Making black & white pictures is challenging, creative, fun and intensely rewarding. What’s more, every digital photographer can indulge in this form of expression with no need for any extra kit. Will Cheung explains below in his guide to black and white photography
All that’s needed is a little re-training in your mental approach to picture-taking and perhaps learning a new editing technique or two to make the most of your vision. Another option is to take the analogue route if you still own a film camera. Of course, you could always pick up a pre-owned film camera or take the low-fi Lomography route. I have several toy cameras including pinhole models that see regular use and I scan the negatives to work on.
In very contrasty light an exposure bracket of several frames can be merged in software to produce a fully toned image. Nikon Z7, 35mm, 1/3200sec at f/4.5, ISO 400
When I embarked on my photography journey, there was only film with the choice of colour print, colour slide or black & white. Going monochrome was the obvious route because as a schoolkid, it was the only affordable one. Not only that, but the pictures I saw in magazines and books that fired my imagination were in black & white. I grew up loving and being inspired by the work of many legends of photography including Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Duane Michals, Arnold Newman, Irving Penn and Sebastião Salgado, to name my magnificent seven.
Their work continues to inspire me and no doubt many others. Google the names if they are unfamiliar to you. If you are already a keen mono shooter, you will have your favourite workers; however, if you’re finding your way in the medium and need inspiration, now’s the time to get on the internet or to a bookshop. Whether you’re fired up by the work of old masters or more contemporary visionaries, there’s a lot of wonderful imagery out there.
What subjects work best in black and white?
My view is that black & white can be applied very successfully to almost any genre. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you should turn every image in your archive into shades of grey and that these will be more successful than full-colour shots. No, what I am saying is that black & white shouldn’t be pigeon-holed in this way and it is a much more versatile medium than many photographers give it credit for.
It can add an extra dimension to your creative output almost regardless of subject matter. It’s just different but it can evoke a mood or an emotion that colour can’t. There is no doubt that there are subjects and scenes that are ‘better’ in colour or perhaps only work in that medium. If you enjoy exploiting colour contrast and colour harmony, for example, then by definition using the full spectrum of visible light is clearly the best medium.
Mono excels in dull light when you might not even bother taking the camera out. Shoot anyway and go moody monochrome! Nikon D3s, 24-70mm, 1/30sec at f/5.6, ISO 800
Some subjects are also inexorably linked to colour photography. Take nature as an example. It is a subject where realism is expected but that is not to say it can’t work in black & white. On the contrary, it can work exceptionally well and if you want evidence of that check out the remarkable output of Nick Brandt. Essentially, you should ask yourself what your pictures are for and what do you want to say in your images.
For example, if you are entering a nature photo contest, the odds are that mono shots will likely not succeed but that doesn’t mean the pictures are failures. As a hobbyist if you shoot pictures for your own pleasure, then so long as you are happy with the end result the colour or mono debate is a non-issue. Just choose the medium as you would pick a particular setting on the zoom lens, and then work on developing a style that suits your pictorial approach.
The dull morning light meant the original image looked dull. A mono conversion and a little work on the computer resulted in a character-packed portrait Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, 500mm, 1/160sec at f/4,
With mono, there are plenty of creative avenues to explore and with most of us capturing digitally, shoot raw and the world is your oyster because you can take any route you want. All that said, I have not totally bucked convention and have suggested six subjects that work exceptionally well in monochrome, and six that are perhaps less successful, so check out the relevant panels in this feature.
Just remember there is no right or wrong and choosing to use monochrome is a creative decision. If the medium works for you and it suits the pictures you’re taking and your style, don’t worry about conforming to convention.
Six subjects that work well in black and white photography Black & white is a powerful creative medium and it’s incredibly versatile, probably with far more versatility than many photographers give it credit for. Next time you’re out shooting give it a try and select the mono picture mode. Shoot raw + JPEG so you get a mono preview but still have the colour option. You can explore black & white right now on existing files in software. In Adobe Lightroom, a single click takes you from colour to mono so you get an idea of the potential, and if you like what you see, work on the conversion for the best result.
Black and White: Architecture
Interiors or exteriors, modern or classical, overall view or detail – whatever your taste, black & white is a good option. One advantage when tackling interiors in black & white is that you don’t have to worry about weird and not so wonderful colour casts created by artificial lighting. Church and cathedral interiors, for example, can have very warm lighting and the vivid orange cast is almost impossible to neutralise satisfactorily. No problem in black & white, though.
Black and White: Close-ups
Details, patterns and texture can look wonderful in black & white and even better when side-lit to add an extra splash of contrast – but not too much! Such images in full colour can look a tad too busy with different hues competing for attention or look unsettling with clashing colours. Of course, this can work in your favour, so be prepared to explore both options. In mono, try the halfway option and tone your shots in editing.
Black and White: Portraits
Nothing beats black & white for character portraits, whether you use natural light, LED lights or flash. Unless you are going for a beauty shot with diffused lighting, try Rembrandt or split lighting for contrast. Be brave and put away the reflector and keep the shadows deep. In editing, use the highlight and shadow recovery sliders sparingly to keep the contrast high. Adding digital noise for a film-like grain effect can be very effective too.
Black and White: Night
Vibrant colour abounds at night with office lighting, street lamps and car trails so shooting colour is the obvious thing to do, yet monochrome can be successful too. Blackness and deep shadows inevitably dominate and any highlights present in the scene are often intense and can burn out. But the high contrast, relative lack of delicate mid-tones and darkness can work very nicely in black & white. Shoot raw to give more flexibility when it comes to dealing with the highlights and pools of darkness.
Black and White: Scapes
Seascapes, landscapes and urban scapes all suit the monochrome approach. Whether you envisage your final shot to be in colour or in mono, good light to bring out texture or add warmth is always a benefit. But when the lighting is flat and there’s lots of cloud cover, taking the mono route for mood can work really well. Make more of a cloudy sky by taking one correct exposure and then one underexposed by one or two f-stops, so the sky shows greater detail. The two shots can be merged in editing.
See more advice for creating moody monochrome landscapes here.
Black and White: Street
Shoot mono and explore your inner Cartier-Bresson. Few can get anywhere close to the work produced by the master of street photography but taking the mono option is at least a start and can add a unique mood to your shots. A popular form of street photography is using full sunlight, bold shapes and contrast. This approach can be very powerful in monochrome, especially if you keep the contrast high and perhaps recover the highlights a little in editing. See our full guide to black and white street photography.
What are the first steps in black and white photography?
Just set the digital camera to shoot monochrome. Digital cameras have picture modes and among the colour and subject settings, you’ll find monochrome as a menu option. With this mode selected, take a picture and the preview will be in mono regardless of what image format you have set.
If you usually shoot raw you’ll still get files with everything recorded by the sensor, so once opened in your usual editing software the image will be colour as normal and you’ll need to do some work to get mono shots. However, if you want mono shots straight out of camera, select JPEG image format and what you see previewed is what you get. In this case, however, you can’t decide to go colour later, so that is something to bear in mind.
Repeating patterns and texture suit the mono approach Nikon D700, 90mm, 1/50sec at f/3.2, ISO 800
The third way, and the best of both worlds, is to set the camera to monochrome picture mode and shoot both JPEGs and raws in-camera. The JPEGs mean you have mono shots for immediate use and also proof images that can help when you process the raws. Essentially, this option is win-win with the only downside being the memory needed for shooting and storing two files of every image. This is the method I use although I only archive a few JPEGs.
Add power to your street shots by removing the distraction of colour Fujifilm X-T2, 18mm, 1/680sec at f/5.6, ISO 400
Whichever method you adopt, using monochrome picture mode means you see the shot in shades of grey, which is a huge benefit for new and regular mono shooters. The thing about using the default monochrome picture mode is that you should treat it as a start.
There’s no problem with raw files because the hard work begins on the computer, but if you’re expecting to use the in-camera JPEGs then fine-tuning the mono settings is essential because the default settings often give anaemic results lacking in any depth and punch.
Going for bold compositions works really well for impactful mono shots. Fujifilm X-T1,18-55mm, 1/60sec at f/9, ISO 200
Going mono in camera
Digital cameras have mono picture modes so you can enjoy out-of-camera black & white JPEGs by doing nothing more than digging into the camera menu. One thing to consider: if you are shooting mono JPEGs only and later decide you would like the shot in colour, tough.
So, set the camera to shoot raws as well as mono JPEGs, so the colour option is available. Also, raws give superior results with much more control over contrast, exposure and tonality in post-processing. In-camera monochrome shots can look flat and rather dull at default settings, so you need to exploit the options your camera offers. The usual parameters that you can adjust are contrast, clarity and sharpness (and these apply only to JPEGs) although the nomenclature varies from brand to brand. Filters and even toning can be applied too.
The two shots below were taken with and without the camera’s red filter setting. Fine-tune the parameters and make a note or save them as a preset for future use. This takes time and some fiddling with the settings, but the effort is worthwhile.
This pair of out-of-camera JPEGs was taken on a Canon EOS R5 with the in-body filter set to no filter (above) and red filter (below). There’s little difference
What is the best way to use filters for black and white photography?
Another way to modify images during capture is to use filters. Black & white film photography and filters are joined at the hip. Most mono films are over-sensitive to blue light, so shoot a nicely lit scene on a sunny day and the area where the sky should be will come out blank and detailless. That can be rectified with a coloured filter to reduce the amount of blue light reaching the film. A yellow filter has the weakest effect, orange is stronger and red even more potent.
Above: When there’s a good sky, shoot extreme long exposures for impact. Nikon D800, 24-120mm, 4 minutes at f/11, ISO 100
Generally, most film photographers keep with yellow or orange for results that don’t look unnatural. It’s different with digital capture but filters still have their uses. Of course, use a coloured filter on a digital camera and the result will match the filter’s colour and there’s no point having a single-coloured yellow, orange or red image. What you get in digital cameras are virtual filters that try to emulate the effect achieved with the filters on monochrome film; these are often in the same menu as the mono picture mode settings.
Try is the operative word and while they have an effect it is usually limited so don’t expect too much. The best thing is to try the various filters and if you prefer skies darker, dial in the orange or red filter and tweak the contrast and clarity settings too. Fun with filters In-camera filters have no effect on raw and regardless of which image type you’re shooting, a more effective option to produce files with more sky detail to work with in editing is to get physical with actual filters.
ND (neutral density) graduated filter
This filter type helps control sky brightness giving a better tonal balance with the foreground, which is why it is a common accessory among scenic shooters. If you had to pick one to buy or use, the 0.6 (2 stop) soft grad is a good all-rounder. The ND grad is a good choice and not dependent on light direction which is not the case with the second option, the polariser. When it comes to skies, popular belief has it that the polariser has magical powers and can transform an insipid sky into something spectacular.
Well, it can do a brilliant job, but not all the time. On a sunny day, shooting towards or away from the sun a polariser has little effect on the clouds or sky and that’s because there is less polarised light in those regions to filter out. However, turn 90° to the sun and you can get fabulous skies with the assistance of a polariser. Next time you’re out there with the polariser, use the ‘rule of thumb’. Make a pretend gun with your hand, i.e. thumb up, forefinger out, the other fingers tucked out of the way.
Point at the sun with the forefinger and then rotate your hand at the wrist. The areas where the thumb points (90° to the sun) is where the polariser has the strongest effect. There is lens choice to consider too. If you enjoy ultra-wide lenses such as a 20mm lens on 35mm format, use a polariser – applying the rule of thumb – and you’ll find the central area of blue sky looking lovely and rich while the edges of the frame look unaffected. Uneven polarisation does not look great and while you might be able to correct it in post, it’s best to avoid it in the first instance and use a less extreme focal length or take the filter off.
Just beware, though, because on very bright days, at higher altitudes or in sun-drenched countries, a polarised sky can be overpowering and look unnaturally dark. It is always best to rotate the polariser and shoot when the effect is optimum for the shot. On cloudy days, when there is not much polarised light around, a polariser can still cut down glare and make greyness look slightly more intense. Generally, unless you’re using the polariser as an ND filter, it’s not worth fitting on a grey day.
What if I don’t have filters?
If you’re filter-less, another technique for more sky in the final result is to shoot a correctly exposed shot followed by an underexposed one (by -1 or -2 f-stops) so that the sky records with some detail. In editing software, the sky from the underexposed shot can then be used on the correctly exposed shot. Using a tripod is ideal if you want perfect registration but this technique works with shooting handheld too.
Engage the camera’s autoexposure bracketing mode to make this easier; many cameras have two-frame bracketing but use three frames if there’s no choice. The way forward You can take the first serious steps into monochrome image-making right now by turning on the computer – assuming you have editing software – and exploring your back catalogue. At this time of year when it’s cold out, this has an obvious appeal and seeing how colour pictures you’re familiar with look in mono is time well spent.
However, there is nothing better than actual experience so with your camera set up to shoot monochrome, you can start exploring the world in shades of grey and experimenting with exposure, picture settings and filters. Learning how to shoot without the realism of colour obscuring your creative vision might be alien initially. ‘Seeing’ or visualising images is not easy but as legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams said, ‘Visualisation is the single most important factor in photography.’
However, you have one tool at your disposal that Adams didn’t have. If you want to see how a scene looks in monochrome, just take a shot and check over the preview. It might not be an accurate depiction of how the final edited picture will look – it rarely is, in my experience! – but it’ll certainly be a big clue and will reveal the tonal relationships between the main elements of the scene.
What’s more, there is no cost and you’re learning in real time, so just shoot away even on scenes that may have no potential. With practice and experience, you’ll soon learn how scenes will look in monochrome without having to ‘proof’ them first.
Clean, simple compositions can add impact to your shots – whether in mono or colour. Nikon D810, 24-120mm, 1/125sec at f/5.6, ISO 100. Lit with flash
How to get exposure right for black and white photography?
Colour and black & white images can succeed in all manner of lighting conditions, and it’s always a good thing when the sun’s shining and there are some photogenic clouds. In some ways there is more tolerance in black & white and the flattest lighting can give eye-catching pictures especially with an injection of contrast. Also, if you are confronted by a detailless sky, compose to crop it out, just as you would when shooting colour.
With black & white there’s no issue with the light’s colour. You get lovely, warmer or more red light at both ends of the days and it’s neutral and cool in between, which is why colour landscapers are busiest early and late on and relaxing in between. In black & white, you can shoot all day long and the higher contrast and harshness are powerful tools. Expose it right Whether you’re taking the raw or JPEG road to monochrome, the exposure process is the same as for colour.
As always with JPEGs, you need to be more accurate because there is less data to work with and advanced editing is not an option. There’s no real need for special exposure techniques and certainly nothing like the Zone System which expert film users employed. Just get it right in-camera and learn how to read a histogram, the graphic that appears when you review an image in-camera.
There is no such thing as an average scene but if there were, the histogram will show some information in the shadows (left side of the histogram) and some in the highlights (right side) and there’ll be a big middle hump between the two extremes.
Unless the scene the scene is very dark or very light, you don’t want a histogram too left or right-sided. With careful metering and using exposure compensation or exposure lock to deal with awkward lighting, try to keep the histogram mostly in the centre, and especially try to avoid overexposure.
A digital raw file has much more tolerance to underexposure compared with overexposure. Recover a grossly overexposed shot in editing and the highlights will come out veiled and slightly off-grey; it is not a good look.
There are issues with heavily underexposed shots too. While editing might give a decent tonal range the image might suffer from artefacts or digital noise, which looks like mottling and is also not a good look although it might be okay. Some photographers like to expose so that the histogram has a right-sided bias but without the graph bleeding off to the far right. The preview image might look bright but the aim here is to get more information into the shadows so when they are lifted in editing there is less digital noise in evidence.
An interesting play of light suits a contrasty, graphic approach. Fujifilm X-E3, 14mm, 1/320sec at f/8, ISO 800
What is the best way to edit black and white images?
By now, you should have a good idea of how to shoot mono images successfully including camera set-up, file format choice, applying in-camera and lens filters and how to use the histogram. The next step – a big one – is turning on the computer and processing and fine-tuning your shots. The computer and editing software play the same role as film processing kit and the enlarger in the wet darkroom. It’s where the magic takes place. See our guide to the best programs for editing black and white images.
Out of camera mono JPEGs can look great and be perfectly usable but having the capability to edit the raws is the ultimate in flexibility and it’s where you make your black & whites truly sing. My workflow is based on Adobe Lightroom Classic supported by a few plug-ins. You can see how images look in black & white with a single click and check out any potential. If not, another click restores the colour preview.
Interior lighting can be tricky to get cast-free in colour. Changing to black & white gets round the issue and adds an extra dimension too. Fujifilm X-T1, 14mm, 1/15sec at f/7.1, ISO 1250
How you progress the mono conversion depends on what software you have, and there are plenty of great options when it comes to working with raw files. Profiles, plug-ins, using masks and different conversion techniques in software are all fair game. If you’re already a keen mono worker you probably have a process that works for you. Mono newbies will be on a voyage of discovery and with most software and plug-ins available as limited-time, fully functional demo versions it’s time to trawl the world of apps.
There are packages from the likes of Adobe, Affinity, Capture One, DxO, Luminar and Topaz. Some are available on subscription, others are outright purchases and there are free/shareware options too. Most of my mono conversions are done through Silver Efex Pro 3 from DxO’s Nik Collection which I use as a plug-in in Adobe Lightroom. I will apply some Lightroom adjustments before taking the file into the plug-in. Usually, it’s some highlight and shadow control, plus tweaks in contrast and clarity.
You have to be careful because significant adjustments can result in halos where shadows and highlights meet. As with most plug-ins, Silver Efex Pro 3 has a wide range of presets and you can create your own. I often start with a preset – I like More Silver – and will try several and when I settle on one will spend time adjusting the sliders to taste. A great DxO feature is the ability to fine-tune images locally with control points that you can place in any area of the image and use as many as required.
There are much more with the ability to add vignettes and grain, emulate films, burn in edges, tone images and add frames. It’s not perfect but it is a capable mono plug-in that I have used for years.
Don’t forget to print!
Shooting and making black & white images is all very well, and of course you can appreciate your handiwork on screen, just as you would with your colour images. However, if you really want to marvel at your talent, get your favourite images printed. Canson, Fotospeed, Hahnemuhle and PermaJet are among the many brands offering baryta papers that have the feel and look of a traditional wet darkroom print. It would be a shame to expend all your creative energy into making mono images you’re proud of, and not to show them at their very best.
Black & white works really for nature too. Bold sidelighting brought out the texture in the seals’ fur. Nikon D700, 400mm + 1.7x teleconverter, 1/350sec at f/5.6, ISO 400
Six subjects that don’t work so well in black and white
Black & white doesn’t work for everything, but it’s always worth trying and it has more creative potential than many people assume. Here are a few subjects that are perhaps less successful in shades of grey.
Sunrises and sunsets
Every day, nature provides two spectacularly colourful events (unless it’s cloudy!) just aching to be photographed. All those intense shades of yellow, orange and red look wonderful in colour, and rather less interesting in shades of grey. That said, with nice clouds or a bold foreground, black & white sunsets can look good.
That brief period before sunrise and after sunset when the sky can be a palette of beautiful colour is a must for the camera, but perhaps not in mono. While those gorgeous, vibrant hues or a mackerel sky can look absolutely stunning in colour, they are much less effective in black & white. A bold foreground in silhouette might work, though.
Colourful blooms photographed in monochrome might seem a wasted opportunity, and often it is, but check out Robert Mapplethorpe’s images of irises and see how it can be done. His fine art images were created in the studio and that’s probably why they work. Pictures taken in the back garden might not have the same resonance.
Many nature subjects work in black & white, but butterflies don’t. A painted lady, swallowtail or a marbled white as in this shot don’t look great in shades of grey. They are such beautiful insects that they deserve the full colour treatment. However, the combination of a clean background, good lighting and a nice pose can succeed.
A popular and fun technique especially at this time of year. A long exposure using a tripod-mounted camera of a busy road or traffic junction can give awesome results – in colour! Red tail lights, blinking orange turn indicators and the warmth of artificial light, often combine to give magical and very vibrant results.
There are some subjects that simply cry out for colour and the monochrome route is almost inevitably less captivating. Garden scenes, fireworks and autumn, to name but three. If you want to make the most of vibrant acers this autumn, colour is the way to go, but if you have the raws there’s time to explore the creative options retrospectively.