on the side of a nice, simple little photo. The result will be much better in black and white.

The other thing you should focus on in black and white photography, contrast, is something that should be in the forefront of your mind both at the time of capture and when you are editing. Black and white pictures like a lot of contrast. By that I mean that black and white pictures tend to look the best when they have a lot of contrast. The tones should cover the scale from pure white to pure black.

Contrast: At the Moment of Capture

When you are out photographing, be on the lookout for high contrast scenes. This will actually open up the world to you a little bit because if you are taking color photographs you may be photographing only around sunrise and sunset. The harsh contrasts created by the midday sun, which usually look terrible in color photography, are actually something that the black and white photographer can work with to create great pictures. So the whole day is opened up to you. In fact, the next time you have a chance to view the work of Ansel Adams or one of the other great old-school black and white photographers, check out the number of their photographs that appear to have been taken in the middle of the day. It is a surprisingly high number.

The key is to look for shadows and use them as graphical elements in your picture. Even if you can see detail in the shadow as you look through the LCD, assume that you will not be able to see that detail in the actual picture. Assume that the shadow will be a black graphical element in your picture. This can be used to create great black and whites.

The Mountain - Example of black and white photography

Contrast: Add It in Lightroom

The fun with contrast does not end when you are done shooting. Once you have the pictures at your computer, you can use Lightroom to make the pictures look much better. Most black and white pictures start off a little dull and lifeless. You will probably need to add a little contrast to it.

Before we get into that, I should mention that black and white photos both need and tolerate more processing than color pictures. They need more help because, as I just said, they tend to appear a little flat. They tolerate more processing because you can take the edits further without ruining the picture. By creating a black and white image (as opposed to color) you are already creating something that does not strictly reflect reality. The world is not viewed in black and white, and your viewer innately understands this. Thus the viewer, starting from this premise that they are not looking at a strict representation of reality, doesn’t necessarily expect that everything else will be exactly as-is in nature (nor would they even really know what this would look like). As a result, they will give you a lot more leeway. You can push your edits a little further without it appearing fake or surreal to the viewer.

Now that you know that you can (and should) add some contrast to your image, how do you go about doing it? Essentially, there are three ways, two of which we have already talked about.

Using Color Sliders to Enhance Contrast in Your Black and White Photos

The first way is through the use of the color sliders in the HSL/Color/B&W panel in Lightroom’s Develop module mentioned above. These are the sliders that allow you to brighten or darken specific colors in the picture without changing anything else. For example, you might pull the Aqua or Blue sliders to the left to darken the tones of the sky, while leaving the rest of the image alone. Change the sliders one by one and see the effect, then see how they fit together. It is all art and no science.

Enhancing Contrast – the Obvious Way

The second way to increase contrast may be obvious to you. You just add contrast to the image by pushing the Contrast slider in Lightroom to the right. It couldn’t be simpler. You can also refine this process a little bit by changing the Highlights, Whites, Shadows, and Blacks. As you do so, make sure that you are watching the histogram to the upper right of the screen. Make sure the tones are spread out across the histogram.

Big Sur - Example of black and white photography

Where the Magic Happens – Enhancing Local Contrast

The final way to increase contrast is where things get really interesting. This is where you will add what is called “local contrast” to the image. That just means you are only changing part of the picture, while leaving the rest of it alone.

In Lightroom, you will add local contrast by using the Adjustment Brush. All you do is select your target area by using the brush, and then add contrast. What is great about this technique is that it will really draw out the tones of specific areas. It will also leave alone areas where you don’t want the change.

A great example is in the typical landscape. Often, you start out with a picture where the sky is bright and the foreground is darker. You may want to darken portions of the sky to add contrast to it, without darkening the already-dark foreground. By using the brush and confining the change to the sky, you can do so. Once you have brushed in where you want the effect, add the contrast/darkening by either reducing the Blacks or increasing the Contrast.

You can do the opposite to the foreground. Since it is already dark, you will probably add contrast by brightening some or all of it. Use the brush to select where you want the effect to apply, and then increase the Whites or the Contrast until it looks the way you want.

You can also accomplish the same thing by limiting the brush to one specific thing, like a large rock or a tree. In the case of a portrait, you might make changes like this to someone’s eyes.

Further, adding local contrast in this fashion has the added benefit of drawing out the textures within an image. When you limit the affected area, you can push the darks closer to black and pull the whites up, thereby accentuating textures. Black and white photos excel at displaying texture, so adding local contrast in this manner will be a huge boost to your photo.

The Texas Road - Example of black and white photography

Key Takeaways for Black and White Photography

In summary, follow this process for creating black and white images:

  • Take RAW files (+JPEGS) and set the picture style/control to monochrome.
  • Look for simple forms, shadows, and textures as you are shooting.
  • Convert your pictures to black and white in Lightroom using the HSL/Color/B&W panel.
  • Add contrast to the photo by using the individual color sliders or contrast sliders in Lightroom.
  • Add local contrast by using the Adjustment Brush to draw out elements of your photo.
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