Editor's note: This month only – get $6 off my ebooks The Magic of Black & White, The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments and The Black & White Landscape using the code bw6 at checkout. Click the links for details. Thanks for reading, Andrew.
Black and white is an exciting medium for any photographer to work in. But sometimes the results are not as good as you might hope. So, in this article, we’re going to get back to basics, with a simple tip that will help you make better black and white photos, no matter what your skill level.
The tip is this: Great black and white photos are created in two steps. The first is seeing, the second is developing (post-processing).
Let’s take a closer look these steps work together.
Learn to see in black and white
Learning to see in black and white is just as important as knowing how to use Lightroom Classic to convert your photos. If the image is badly composed, or the subject doesn’t work in black and white, then it doesn’t matter how creative you are in Lightroom Classic. You’re going to struggle to make a good black and white photo from it.
Creative exercise: Explore the black and white potential of your favorite photos
It’s helpful to go through your Catalog with the aim of looking at your older color images with a fresh eye. The aim is to see which ones would work well in black and white.
This helps familiarize you with the compositional aspects that make up a good black and white photo.
To help you with this process I’m going to show you one of my color photos that I realized would work well in black and white after I had made it. This insight into my thought processes should help you do the same exercise with your color photos.
Old wooden boats in Puerto Aysen, Chile
I was exploring the outskirts of the town when I came across these old wooden boats. Initially I was attracted to the atmosphere of the scene – it was raining softly, and in the original uncropped color photo you can see the hills on the horizon faded by the drizzle.
Here’s the color version. I liked it, but in Lightroom Classic I also realized that it would come out beautifully in black and white.
There are three main reasons why.
In the color photo the big boat is painted yellow and the smaller boat orange. These set up an interesting color contrast against the green background. It’s one of the things that makes the photo work in color, and that attracted me to the scene.
But in Lightroom Classic it’s easy to lighten the boats so that the boats are lighter than the background. This is called tonal contrast – and it lies at the heart of most great black and white photos.
The scene is full of texture, from the weathered boats to the wind-swept grass. You can have a lot of fun emphasizing texture in Lightroom Classic to make the photo more dramatic, especially in black and white.
I decided the hills in the distance were a distraction and cropped the photo to concentrate attention on the boats. I did this in Lightroom Classic and it strengthened the composition by focusing attention on the boats.
Here’s the black and white version.
It’s important to understand that part of learning to see which color photos would also work well in black and white is knowing what your tools (in this case the options in Lightroom Classic’s Develop module) are capable of.
For example, with this photo:
• I used the B&W panel to make the tones of the boats’ paintwork lighter.
• I used Clarity and masking to increase the texture of the boats and grass.
• I cropped out the distracting background with the Crop tool.
I’ve used this photo as an example because it illustrates the two steps perfectly. First, you need to see that the image (or the scene) has the potential to become a great black and white photo. Second, you need to understand how to use Lightroom Classic’s tools (or the tools of the software you prefer to use) to turn a good color photo into a great black and white one.
Our sister website Mastering Lightroom has lots of articles about converting photos to black and white. Click the link to see a full list (opens in new window or tab). They will help you improve your developing skills.
More about black and white photography and composition
There’s a lot to say photographic composition. I should know – I’ve written several books on the subject!
So let’s keep it simple. I’m going to give you three things you can think about when making black and white photos, or when looking through your color photos to see if there are any worth converting to black and white.
Simplified composition helps give your black and white photos more power by focusing attention on the main subject. Photos with strong, simple, graphic compositions often have the potential to look great in black and white.
For example, when I photographed the Chinese symbols in the photos below I moved in close, filled the frame and kept the composition simple. It’s a bold composition that works well in color because of the limited palette.
But it also works in black and white thanks to the graphic composition and beautiful textures.
Texture is an important part of many black and white photos. You can use this characteristic to make your black and white photos more interesting.
If you’re out taking photos with the aim of working in black and white, then look for subjects with lots of interesting texture.
Similarly, if you’re looking through older color photos then look for images with a strong subject and lots of texture. Images like this have lots of potential in black and white.
The previous photo shows how you can bring out texture using tools like Clarity and Texture in Lightroom Classic. There’s a dramatic difference between the color and black and white versions.
Another approach is to look for subjects that contrast smooth and rough surfaces. Portraits that contrast the smoothness of a model’s skin against the texture of a rough background are a great example of this.
As are seascapes made with long exposures that contrast the smoothness of the blurred water against the rough textures of rocks and cliffs.
3. Tonal contrast
Tonal contrast is where you have light tones and dark tones next to each other. You can see this in action with all the photos in the article. But here’s another example. In the portrait below the model’s skin is lighter than the background (and her dress). The key to making this technique work is to make sure the background is in shade and that it contains no distracting highlights.
Remember that you can use Lightroom Classic’s B&W panel to make certain tones lighter or darker to introduce tonal contrast where it doesn’t seem to exist in a color photo (you can also do this in Photoshop and black and white plugins).
The next time you’re out making black and white photos try and visualize what the scene in front of you would look like in black and white. An easy way to do this is select a black and white color profile (make sure you’re shooting Raw so that your camera captures all color information). Then you’ll see your photos in black and white when you play them back. You’ll also see them in black and white in Live View or through an electronic viewfinder, if your camera has one. This is a great aid to composition.
Remember the three compositional ideas that are most important for black and white – simplicity, texture and tonal contrast.
And get used to the idea of thinking about how you would develop the photos in Lightroom Classic to make them even better.
The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments ebook
Perfect your black and white photography skills with my ebook The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments. It’s like a photography workshop in your pocket, filled with a year’s worth of creative briefs, ideas, challenges, assignments and projects that will help you grow as a black and white photographer.
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