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A quick look at nearly any photography magazine, book or Instagram feed shows that black and white photos are as popular as ever. Before digital, many photographers made black and white photos because it was easy to set up a black and white darkroom. But even twenty years into the digital age many photographers choose to present at least part of their portfolios in black and white.
But making better black and white photos is different to working in color. It’s not just a matter of using your camera’s monochrome mode, hitting the V key in Lightroom Classic or using a black and white plugin. It takes time and practice to hone your eye for what makes a good black and white photo. The advice in this tutorial will help you do that.
1. Learn what works well in black and white
Without color, you have to work harder to make photos with strong compositions. You need to learn to see and use the basic elements of photographic composition. This includes shapes, pattern, leading lines, texture, balance and tonal contrast.
Let me explain what I mean. Take a look at the photo below. Can you see what compositional elements make it work?
Texture: The mud brick building and the ground in front of it have interesting texture. Texture looks good in black and white.
Dramatic sky: The sky is dark and the clouds have an unusual pattern. A dramatic sky helps a black and white photo stand out.
Interesting subject: I made this photo in a remote village in Bolivia located 4200 meters above sea level. It gives a glimpse into an environment and way of life that’s completely strange to most of us. It’s easier to make a good photo of an interesting subject than a boring one.
Tonal contrast: The front of the building is lighter than the rest of the buildings, drawing your eye to it. This is a subtle effect that I created when I developed the photo.
Post-processing: I emphasized the texture, dramatic sky and tonal contrast when I developed the photo some years ago in Lightroom 5 and On1’s Perfect Photo Suite (the precursor to On1 Photo Raw).
Post-processing is an essential part of the process of creating a good black and white photo. To show you why, here’s a comparison of the original version of the photo with the final image. I made the before version using the V keyboard shortcut in Lightroom Classic.
As you can see, there’s a big difference. It’s important to know what you can do to your black and white photos in post-processing, so you can look at a scene and visualize the result.
2. Look for texture and tonal contrast
I’m emphasizing these again here because they’re so important in black and white photography.
When you’re out in the field making photos you don’t want to be thinking about too many things at one time. It helps if you simplify your goals.
In black and white photography you can simplify composition down to two elements: texture and tonal contrast.
One of the reasons they are so effective is because you can emphasize them in post-processing.
Tonal contrast is when you juxtapose a subject with a light tone against a dark background. It can also work in reverse, with a dark subject set against a light background.
The photo below shows the first type of tonal contrast. The road sign and wind turbines contrast with the dark background.
There’s also lots of texture in the hills in front of the wind turbines. This photo combines both elements, texture and tonal contrast.
Here’s another that does the same. The white face of the scales contrasts with the rest of the photo, which is much darker. The photo also has lots of beautiful textures.
3. Shoot in black and white mode
Digital cameras can help you see in black and white. Start by setting your camera to its black and white (monochrome) mode.
When you replay your photos on the camera’s screen you’ll see them in black and white. This helps you see if the composition works.
If your camera has an electronic viewfinder you’ll see the scene in black and white when you look through it. This helps a lot with the visualization process.
But don’t forget to use the Raw format. Raw helps you get the best quality out of your photos and gives you the option of making a color version.
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4. Ignore what other people are doing
Photographer Cole Thompson doesn’t look at the work of other photographers. He calls this photographic abstinence. He believes it helps him see the places he visits with fresh eyes, uninfluenced by other people’s photos.
It’s about finding subjects that interest you, not places that you’ve seen on Instagram.
Let me give you an example. A few years ago I visited the Playa de las Catedrales (Cathedral Beach) in northern Spain. If you search for photos of it you’ll find lots of images like this. They show the cathedral like arches that give the beach its name.
Any photographer visiting this beach will want to make a photo of the arches. They are what make the beach famous. But this can stop you seeing other, more interesting possibilities and making photos more personal for you.
After I made my rock arch photo I started to look more deeply at the scene. Then I saw some rocks in the sea that made a beautiful minimalist composition. I made the photos below.
Hopefully, this tutorial has given you an insight into why I like black and white photography and inspires you to give it a try yourself. You can learn more by checking out our black and white photography tutorials and signing up for our free black and white photography email course.