How to Take Black and White Photos: A Beginner’s Guide

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Black and white photography can be approached in many different ways. No matter what kind of story you want to tell, you’re likely to find something inspiring in this genre.

To make the most of this diverse world, you have to experiment with different angles, styles, subjects, and editing tricks. The more you do this, the easier it will be to find an approach that perfectly complements your unique style as a photographer.

Let’s dive into the wonderful world of black and white photography and see how you can take your skills to the next level!

Common Black and White Photography Mistakes

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In an interview for our Great Big Photography World Podcast, portrait photographer Lou Noble said, “Failed photoshoots are even more valuable than successful ones.”

Mistakes are an important part of every photographer’s journey, so don’t feel like you have to always take perfect images. However, if you want to save time, keep these common black and white photography mistakes in mind.

Don’t Focus On Too Many Colours

black and white street photo of umbrellas hanging in the sky.

Imagine yourself taking photos of a vibrant scene with lots of complementary colours. It looks appealing in real life. During the editing process, you see a dull black and white photo that doesn’t look as good as the original version. 

Black and white images treat colours differently. In a colour image, complementary colours might look stunning together. In the B&W version, they might look like two dull blotches of grey.

Try to keep things simple. Remember to look at the world through a black and white lens. It might seem difficult at first, but it’s a skill you can develop with practice.

Avoid Dramatic Contrast

overexposed black and white landscape shot.

Black and white photography has many sub-genres such as:

Every niche has its own style. In high key photography, photos are very bright and minimalistic. They have a blown-out effect as if the photographer used a very high exposure to capture them. There’s pure white and pure black in every shot. This technique might not always work.

If you wanted to take a stunning black and white image of a landscape, you’d want there to be harmony in your entire composition. A high contrast photo would have a very bright sky and deep shadows. It would make a landscape look unrecognisable.

If this isn’t the look you’re going for, make it a priority to have a balanced tonal range in your photographs. Avoid overexposing your images. Pay careful attention to highlights and shadows.

Don’t Over-Edit Your Photos

over-edited black and white photography example.

It’s easy to get carried away in the world of editing an image. We’ve all been there!

If you have a black and white photo that lacks something, you might want to compensate by using tools like clarity, contrast, and sharpness. In most cases, going overboard with these settings will make your final image look very unflattering.

Keep Your Compositions Simple

black and white image of woman standing next to bus stop on a foggy evening.

Interesting compositions consist of layers, shapes, textures, and more. They know how to lead the viewer’s eye to the main focal point of a photograph. This feels more intense in black and white photography due to a lack of colour.

If a composition is too busy, it can confuse viewers. When you take black and white photos, take a minimalistic approach. You can add interest to your photos by experimenting with layers and textures, but don’t forget about your main focal point. Whether your subject is a mountain or a stranger on the street, remember to keep things simple.

Shooting in B&W vs. Converting to B&W

Digital photography gives us the opportunity to approach B&W photography in different ways.

You can take photos in B&W mode or convert them to B&W. If you choose the former, you’ll train your eye to see the world in black and white. If you convert to B&W, you’ll learn how to add depth to your black and white pictures.

Both techniques can help you understand black and white photography on a deeper level.

Shooting in B&W

digital camera screen showing B&W mode.

Earlier in this article, we mentioned the ability to visualise black and white photos. You can easily achieve this by shooting in B&W mode.

Most cameras (including your average smartphone camera app) give you the option to see the world in B&W through your camera’s LCD screen. Your digital camera probably has black and white filters that can darken or lighten certain colours. These filters can give you a better understanding of what works and doesn’t work in black and white photography.

It’s worth noting that things might look different in post production. If you shoot JPEG, you’ll see black and white photos in your photo library. Black and white photos shot in RAW mode will automatically appear in colour. This is the nature of digital files in the world of post processing.

Converting to B&W

preview of B&W tools in Adobe Lightroom.

Alternatively, you can convert your photos to black and white in an editing program. This is a simple process that will give you full control over different tones in your black and white pictures.

Take the photo above as an example. The original photo, shot in colour, looked simple when it was converted to black and white. A few settings, along with a black and white filter, made it stand out more.

Converting to B&W can help you understand how highlights, shadows, and tones work differently in black and white photography.

How to Capture Emotions in Black and White Photography

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This is a preview of our Black & White Mini Course. In this course, you’ll learn how to make every monochrome image count. You’ll have the chance to meet talented photographers and join exciting photography challenges. The course consists of 11 video lessons that will help you master black and white photography in a month or less. If you have a busy schedule, this course is perfect for you! Join us today to elevate your photography

“When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their soul.”

This quote, attributed to professional photographer Ted Grant, sums up the emotional aspect of black and white photography. There’s more to this genre than technical settings.

minimalistic black and white photo of tree frozen in the snow.

If you want to take a stunning black and white image, you need to consider emotions. Even if your main subject isn’t a person, you can still create a photograph that looks beautiful and touches someone’s heart.

There are many ways that you can take powerful black and white pictures that tell a captivating story.

Pick a Specific Emotion

black and white silhouette of cat sitting on rooftop.

Make a list of emotions that appeal to you. For example, bliss, affection, neglect, sympathy, etc., are all powerful emotions. These colourful words can help you look at the world from a different perspective. Think of them as prompts that you can use to take better black and white images.

Don’t photograph something just because it looks nice. Instead, photograph a compelling moment. Focus on interesting textures, but don’t forget about the story you want to tell through them. This will add emotional depth to every monochromatic photo that you take.

Be Conscious of Lighting

moody black and white shot of leopard.

Lighting is an important part of black and white photography. Dark and moody lighting can make your subject look melancholic. You’ll get the opposite effect if you use lots of bright lights.

Of course, the realm of lighting isn’t as simple as this. You can achieve all kinds of effects by experimenting with different variations of light. You can start by experimenting with the following:

Harsh light – This light directly comes from an artificial or natural light source. Harsh light creates dark shadows, rough textures, and high contrast. It’s the perfect tool for eye-catching monochrome photography. You can use this during black and white landscape photography photoshoots to get moody results.

Soft light – This is the opposite of harsh light. You can achieve this lighting effect by taking photos on cloudy days. If you’re using artificial lights, cover the light with a diffuser to soften it. Soft lighting is perfect for black and white portrait photography because it can make your models look flattering. (Bonus tip: to avoid flat light in portrait photography, use a reflector.)

Low light – Photos taken in low light can look luxurious, mysterious, or sad. (Or everything at the same time!) Use one light source that doesn’t fully light your subject. If you’re using natural light, take photos when there is very little sunlight available.

Find a Space That Matches the Emotion

minimalistic black and white image of man sitting on a bench in a dark space.

A location that complements the emotion you’re trying to express will help you create black and white photographs that have emotional depth.

Let’s say that you want to capture street scenes that have a mysterious atmosphere. To achieve this, pick locations with less light to create a moody feeling in your work. This can be a narrow alley right before sunrise, a corner with a textured wall, or a window reflection that partly covers a stranger’s face.

This is one of the many things you can do to take eye-catching black and white images.

Tips to Elevate Your Black and White Photos

Do you still feel that something is missing in your work? If you want your black and white images to stand out even more, follow these tips.

Look For Patterns in Your Daily Life

black and white pattern photography.

Patterns stand out more in black and white photography. Fortunately, you can find them almost anywhere. Look for interesting shapes and textures that can repeatedly fill your frame.

Challenge yourself to photograph patterns on a regular basis. The patterns don’t have to be very creative, but they should look appealing in black and white. This exercise is similar to imagining the world in black and white; the more you do it, the easier it will be to take compelling photographs of the world around you. 

Here are a few subjects that you can use for this challenge:

  • Plants (leaves, flowers, and details that you can photograph using a macro lens)
  • Architecture (bricks, staircases, designs)
  • Animals (close-up photos of feathers and fur)

Remember to create contrast using different types of lighting to make these patterns pop!

Use an ND Filter for B&W Landscape Photography

black and white long exposure shot of waterfall.

Long exposure images look stunning in black and white. If you want the movements in your scene to look smoother, you need to use a very slow shutter speed. The slower it is, the brighter your scene will become. 

You can compensate for this by adjusting other camera settings, like aperture. However, you might still end up with overexposed results if you’re working in very bright lighting conditions.

This is when a neutral density filter (ND filter) comes in handy. An ND filter blocks light from fully entering a lens. This means that you can use slower shutter speeds without worrying about overexposing your shots. 

Experiment with B&W HDR Photography

HDR black and white photography.

Another effect that looks even better in B&W photography is the high dynamic range (HDR). HDR photos have a balanced tonal range and provide great image quality. They have more details than an average non-HDR photo.

To take great HDR photos, follow these tips:

  • Use the automatic exposure bracketing tool in your camera. Generally, landscape photographers separate their photos by two stops. If you don’t have this tool, you can manually take photos with different exposures. (You can use the two-stop approach here, too.) The point is to have a minimum of three separate photos with different exposures for the same scene.
  • Use a tripod to avoid shaky photos. Since you’ll be taking multiple photos of the same scene, it’s important that they’re all shot from the exact same angle. This isn’t mandatory, but it can make your editing process smoother. 
  • Use an editing program like Adobe Lightroom or Aurora HDR to merge your photographs. HDR photos are naturally sharper than a normal photo, so don’t over-edit them. When your HDR photos are ready, convert them to black and white and enjoy the results!

Use HSL Controls

Black and white HSL controls in Adobe Lightroom

In Adobe Lightroom Classic, HSL stands for Hue, Saturation, and Luminance. You can find these tools in the Develop module. When you convert your photos to black and white, this panel turns to B&W. (It’s located right under the Tone Curve panel.)

Here, you can control what was originally there in the colour photo. You can make reds, greens, blues, etc., darker or lighter. These controls are very helpful because they can help you highlight and hide certain areas in your photos. 

If you want to have even more control over your black and white photos, you can use B&W plugins like Silver Efex Pro


black and white portrait of man taking photographs in an indoor space.

Black and white photography can help you take refreshing photos of the world around you. No matter what kind of photographer you are, you can learn a lot from this genre.

We hope you enjoyed reading these tips on taking black and white photographs. If you’d like to learn more about black and white photography, join our course! Our instructor will teach you how to take your B&W photography skills to the next level. You’ll see improvements in a month or less!

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Taya Iv is a portrait photographer, 500px ambassador, and host of Great Big Photography World podcast.
Taya Iv is a portrait photographer, 500px ambassador, and host of Great Big Photography World podcast.

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