Black and White Photography: How to Capture Great B&W Pictures

What you need to know about monochrome photography

A photographer taking a picture of a waterfall in Iceland.

John and Tina Reid/Moment/Getty Images

Photography as we know it today had humble beginnings. The first images captured were nothing more than shadows (darkness) and light. Both DSLR cameras and Point-and-Shoot cameras today have much greater capabilities, so it’s not at all uncommon to see amazing full color images, but black and white photography still occupies a special place for many photographers and once you know how to take great black and white pictures, it may for you as well.

In-Camera or Post Processing Black and White?

One debate that rages about black and white photography is whether it should be accomplished in-camera — meaning should a picture be captured as black and white — or should a colored image be converted to black and white in post processing? With the image processing capabilities available today, it’s okay to do it either way, but if you really want to learn about how light, shadow, and color impact an image, try shooting in black and white with no color option. You’ll learn a lot as you develop your black and white skills that you’ll be able to use when you’re capturing color images.

The Best Camera Settings for Black and White

Settings are the holy grail of the perfect picture. If you can nail the settings, then the image will be stunning, right? There are some other factors that go into it, but getting the right camera settings can go a long way toward making your black and white images great. There are also some settings that will be determined by the shooting conditions you’re working in.

Among the settings that you can set and forget are a few that you may be using already:

  • Image Format: Conventional wisdom is to use RAW format for all your images. This holds true in black and white photography if you’re shooting in color or straight black and white, but there are some cameras have the ability to capture both color and black & white images with the same shutter fire; it’s called RAW + JPEG. If your camera has this mode, it won’t actually capture both, but the black & white image (JPEG) is processed from the color image (RAW) in the camera (and out of your control). Whether you choose to use this or strictly black & white or color is a matter of personal preference, but be sure whatever you choose you end up with a RAW file for the best possible post processing results.
  • Bit Depth/Compression format: The bit depth or compression format refers to the number of tonal values your camera captures with each image. Most modern camera offer 12- and/or 14-bit options. The 12 bit option captures 4,096 tonal values for each color, per pixel. The 14-bit format captures 16,384 tonal values for each color, per pixel. Your camera may also have lossy and uncompressed options. The lossy option means your camera discards any information that it deems unnecessary in an image, while the uncompressed option means the full value of 4,096 or 16,384 tonal values is kept. Of course, the 14-bit, uncompressed format is the largest file because there is no compression, but it’s also the best option to use when shooting black and white photography.  14-bit, uncompressed files contain more image data that can later be tweaked in post processing. 
  • ISO: ISO indicates how much light is passing through the camera to the image sensor. Higher ISO numbers indicate the image sensor is more sensitive to light, and lower ISO numbers mean the image sensor is less sensitive to light. In black & white photography, you want to use the lowest ISO setting possible and decrease your shutter speed to capture the most contrast possible for the image, since what makes stunning black & white images is the way light and shadow are used to capture a scene.
  • White Balance: Ever noticed that light looks different in different conditions? If it’s sunrise or sunset, the light might seem more yellow. If you’re under full sun or cloudy skies, the light might seem more blue. This is white balance, and in your camera it’s an adjustment of light color that can be manually controlled which is designed to make your images more natural looking. In black & white photography, it’s best to leave your white balance set to Automatic. Adjusting the white balance in any other direction could result in images that are blown out or too dark to salvage, even in post processing. 

In addition to these settings, you’ll have shutter speed adjustments, aperture adjustments, and composition to think about. Shutter speed will be determined by the subject you’re shooting, though slower shutter speeds tend to make better black & white pictures. It may be necessary to use certain filters to allow you to decrease the shutter speed, but that is all determined by your subject. 

Aperture is much the same way. If you’re shooting a close-up and want a blurred background, you may use an aperture of around f/4. However, if you’re shooting a landscape and want the entire image in focus you’ll want a smaller aperture, so something between f/7.1 to f/13.

Image Composition for Black and White Pictures

Photo composition is where the hard work begins. How do you convey the emotion you intend your audience to feel with only 255 shades of gray, white, and black? It is part art, but there are also some very real elements you can pay attention to that will change the way your final image appears.

Using only black, white, and shades of gray can result in some stunning images, but bear in mind that not all images are work well in black and white. If you find your black & white images aren’t capturing the essence of the subject that you want to convey, try taking the pictures in color. You may find a wide range of colors is better at evoking the emotion you are trying to achieve.

  • Colors, Colors, Colors: As you begin composing your black and white images, take time to study the colors in the scene. Each of those colors will become a shade of gray. Is there enough differentiation in color to make for nice tones of gray? Not all contrasting colors will result in great black & white contrast, but there are also many stories that shades of gray can convey. 
  • Brightness, Darkness, and Contrast: The amount of brightness or darkness in a scene can set the tone of the image. Lots of bright lights can add a joyful feel to an image, where lots of darkness can make an image spooky or foreboding. Contrast also helps to set a subject apart from its surrounding or the background of the image. Look at how the light plays in the image you want to shoot, and try to capture those light variations in your image.
  • Shapes and Texture: In black & white photography, it’s easy for an image to appear to be cluttered if there is no point of reference. Shapes and textures can provide that point of reference. For example, buildings in a cityscape are usually rectangular shapes that draw the eye up or down in the scene; mountains are more pyramid shaped, and windows are more square. You can also look for arches, circles, or any other shape that helps the viewer’s eyes travel through the scene. The same is true of texture, except that texture can also be the subject of the image. Repeating patterns or textually interesting objects can make an otherwise mundane image stand out from the crowd.
  • Context: Look at your subject in context with the world around it. Will it seem out of place in black and white, will it blend in and be lost in the surroundings. Or will the surroundings provide the right context to help viewers clearly see the image you want to capture?

Post Processing for Black and White Pictures

Once you’ve conquered your camera settings and spent enough time on your composition to capture the perfect image for black & white, then it’s time to bring your photo into post processing in a program like Photoshop or Gimp. It would be possible to write multiple books on how to post process black & white images, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore post processing. Instead, here are a few tips that might help make it easier to finalize  those images you’ve worked so hard to capture.

  • Remember that black & white isn’t a solution for poor lighting in a color image. To really capture great black & white images, you need to plan ahead to do so. Sure, you can convert some not-great color images to black and white and then make them a little better with some exposure and contrast adjustments, but images that aren’t good to start with won’t ever be really good. 
  • If converting an image to black & white in post processing, try adjusting hue and saturation to bring out shadows, reduce blown out highlights, and add contrast in the right places. Adjust color brightness for further control over the tonal ranges in your image.
  • Use levels and curves to manipulate the tonal ranges in your image to bring out more detail of the scene you’ve captures. 
  • Add contrast to create drama. Even small changes of contrast can really make an image come alive when applied with an artful hand. 
  • Use Dodge & Burn to darken or increase brightness in spots that might be heavy with shadows or overly exposed by highlights.  And remember that the opacity of the tools you use can add additional levels of lighting/shadow changes.

Mastering black & white photography isn’t easy, and there is no way we can cover every aspect of black & white photography in a single article. However, the tips here should give you a great start toward capturing the black & white images you can’t wait to share with the world.