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Best Camera Settings to Capture Great Black and White Photos

10 min read

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The world of black and white photography remains just as prominent now as it has ever been. Dialing in the right and best settings for your camera is important in order to achieve the best results.

Regardless if it is portrait photography or street photography you’re after, choosing the best settings and focusing on certain important compositional elements before you begin taking photos, can catapult your B&W photos to the next level.

Choosing the Camera Settings for Black and White Photography

Choosing the ideal settings to shoot in monochrome in this day and age is very simple. All it takes now is pressing a few buttons, and your camera is ready to shoot unlimited b&w photos.

There are many key elements to make good black and white photographs. One of which is having sharp contrast. Its importance lies in its necessity to separate and accentuate both lines and shapes within an image. Contrast is one thing, however in order to get the best outcome for your black and white image, here are a few more things to focus on.

Auto White Balance

Setting your white balance to auto ensures your camera is ready to react to any sudden change in lighting. Good use of white balance for black and white photos is extremely important.

White balance focuses mostly on brightness or how black or white something is. In other words, it is the color temperature component of a photo and can be adjusted under the ‘temperature/tint’ tool in Lightroom.

Low ISO

Low ISO ensures minimal grain in your photos, therefore keeping your images very sharp. As such, keep your ISO set to the lowest possible, for some cameras it is 50, while others have a typical low of 100.

On the other hand, high ISO can work to add a classical feel to your images, so don’t be afraid to use high ISO if need be.

Slow Shutter Speed

A slower shutter speed allows the images captured by your camera to be very sharp. However, a moving subject requires a faster shutter in order to eliminate unwanted motion blur.

slow shutter speed settings.
A slow shutter of 15 second exposure using a tripod creates nice b&w images such as this.

Using a slow shutter gives your subject a mysterious look especially if movement is present.

Focusing on these three things can help you immensely to start taking better black and white images.

Shoot in Both RAW and JPEG

Switching your camera settings to shoot in black and white mode is a big advantage for your black and white photography journey.

You get the best of both worlds by changing the settings to full monochrome and capturing both RAW and JPEG files.

Another added benefit is seeing the photo on the camera’s LCD screen in black and white before pressing the shutter. Seeing the photo before you capture it gives you a bigger chance to make a better black and white photograph.

In using these black and white settings for your photography, you will notice a dramatic improvement in your ability to detect good monochrome images. Do not stop here however, now you must focus on a deeper approach, and focus on elements of composition.

Key Compositional Elements for Stellar Black and White Photos

To create stunning black and white photos, there are four important compositional elements to focus on. Those elements are shadows, feeling, contrast, and varying dark and light tones.

Shadows

The incorporation of shadows plays a huge part in the composition of a great black and white photo. Good use of shadow can change the entire meaning of an image. For example, the usage of silhouettes and very dark shadows can signify a deep and intense feeling of emptiness and ambiguity.

black and white photo with shadow.
Silhouette of a skateboarder – Shadow is used to create mystery and set the mood.

However, shadows do not have to be on the extreme end of pure black to deliver a feeling. Variations of all ends can be equally as effective in delivering a good black and white image.

Using shadows is an excellent way of painting subjects without exposing their clothing or facial features. This leaves the viewer, to imagine and think about the image.

Feeling

A by-product of good use of light and shadows, the feeling is what takes a monochrome image and turns it from ordinary to great. As mentioned above, dark shadows and silhouettes especially can inject a certain meaning that viewers can connect with.

capturing the feeling.
Feeling of unease and sorry for a homeless man as strangers walk past him.

Contrast

Contrast for monochrome photos is a good tool to get the perfect image. By using the cameras LCD screen and previewing the entire image before pressing the shutter, you can see and adjust the contrast.

low contrast black and white image.
Low contrast increases highlights and adds a lighter mood by reducing the prominence of shadows.
high contrast black and white picture.
High contrast darkens the photo, creating brighter highlights and darker shadows.

Using the camera’s LCD screen will not only yield a better photo, but it will also cut down on the post-processing time and will train your eye to see better in black and white.

Modern digital cameras and post processing software also give you the ability to finesse and perfect your black and white photo. Depending on what you’d like your photo to portray in your image, you can either increase or decrease the contrast, as high contrast can tell a different story than low contrast.

Both photos above are exactly the same, but the one with higher contrast shows more detail, giving the image a stronger moody feeling.

Dark Tones vs. Light Tones

Paying attention to tones in your black and white image is vital in making it powerful enough to catch the viewers’ eye. Whether you choose dark or light tones for your monochrome photography image, it is important to consider what you’d like your viewer to feel.

dark tone setting.
Darker tones for silhouettes against a bright background usually create a stronger image.
light tone setting.
Light tones make photos less gloomy and happier.

Darker tones have a more gloomy feel, while lighter ones tend to be more subtle and easy on the eye.

At the end of the day, you decide the most fitting tone for your black and white image before capture, alongside the help of modern post processing image software.

At this point, we have covered important black and white settings and some compositional advice to improve your black and white photography. Now, we see how a black and white photographic approach works within various photography genres.

How to Approach Varying Photography Genres with a Black and White Mindset

Photography is an art form characterized by its versatility and variety when it comes to styles. Photography is not just one thing, you can do street, landscape, portrait, or even product photography, in a variety of ways also. It can either be color, or it can be black and white. Here, we will get an idea of how these different styles work with a black and white concept.

Black and White Street Photography

Street photography was birthed within the black and white photographic scope, and all the great photographers of the past that created this genre began in b&w.

b&w street photography.
Despite the high amount of grain, this street photo manages to have some character.

Getting the desired image quality by shooting black and white on the street can be best practiced at night. Lights emitting from city streets and surrounding shops paints and shape subjects in beautiful silhouettes.

Shooting black and white at night is the surest way to get accustomed to developing a natural eye for seeing monochrome images quickly.

Although shooting at night can be challenging, however following these camera settings can help.

  1. Shoot in shutter priority.
  2. Keep the high ISO between 3200-4000 and a max of 6400 if you really need to.
  3. Open the aperture as wide as the camera allows, and leave it set.
  4. Control all your images with the shutter and get creative, but don’t go lower the 1/80th of a second and keep a steady hand.

Following these camera settings will be a sure way to instantly improve your black and white street photos.

Black and White Portrait Photography

Black and white portraits tend to be more powerful than the color image counterpart. Color photos might create distractions for the viewer, something as simple as the subjects clothes, could draw unnecessary attention and distract viewers.

bright outdoor portrait.
Bright background black and white outdoor portrait.

The power of a good black and white portrait lies in how light and shadow interact with the subject’s face and the background. As a result, black and white portraits are often a great way to capture more than just detailed features of subjects, but also the essence of the subject’s personality and experience.

For black and white portrait photos, prioritization of important and subtle elements in an image makes it a very powerful tool. Some of the most famous portraits of all time have been in black and white, such as Dorothea Lange’s photo of a ‘Migrant Mother‘.

In a studio setting, utilizing a black background combined with a soft light source can create very detailed black and white portraits. An outdoor portrait with a bright background separates the subject from what is behind. While a pure black background creates a seamless feel, blending the subject with the background itself.

studio portrait.
Pure black background indoor studio portrait.

Black and white portrait photography has grown in popularity in recent times, despite the advent of modern color camera technology. Give black and white portrait photography a go, the results will surely be stunning.

Black and White Landscape Photography

Photographs of a beautiful landscape draw the eye of all photographers. However, there is a certain connection with a certain landscape, that you cannot get with a color image.

If we take a look at the most famous and important black and white photography of landscapes, we look no further than the landscapes of Ansel Adams.

Black and white landscape photos tend to possess a certain rawness in black and white which is often lost in color photography. Certain textures and contrasts can only be seen in black and white conversion.

landscape photo in black and white.
Use of slow shutter speed to reflect motion.

Much like all black and white photography, focusing on contrast and various textures of a photo is essential in creating beautiful monochrome landscape images. But for this genre, there is a slight change in two key elements: high aperture and slow shutter speed.

With these two camera settings dialed in, the use of a tripod is a must. With this, you can achieve cool results from any running body of water.

Important Takeaways to Improve your Black and White Photography

In general, improving your monochrome photography requires more than just an adjustment to your camera’s settings. A ‘keep it simple’ approach and a precise focus on composition, will drastically improve your black and white images.

You Focus More on Composition

Developing an eye for black and white photography in the world of color can be quite difficult. Switching your camera settings to display images in black and white only, allows you to focus on important compositional elements. Such as patterns, framing, and light.

This approach allows your eye to see and shoot black and white without thinking, or changing any settings.

The world of black and white photography has changed with the onset of digital photography. It is no longer a hassle shooting black and white. There is no need for classic black and white film anymore. Artists can now take unlimited stunning black and white photos without changing the film.

Keep it Simple

Monochrome images are simple in nature. On a basic level, black and white photos tend to be much simpler in composition than color images. Black and white images let the subject stand on their own unlike a color photo, which might distract the viewer from other aspects of the image.

However, simplicity comes at a cost. Black and white photography can be tricky if the key compositional elements mentioned above are absent. If the subject is unclear, the entire image also becomes unclear.

black and white silhouette photo.
Simple light and a simple subject often create good b&w images.

But with the right camera settings in hand, whether you are shooting portraits under studio lights or outdoors, or if you are shooting street photography, it is always important to keep it simple.

Post Production Settings to Improve Your B&W Images

During these modern times, image post production allows photographers an opportunity to fine-tune their images. Photography softwares such as Lightroom, is one of those great tools that can help improve your black and white pictures with a few editing techniques.

Lightroom allows you to apply all kinds of color filters (green, red, orange filter) and color tints to your images. You can even take your full raw images and using the simple and basic panel in Lightroom, convert them into black and white using the black and white settings.

Lightroom goes beyond your camera settings and adds that little bit more room for adjustment. Black and white photos often look good with high contrast so look for that when editing.

A key thing to take note of is that not every photo can be transformed into a black and white photo. Always focus on using the best camera settings for good black and white photography first, then think about how to improve it in Lightroom.

Conclusion: Why Black and White?

The best photos in history have been captured in b&w. It does not matter if you are a professional photographer or a mere amateur, the simple nature of black and white photography makes it very alluring.

It is easily relatable and even easier on the eye. In this very complicated and fast paced world we live in, monochrome photos take a step back in time, and allow us to pause and think for a brief moment.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, whether you are taking black and white portraits, landscapes, or simple photos on the street, it is important to understand this first.

The main takeaway for improving your black and white photography is not necessarily having the best camera or having the best camera settings. It is your own eye and your own intuition that plays the biggest part and decides everything.

So take out your camera, dial your settings in, and get shooting. There is no better way to improve your black and white photography than practice.

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I am Mahmoud, a freelance professional photographer with a huge passion for the craft. In my work, I tend to lean towards the artistic and poetic side as I was inspired by some great b&w photographers of old.
I am Mahmoud, a freelance professional photographer with a huge passion for the craft. In my work, I tend to lean towards the artistic and poetic side as I was inspired by some great b&w photographers of old.
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