Get your head around marvellous monochrome with this introduction to taking fantastic black and white photography
Black and white photography is all about paying particular attention to lines, curves, contrast and form. It’s an intriguing genre of photography that has appealed to many photographers throughout the ages. It’s often seen as more artistic than colour photography, and it’s certainly a different way to look at the world.
There’s more to monochrome photography than desaturating the colours, but it can also be a simple subject to get started with. If you’ve always fancied giving it a go, but aren’t sure where to begin, have a look at our simple tips to get you started.
Best subjects for black and white photography
A variety of different subjects work extremely well for monochrome photography, but some are arguably better than others.
Landscapes, portraits and street or documentary photography are classic choices for black and white pictures, but still-life and abstract can all work well too.
If you’re going to shoot landscapes, look for classic leading lines and shapes that give your shots a bold and minimalist look. Portraits work well because the lack of colour allows the subject’s character to shine through, which is one reason why monochrome is preferred by actors for headshots. Street photography can work well in both colour and monochrome, but perhaps a feeling of nostalgia for the “golden age” of street photography leads to a tendency to shoot in black and white.
For still-life work, look for patterns and textures that will be emphasised by a removal of colour. Shooting in black and white in the first place will help you to see if anything really doesn’t work well without colour – for example, red flowers on a green background can often be rendered as very similar shades of grey. In which case, bold textures and patterns will help your subject stand out – pay careful attention to composition in such cases.
Abstract black and white photography is an art form all by itself. Again, look for patterns that are bold and work well – try using a telephoto lens when shooting landscapes and architecture to pick out details that make for interesting studies in isolation from the main scene.
How to set up your camera for black & white photography
Most modern digital cameras give you the option to shoot black and white directly in-camera. This can be an excellent way to help you learn to “see” in black and white, as it’ll give you a great indication of how your final image will turn up.
There are usually two ways to shoot in black and white directly in camera. Some cameras, such as Nikon DSLRs, Canon DSLRs or Panasonic compact system cameras have a setting called “Picture Styles”, or “Creative Styles”. One of these is usually a variation of monochrome or black and white. Simply select one of these to shoot in, and away you go.
Alternatively, digital filters may also be available. These can often be available in JPEG only and are more dramatic or stylised than styles tend to be, but are definitely worth experimenting with.
Where possible, you should shoot in raw format. This means that you will have the colour version of the image to work with in post-production and create your own black and white conversions if you’re not happy with how the JPEG has been rendered.
If you use a camera which has an electronic viewfinder, such as mirrorless cameras like the Fujifilm X-T2 or the Panasonic GX80, you’ll be able to see how your black and white photos are rendered as you shoot them. If you’re using a DSLR, you won’t see black and white through the viewfinder – but, depending on the subject you’re photographing, you could try shooting in Live View to get a real-time monochrome view. Don’t forget to switch black and white off once you’re done, unless you want all of your photos to be monochrome.
Best camera settings for black and white photography
Sometimes, black and white pictures can look a little flat. Upping contrast can have a huge impact and really lift an otherwise dull photograph, no matter what the subject. You can do this easily in photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, but you can also make certain adjustments in-camera for JPEGs.
Every camera will be different, but it’s usually possible to alter contrast in Creative Styles, Picture Styles, or whatever it is called in your camera. As an example, if you’re using a Canon EOS 6D, head to the main menu and search for Picture Style. Choose the Monochrome setting, and then tap “info” to dial in some extra contrast from the options available.
You should also pay some consideration to sensitivity (ISO speed). Black and white photographs of old are often characterised by a rough “grain” as a result of image noise. Some people love that look, while others prefer a much smoother and crisper appearance. There’s no right or wrong answer about which is better, but, if you want to go for the cleaner look, keep your ISO as low as possible, but if you want to introduce grain, don’t be afraid to whack the ISO number up higher. Whichever you prefer, remember that a little noise is always preferable to a blurry shot – so if you’re shooting in darker conditions, don’t get too picky about shooting at the lowest ISOs.
Best weather for black and white photography
Everything you think you know about the best weather for landscape and outdoor photography when you’re trying to create a successful black and white photo can be turned on its head.
Converting to black and white can turn an otherwise dull weather shot into something far more interesting, so don’t write off packing up the camera and heading outdoors if glorious sunshine isn’t forecast. In fact, an abundance of clouds and moody skies can look seriously dramatic when colour is removed from the equation – remember to boost contrast for best effect.
Similarly, while you’re usually advised to avoid shooting in the middle of the day because of harsh lighting and shadows, these conditions can result in extremely interesting black and white shots. Meanwhile, shooting at dawn or dusk can look a little flat and dull in monochrome.
Accessories for black and white photography
Although you can get started with pretty much whatever gear you already own, there are some accessories which can help you get even better results.
Many cameras will allow you to adjust black and white mode to include a digital filter. You can use different colours depending on the look you’re trying to achieve – for example, a red filter will boost the appearance of skies in landscapes. You can also buy physical filters, such as the Cokin Black & White Kit, which also achieve this result without the need for digital intervention.
An ND filter can also come in extremely useful if you want to create some long exposures in black and white. The Cokin X-Pro Nuances ND1024 10-Stop Filter enables extremely long exposures without risking over exposure – you could try creating some dreamy milky water monochrome images.
Don’t forget, you’ll need a tripod if you want to create long exposure shots. For landscapes, a dedicated travel tripod, such as the Manfrotto Befree Carbon Fibre Travel Tripod with Ball Head, is a good idea for keeping weight and size down, while also providing great stability.
If you’re shooting monochrome portraits, a reflector can come in handy for manipulating light and shadows for best effect. Look for one which offers a variety of different surfaces, and ideally includes a diffuser to help soften light if necessary. The Lastolite Bottletop 5 in 1 Reflector is a great example of a reflector you can use for many different purposes.
High Key and Low Key Monochrome Photography
If you’ve not come across high key photography or low key photography before, experimenting with black and white is the ideal time to give it a go.
A high key photograph consists mainly of bright highlight areas, and is perfect for minimalist subjects. You can either search for naturally occurring bright subjects – such as a white flower on a white or bright background, or you can deliberately overexpose for dramatic effect. Portraits work well in high key, too.
By contrast, low key photography is, as you might expect, the complete opposite. These photographs are characterised by large areas of dark or black areas, with minimalism again being the key to a successful image. You can get some great results shooting low key portraits, but the technique is also ideal for still life shots lit by a simple single light set up.
Do you like to shoot black and white photos? Let us know how you get on with our tips and tricks by sharing your monochrome shots on our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.